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PNJPAC ‘Music Man’ revival uplifts and thrills

By JEANETTE TOOMER | 4/3/2014, 12:48 p.m.
A concert musical adaptation of the Broadway show “The Music Man” by Evans Haile uplifts and ignites bursts of laughter ...
Isaiah Johnson (in red bow tie and vest, as Harold Hill) with the Pickalittle Ladies (L to R: NaTasha Yvette Williams, Aurelia Williams, Destinee Rea and Myra Lucretia Taylor) in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man: In Concert” at Two River Theater and New Jersey Performing Arts Center

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Stephanie Umoh (Marian Paroo) and Isaiah Johnson (Harold Hill)

A concert musical adaptation of the Broadway show “The Music Man” by Evans Haile uplifts and ignites bursts of laughter with an all-Black cast at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark, N.J. The show is set in 1912, and a noticeable sign “For Colored Passengers” hung above the center of the stage, which served as the train cars carrying the traveling salesmen from town to town and into River City, Iowa. That is where the story begins with the consummate liar and con artist salesman, professor Harold Hill (here played with contagious energy and charm by Isaiah Johnson) who doesn’t play a note but sells musical instruments and band uniforms to the unsuspecting townspeople.

In this concert version, the score stood out brilliantly, especially when the lyrics rode on the wings of perfect harmony, syncopation and strong, beautiful voices. Johnson as Hill handily persuades the city leaders of the need for a youth band by scaring them into it when he warns them of the trouble that lurks in the billiard hall. That leads him into the upbeat favorite “(Ya Got) Trouble,” and later he boasts of his choice of “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” and goes further to seduce the townspeople with the infectious and rousing tune “Seventy Six Trombones.”

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Stephanie Umoh (in white at center, as Marian Paroo) with the full company of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man: In Concert” at Two River Theater and New Jersey Performing Arts Center

Stephanie Umoh has the voice of an angel with her singular soprano that soared with her solos in “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Til There Was You.” Yet, it was the fine-tuned ensemble that delivered some of the most pleasing group numbers, including the opening “Rock Island”; the women’s gossip song “Pick a Little, Talk a Little”; “Lida Rose,” performed with tight harmonies by the male quartet; and “Shipoopi,” performed with humorous abandon by Kevin R. Free and with the cast joining in the chorus.

Most notable were supporting actors Lawrence Clayton as the mayor and Myra Lucretia Taylor, who doubled as the librarian’s demanding mother and Maud Dunlop. Kevin Boseman played Marian’s young brother Winthrop, who is reluctant to speak due to his lisp. Boseman was very convincing when he made an onstage transformation to an enthusiastic talking and singing teenager. The cast also included the capable singing and acting talents of Bernard Dotson, Trent Armand Kendal, Destinee Rea, Aurelia Williams and Na’Tasha Yvette Williams.

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The Barbershop Quartet (L to R): Bernard Dotson, Kevin R. Free, Trent Armand Kendall and Lawrence Clayton

An eight-piece band, led by conductor Kenny J. Seymour, ably accompanied the players and contributed to the musical vision as they performed perched on an upper level of the stage during the performance. With excellent direction by Robert O’Hara, this concert adaptation proved very rich and thrilling.

The original story, music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson never gets old. This cast and concert proved that “The Music Man” stands to enjoy another long life in this 21st century. My only regret was that it played for only three nights at NJPAC from March 21-23.