Making Sweet MUSIC

Salerno rises above typical community theater fare with The Music Man.

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Though the evidence is still accumulating, there's now reason to believe that the Salerno Theatre Company is on the way up.

In past visits to the group that calls itself "Tampa Bay's Musical Theatre Company," I found Salerno producing what felt like community theater: amateur, vocally spotty, short on fine acting and unattractive to look at.

But in the current production of The Music Man, there are several first-class performers and singers, along with intelligent direction and colorful period costumes. True, there are still problems — a barbershop quartet that's not always quite in tune, a few actors of dubious talent, a set that barely exists — but there are moments in this Music Man that are nothing short of delightful.

I grew up listening to this musical on my parents' hi-fi in the '60s — and repeatedly seeing the film — and I worried as I walked into the Catherine Hickman Theatre that I'd inevitably be disappointed by a local small-cast version all these years later. I wasn't. The syncopated chanting of "Rock Island" was as hilarious as ever, Harold Hill singing "Ya Got Trouble" was infectiously rhythmic, and Marian the Librarian proved eminently capable of crooning "Goodnight My Someone" and "Till There Was You."

By the end of the show, I'd been pleased much more than pained, and though I saw room for improvement, I had to admit: Salerno's a contender after all. What's needed now is more consistent casting and some money for real sets. In that case, artistic director Mike Mathew's company might become the unique resource it aspires to be.

For those of you born too late to know the plot of this American classic: Professor Harold Hill is a charlatan who specializes in selling musical instruments and uniforms to young people's parents in Midwestern cities, promising that he'll teach his young charges to form a band. The problem is, he doesn't know the first thing about music, and always hits the road before the angry adults learn they've been bilked.

But something changes when he comes to River City, Iowa. Though he has no trouble convincing the townsfolk that a marching band is an absolute necessity (lest their children be corrupted by a new pool table at the local billiard parlor), he falls in love with the local librarian and can't bring himself to flee even when the fire-breathing mayor learns the truth.

Meanwhile, the whole town is changed, and not necessarily for the worse, by its contact with the deceiver. He turns a quarreling school board into an inseparable singing quartet, a self-doubting, silent 7-year-old into an enthusiastic would-be cornetist, and that librarian — a spinster afraid of most men — into a love-struck Juliet. Will River City be the last chapter in Harold Hill's life of fraud? Will the townspeople tar and feather him — or will they accept him with gratitude?

It's an upbeat, life-affirming story, and it features some of the catchiest songs in the American musical repertoire: tunes like "Seventy-Six Trombones," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," and "Gary, Indiana." It also requires a Harold Hill who's just the right mixture of snake-oil salesman and romantic hero — which it finds in Jerry Slutzky, a confident, likable actor with a pleasant singing voice and an air of cheerful chicanery.

As his love interest Marian Paroo, Donna Anderson could hardly be better. At first, when rejecting Hill's advances, she seems utterly impenetrable, but then she deftly convinces us not only that she's fallen for the glib lothario, but that she loves him even as she knows he's a bounder.

Anderson's voice is arguably the most professional in the show; she handles the highest notes with ease, and uses her melodies for the sort of self-revelation that other performers think possible only in spoken dialogue.

On the subject of spoken dialogue, that excellent actor Michael O. Smith, a veteran of St. Pete and Sarasota stages, is terrific as the formidable but somewhat tongue-twisted Mayor Shinn. (The day that Salerno hires only actors of Smith's quality is the day it really will be an artistic treasure.) Other notable performers include Brandon Cox as Hill's nemesis, the anvil salesman Charlie Cowell, and exceedingly cute Owen Teague as Marian's very small brother Winthrop.

But some of the casting is problematic: Sandrinne Stigson-Edstrom never really seems to become Marian's mother, and John Crowley, as Hill's crony Marcellus, always appears out of synch with the other actors. One of the barbershop quartet's two tenors — I can't tell which from the program — doesn't have the range that his parts demand, and several of the show's other actors seem only adequate for their roles.

Director Peter Palmer has done wonders on the small Hickman stage, but his sets are so minimal — a financial issue, no doubt — that they sap vividness from our whole experience. Still, the musical's costumes, by Aniko Palmer and Venetia, are just fine, and the tiny live orchestra, while sounding thin at certain moments, is at least better than canned music. Finally, the dancing is less than riveting.

But I don't want these reservations to suggest that the show isn't successful. There's lots that's memorable here: the entire opening sequence, from the train ride that brings Hill to River City to the joyous hypocrisy of "Ya Got Trouble"; the very funny "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" by a nosy group of gossipy ladies; little Winthrop stealing the show when he sings "Gary, Indiana"; a complicated negotiation between Hill-hating Charlie Cowell and Hill-loving Marian; Marian and Hill confessing their mutual love in "Till There Was You"; and imperious Mayor Shinn vainly commanding a brash young man to stay away from his daughter.

And all these successful sequences add up to one major message: Salerno Theatre Company is for real. If it can get this far, it can go further. Local audiences take note.

The Bay area theater scene has just gotten more interesting.

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