"The Music Man" brings warmth and joy to the holiday season at the Redhouse

"The Music Man" at the Redhouse. Photo by Teri Dobrzynski The Music Man

Who: The Redhouse

Where: 201 S. West State St. Syracuse, N.Y.

When: Through Dec. 21

Tickets: $30/$20 members

Review by Jessica Cabe

The Redhouse’s production of The Music Man brings holiday cheer without the jingle bells and sleigh rides. It’s a welcome break from Santas and Scrooges without losing the spirited and warm-fuzzy elements theatergoers are looking for this month.

The Music Man, set in 1912, tells the story of Harold Hill (Josh Rodriguez), a traveling con man posing as a music professor. He craftily manipulates the notoriously stubborn people of River City, Iowa, into buying band instruments and uniforms for their children. The town piano teacher and librarian, Marian Paroo (Caitlyn Oenbrink), is one Hill cannot seem to win over until Act II, when it’s clear his antics (however selfish) are bringing the townspeople together.

The musical is part of the Redhouse’s Theatre Experience Program, which combines student and community performers with professional New York City actors. The cast dazzles in general, even when facing challenges posed by the small space in which they have to work.

"The Music Man" at the Redhouse. Photo by Teri Dobrzynski

The Music Man is designed for bigger stages than the 89-seat Redhouse has to offer. But instead of accepting that some substantial changes needed to occur in order for the show to work in a small space, director Stephen Svoboda crammed the cast onto the stage in a few claustrophobic big numbers.

The first uncomfortable moment comes during one of the better-known songs, “Seventy Six Trombones.” The cramped cast marches mostly in place to an awkwardly long instrumental track of the song. The performance could have been improved upon by taking some of the secondary characters offstage or significantly shortening the marching portion. Unfortunately, Svoboda stubbornly staged a number that proves productions like this don’t belong in small theaters. It’s a shame, because The Music Man could have worked through and through at the Redhouse with some more creative staging.

Despite the few claustrophobic moments, The Music Man really is a cute, heartwarming production, thanks in large part to the cast.

Oenbrink plays the smart, quick-witted and independent Marian convincingly and with quite a range. She can come off cold without losing her likability, and during a scene where she seduces Hill’s rival Charlie Cowell (Trevor Hill), she comes across as irresistibly sensual. She truly shines during the musical numbers. Her voice is a joy to listen to — controlled yet emotive, soft one moment and filling the theater the next.

Her co-star, Rodriguez, is less impressive but not a hindrance to the production. He plays the sweet side of Harold Hill with conviction, casting a charming spell on the audience as well as Marian. But the slippery salesman is not quite slimy enough to illustrate to the fullest the transition from bad guy to good guy, which is the most important character development in the show. In addition, his singing is not quite as consistent as Oenbrink’s; he shines during the ballads, but he seems breathless at times during the upbeat, choreographed numbers.

"The Music Man" at the Redhouse. Photo by Teri Dobrzynski

Other standouts include 12-year-old Nancy O’Connor as Amaryllis, whose duet with Marian showcases the middle schooler’s jaw-dropping vocals and whose stage presence occasionally outshines the professional actors; Kai Gesek (another student actor) as Marian’s younger brother Winthrop, especially stands out for his enthusiasm and genuine joy during the dance numbers; and Stephfond Brunson as Hill’s old business partner Marcellus, who is such a natural in the comedic role that he doesn’t even appear to be acting.

The Music Man is a joy to watch, and even the hiccups in staging cannot take away from the overall effect of the musical. It would have been easy for the cast to cross the line from cute to cheesy, but if the line ever is crossed, it’s in a way that still works. Those looking for a break from the holiday themes without losing the joyful holiday spirit needn’t look further than The Music Man.