Review: The Music Man (Chichester Festival Theatre)

I have to admit – I don’t often venture outside London to go to the theatre. This weekend I made an exception by making a trip to Chichester to watch the Festival Theatre’s new production of The Music Man.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the show’s opening, and it may come as some surprise that the Meredith Wilson’s show actually pipped West Side Story to the Tony award for Best Musical back in 1958. I already have tickets booked to see West Side Story at Saddler’s Wells in a few weeks’ time, so I’ll be able to make my own comparison between the shows! But in the meantime, what did I think about The Music Man?

The show’s two leads are very different, both in background and perfoming style. Brian Conley is probably best known as a television personality, but I think of him as an old-fashioned all-round performer (a little like a latter-day Bruce Forsyth). In contrast, he plays opposite Scarlett Strallen, very much a stage performer, whose career to date has included two major West End roles – Truly Scrumptius in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the title role in Mary Poppins. In fact, I’ve heard that she may well be reprising the latter role in the Broadway transfer later this year.

There’s some evidence of their different backgrounds in their performances – Conley is a true entertainer and seems to relish every moment of his time on stage. The part of Professor Harold Hill lets him play to his strenghts – it would be almost impossible to over-act in this part. His voice is still good, and the only fault I could find was his relatively weak diction. There were a number of occasions when I couldn’t pick out his words, although that didn’t detract from my enjoyment that much.

Strallen’s Marian Paroo is not so different from Mary Poppins her buttoned-up manner, but it provides a perfect counterpoint to Conley’s exhuberence. She has a wonderful voice, although there was slightly more vibrato at the top of her voice than I would have liked. She’s also a great dancer, and a strong actress – very much the all-rounder, and I’m sure she made a fantastic Mary Poppins.

I wouldn’t want to forget the rest of the cast, particularly Andy Hockley as Hill’s right-hand man Marcellus. He reminded me a lot of US Presidential helpful John McCain, but I doubt McCain would have been quite as witty. Singing isn’t his strong point (not entirely surprising given a CV full of straight plays!), but he’s a lot of fun.

The children were also a revelation – having children on-stage can sometimes be a recipe for disaster, but this group of children were exceptional, and you couldn’t help falling in love with them.

Looking back at the show, I have absolutely no doubt that it is comfortably the cheesiest show I have ever had the pleasure of watching. However, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment at all. The production is incredibly slick, with Director Rachel Kavanagh setting a relentless pace after the torpour of the opening train journey. The auditorium’s layout (with audience on three sides), makes the staging more complex, but Kavanagh carried it off brillaintly. She is aided by a simple but effective set that never risks diverting attention from the action that matters. Stephen Mear’s choreography is also an absolute delight. In fact, overall, there are barely any weakenesses!

This show may be too cheesy for people that don’t like musical theatre, and if you’re after a piece of serious, thought-provoking theatre, this show is not for you. However, if you’re looking for some frivolous entertainment that is suitable for the whole family, I doubt there’s anything out there that could beat The Music Man.

I’ve heard rumours that the show is looking for a London transfer later in the year, or early next year, and given the reviews it has already received, there’s surely a good chance that Londoners will have their own chance to see the show soon. If you’re not willing to risk waiting, a trip to Chichester seems like the sanswer.


2 Responses to “Review: The Music Man (Chichester Festival Theatre)”

  1. 1 F July 31, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    We saw Music Man just when it opened in our opinion it was the worst prduction we have ever seen at any theatre, the diction was appalling, singing flat and dancing positively amaturish

  2. 2 rob rogers August 2, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    We just returned from seeing the show, not really one of my favorite shows, but then I love the CFT, the show was a revelation, the wow factor is there, brian conley really steels this show and really does have fun playing harold hill, the lills are great, costumes wonderful, the show was a great joy to watch from start to finish with never a dull second in it at all.

    this show is a must for the west end, it will need a top star like brian to pull in the punters, but then what show doent these days.

    this was a great show, great cast, great theatre and a great night out.

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