I've said it before on these pages, and I'll say it again: For sheer cleverness, few Broadway musicals approach, let alone exceed, Meredith Willson's The Music Man.
For fast-talking patter, dysfunctional school boards mutating into barbershop quartets and the sleight of melodic hand that turns the identical tune into a love ballad ("Goodnight My Someone") and the greatest march in the history of the Great White Way ("76 Trombones"), there's nothing like this show.
That's why The Music Man, currently in production at the Chesapeake Music Hall, can be deemed a must-see. For, while director Sherry Kay's talented actors don't tap into the show's comic energy as uproariously as they might, the two leads sparkle, ensemble numbers exude flair, and the endlessly creative score, so replete with hits, is, once again, a feast for the ear.
Alan Hoffman, the Music Hall's perennial leading man, is exceptional as "Professor" Harold Hill, the phony-baloney maestro who cons an Iowa town into buying band instruments and instruction booklets for his nonexistent ensemble, though he wouldn't know a quarter note from a quarter horse.
His high-speed patter in "Trouble" and "76 Trombones" is expert, and he's likable enough to command the affection of the audience, even as he's relieving all those gullible Hawkeyes of their hard-earned cash.
Most important, he establishes plenty of chemistry with his leading lady, Elizabeth Alexander, who is just delightful as Marian, the piano teacher and spinster librarian who falls for the spellbinder's charms against her better personal and professional judgment.
This Marian is suitably nonplussed as the professor puts on the moves, and she grows increasingly frustrated as the scoundrel worms her way into her heart. (I'm still chuckling over her facial take with the marshmallow stuck in her mouth at the end of "Marian the Librarian.")
When she finally falls, she really falls, and the "Till There Was You" duet becomes uncommonly touching as the unlikely lovers express their feelings sonorously and with genuine tenderness.
The rest of the production takes its cue from the leads. The overall level of musical sophistication distinguishes this "Music Man."
The thorny harmonies of the barbershop quartet numbers, which invite auditory agony in so many amateur productions, are quite good here.
"Shapoopi," the novelty song more notable for its cuteness than any inherent musical value, is given vocal pizazz by Ronnie Schronce,who lights up the stage as Marcellus, the professor's one-time accomplice gone legit.
Harmonies in the choral numbers are authoritative, the prerecorded band sounds like a live one, and young Ben Korbelak is as cute and secure as can be while delivering "Gary, Indiana," in one of the show's most charming moments.
What we could use is more laughs.
Ed Wintermute's Mayor Shinn has plenty of gruff energy, but when he tries repeatedly to work the Gettysburg Address into his windbaggy speeches, the audience should be howling.
Some humorous touches would have livened up the opening train number, which was not only unforgivably boring but also cut down beyond recognition. (Even in this abbreviated version, the fellows still didn't get the words and cues right Saturday.)
If the humor can be brought into line with the rest of the presentation, the Music Hall's Music Man will be something to behold.
The Chesapeake Music Hall's production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man plays through May 3. For reservations and showtimes, call 410-626-7515.