The high school musical is one of the most entertaining rituals of early spring, and some shows fit the occasion especially well.
Among these, Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” staged last weekend at South Fayette, ranks high: It’s colorful, the music has an astounding range and variety, and the characters have both natural comedy and enough plausibility for us to root for a happy ending.
But it also has characteristics that match up well with high school: It can accommodate a large cast, a good proportion of whom are the same age as the student actors (plus some fifth-graders); the love-making is downright vanilla (one romantic kiss); and it even has a role for the high school band, one that doesn’t require much rehearsal.
The conflict is between cultures and generations, such as goes on in every high school every day. As in “Grease,” Bye Bye Birdie,” “Footloose” and “West Side Story,” other musicals with a high proportion of teenage characters, the basic clash is between the ins and the outs, the socially accepted and the unknown.
In “Music Man,” set in 1912 Iowa, some clashes are intentionally silly, such as that between billiards (safely rural) and pool (scarily urban). More seriously, there are the inevitable tensions between young people and parents, between conventional prudery and the risky, even risque worlds of great literature, and between the buttoned-up townsmen and the immigrants out on the edge of town.
It doesn’t take much imagination to summon up today’s equivalents, as when the traveling salesmen complain that the small village stores are doomed to give way to the new chains — think Walmart, a century ago. But as to whether South Fayette is really like Willson’s Iowa, I’ll leave that to those who know.
How big is the cast? Let’s just say that on South Fayette’s handsome stage it seemed as big as the whole school — and on first view, South Fayette High looms like the capital of a small country — or even as South Fayette itself.
OK, not really. South Fayette is about six times as big as the fictional River City where “Music Man” takes place.
In the story, the title character, con man Harold Hill, arrives to sell the town’s children a wagon load of band instruments and uniforms and then skip town before delivering on his promise of instruction. The irony is that it takes this con man to loosen up hicksville, while the latter turns around and has an unexpected effect on him.
Audience confidence last weekend was inspired right from the start, a notoriously difficult opening number in which a Pullman carload of drummers (look it up) talks a song that introduces the story while sounding like a train speeding up and slowing down. They made it as crystal clear as I’ve ever heard.
Although the cast was overwhelmingly female, as usual in high schools, this opening showed South Fayette had a good number of boys able to stay in character, keeping the story aloft. The best of the ensemble, boys and girls, took to the show with zest. But why is it such a challenge to convince everyone in large amateur ensembles that even though they don’t have individual lines, they can be seen just as well as the leads?
The large ensemble wasn’t very mobile, but it delivered vocally, handling the clever lyrics and varied musical styles that are such an attraction of Willson’s score. Congratulations to vocal director Christine Elek and also to conductor Eryn Carranza who led a mixed student-professional-faculty orchestra of 19.
Mariann Mackey directed with a steady hand. Really, it’s a miracle when the many parts of a big musical come together at this level with such smoothness and assurance. Direction (and Jennifer Ferris’ choreography) hit a peak in the penultimate chase sequence, with everyone running hither and yon, on stage and off.
The audience’s greatest comfort was in the charm and easy stage command of the lead, Nick Karafilis, as Harold Hill. Both the actor and the character took charge right from the start, first in “Trouble,” when he starts his con, then in the iconic “76 Trombones,” when he mesmerizes the town and seals the deal.
He met his fate in Heather Mahoney, feisty as Marian, the suspicious town librarian. Chief among the supporting actors was Wyatt Mauti as Mayor Shinn and Brianna Hudock as his wife, he with pompous bluster, and she, a goofier comic excess. Mrs. Shinn’s gaggle of ladies was delightful in its silly Delsatre presentation.
There are others I could single out: Cara Lyons, for example, who drew the eye constantly, even in crowd scenes. Or Alexander Fraser, who helped make the opening number work and then joined with Matthew Burroughs, Frank Ortiz and Samuel Miller as the barbershop quartet which Harold magically summons out of the squabbling school board.
Historically, the South Fayette musical made a premature debut in 1964, then settled in for good in 1994. By now, children of early participants are participants themselves. Kudos to the school administration and school board for their strong interest and support.
I even found one board member helping sell the traditional flowers and balloons in the lobby. The atmosphere was so welcoming that I can’t even complain about the absence of baked goods at intermission — they were all sold out on opening night.
Go to www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance for more coverage of high school musicals, including reviews by high school students of other schools’ shows and a master list of 117 musicals in Western Pennsylvania and the three regional showcases in May.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. South Fayette is the 68th high school where Rawson has reviewed a musical since starting in 1991.