When Howard County Summer Theatre entered its 20th year, it decided to produce its annual July production with a show that would be celebratory.
A show with scores of cast members, lots of singing and dancing, and even a brass band would reflect the enthusiasm of a company filled with youngsters and adults, students and teachers, children and parents.
The troupe selected "The Music Man," a play that hails small-town America and all of its folksiness, warmth and charm.
The play opens tonight at Centennial High School in Ellicott City.
"The show is bigger than life, and we wanted to do something special for the 20th anniversary," said director Tom Sankey, who has directed the company's last 10 shows.
"And it [is set] on July 4 with a bigger-than-life extravaganza."
Because the company prides itself on casting children, it wanted a script that would allow for a large number of youngsters.
"We want to expose the kids to theater," said board member Fred Neil, who plays Mayor Shinn. "There is nothing better in American music comedy that would fit that bill. It gives students a chance to experience theater on a larger scale."
The company even gave its audience the opportunity to participate in the script selection.
Last year, during its presentation of "Annie," ballot forms with a choice of 18 musicals were inserted in the programs.
" 'The Sound of Music' and 'The Music Man' came in at the top," Mr. Sankey said. "It was a pretty close race.
"But the board decided on 'The Music Man' because it could incorporate a wider variety of ages. There are several big chorus numbers for a wide variety of ages. Also, there's not a lot in 'The Sound of Music' if you have a lot of men in the company."
Debuting with "Guys and Dolls" in 1975, the theater has produced such Broadway classics as "Camelot," "Damn Yankees" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
Last year's "Annie" drew 2,800 people over seven performances. The company is hoping for 3,000 this year.
"People who come realize it's a tremendous bargain," Mr. Neil said. "For $7 you get live theater. The quality is high, and our reputation has grown."
The show will benefit Grassroots Crisis and Intervention Center.
"This is the first time we are donating to a charity," said the 60-year-old Columbia resident. "This year, we wanted to make it special, do something for a group that has a tremendous need."
This is the second time the company is performing "The Music Man"; it first performed it in 1985.
Set in 1912, "The Music Man" is about a smooth-talking con man, Harold Hill, who tries to talk the townsfolk of River City, Iowa, into buying musical instruments and uniforms for a nonexistent band.
His foils include the suspicious Mayor Shinn, and librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo.
Despite his crooked intentions, the good-hearted Hill manages to bring together the stubborn and aloof "River Citiziens," eventually winning over everyone, even the doubting Marian.
The snappy dialogue is liberally sprinkled with colorful turn-of-the-century vocabulary including "girly-girl," "swell" and
"so's your old man."
Because of the show's enduring popularity and the company's growing reputation, 186 people came to audition.
"People like this show, it's a big community theater show," said Mr. Sankey, a math teacher and theater director at Mount Hebron High School.
"I personally think it's a show that defines community theater."
After a tedious audition process, more than 90 performers were accepted
"We wanted 75 to 80, but ended up keeping more," said the 41-year-old director from Ellicott City.
But working with such a large cast proved difficult in casting and staging and scheduling rehearsal times.
"Casting took a lot of time and patience," Mr. Sankey said. "An incredible amount of time was spent figuring out who will be in what number."
Cast members range in age from 4 to 64, giving youngsters the opportunity to work with adults and with students from other schools.
Twenty-five students from eight county high schools, 25 children under the age of 13 and 10 teachers, including two from Baltimore County, are represented.
"We try to make it a family-type atmosphere," said Mr. Sankey who looks for family-oriented productions. "It's a wholesome activity for everybody, a positive experience for everyone involved."
This is also a company where families work together on and off stage.
Choreographer Amanda Tschirgi dances with 4-year-old daughter Laura; Lisa Yerrid, who plays Eulalie MaKecknie Shinn, performs with brother Michael; Risa Binder, who plays Zaneeta Shinn, performs with mother Marilyn and sister Jessica; five members of the Holmes family, including both parents, perform onstage.
In the Moineau family, producer Marie also plays Alma Hix, nephew Ryan is in the chorus, and Ryan's father, Joe, works with the set crew.
Dick Nelson is the leader of the 14-member band that includes a tuba, three trombones and three trumpets; his wife, Sandy, is the pianist.
Choreographing the 90-member cast took some ingenuity.
The cast was segmented into different production numbers, with as many as 60 in one scene.
"We tried to separate them into groups for different numbers so there wouldn't be one big mass," Ms. Tschirgi, 29, said. "We also have different levels onstage."
For the "Iowa Stubborn" number, where the townsfolk declare their stubbornness and aloofness, the cast is organized into small groups of families onstage.
"It's a painting of family snapshots," said the Columbia resident, who has choreographed the last 10 shows.
"They're stuffy, proud. It's a stiff number. They're not as 'dancey.' But as other numbers go on, they let go."
For the finale, where everyone is on, performers dance out into the aisles.
With several pockets of character actors, the huge cast showcases terrific performances and voices.
Standout singing and acting is delivered by Ann Barcroft as Marian "the Librian" Paroo.
Myron "Mo" Dutterer is a natural as the charismatic Hill, at ease with the tongue-teasing "Trouble."
Other entertaining characters include Mr. Neil as the fumbling Mayor Shinn; Lisa Yerrid as his wife, Eulalie, who steals the show with her troop of women; Risa Binder as the giggly Zaneeta; and Marilyn Turi as the pushy Mrs. Paroo.
But the best thing is sitting back and listening to the chorus' intricate harmonies and the brass band performing "76 Trombones," "Gary Indiana," "Wells Fargo Wagon" and "Till There Was You."
Throw in some barbershop quartet and vigorous dance numbers and you've got a swell way to spend a summer evening.
The Howard County Summer Theatre will present "The Music Man" at 7:30 p.m. today, tomorrow, Thursday, and July 15 and 16, and also at 2 p.m. Sunday and July 16 at Centennial High School in Ellicott City.
General admission is $7; tickets for seniors and children under 12 are $5.
Information: Marie Moineau, 242-2985.