There's something missing at the core of Utah Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man," and yet the production frequently gets out of its own way -- like a flawed vessel managing to snugly come into port.
Brian Vaughn is the nimble, romantic, charismatic, double-dealing "Professor" Harold Hill. You can see why the people of small-town 1912 Iowa would fall for his scheme in forming a children's band, even though the shyster knows nothing about music. Vaughn makes Hill comic-strip hilarious. Yet, when Hill softens -- when kindness makes him repent his duplicity -- we feel a genuine transformation.
Director Jeremy Mann infuses the script with a quick, quirky pace. Loud moments segue effortlessly into quietly breathtaking images. Amid the hoopla during the famed "76 Trombones" song, you're struck by the sight of a young boy (Bailey Duncan) looking in awe at Hill. You're taken in by a brief, scene-stealing solo dance by the "teenage delinquent" (played by the commanding Rhett Guter, whose precise authority as a hoofer is matched by his imaginative choreography). During a busy dance routine in the library, you're surprised by a book cart that momentarily metamorphoses into a gondola.
With some exceptions, though, Mann has not created believable characters. For example, there's a group of gossiping women schlepping around town who get to sing a great comic number. But there's little that's funny about gossiping women when they are directed to behave like actresses trying to mug their way into laughs. Four men get seduced into forming a barbershop quartet and they keep intruding, amusingly, on the action. But here, Mann pushes the joke too far and the men become peculiarly goofy. The chorus is filled with frozen-smiled mannequins. You don't feel there are people behind all those teeth.
Max Robinson, though, brings verve and humorous hubris to his small role as the befuddled mayor.
Mann's mounting is good enough to remind us why Meredith Willson was so great. But I kept wishing I were watching an early rehearsal. I wanted to repeatedly shout, "No, Mann, don't go there. Silly faces is not what this show is all about."