I grew up in Des Moines—humming and singing the score to The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s mega-hit musical—and being a member of Cub Scout Troop 76 whose anthem was (you guessed it) “76 Trombones.”All these years later, I have just had the pleasure of seeing and hearing a new musical that gives you an insider’s look at the man behind The Music Man.Banjo Boy, a musical-theatre biography of Willson’s life with a fascinating “what if I could change a few things about how I did it all” twist, is a song-and-dance treat for people of all ages. I hope you’ll go see this show while it’s still playing at the Sondheim Center.
Talk about Iowa pride.The Music Man actually beat out West Side Story for Best Musical in 1957, the year that both shows debuted on Broadway in New York City.
After two successful readings of Banjo Boy in New York City, author Randolph Hobler contacted Sondheim Center artistic director Randy West and said, “I think the world premiere of the first musical based on Iowa’s own Meredith Willson should be at the one professional musical theatre company in Iowa.”Score yet another artistic triumph for Randy West and his musical theatre program, the Sondheim Center, Fairfield and the state of Iowa.
Solid local performers and strong out-of-town leads have come together to make this production shine. You’ll recognize Fairfield’s own Chris Busch as the show’s narrator, along with Tom Vorhees, Margaret Clair West, Mitchell Price, Warren Wechsler and Andy MacKenzie, and Sam Garles doing a hilarious star turn as a Mason City preacher who just can’t get words right to the wedding vow. Jon Sill is superb as Meredith Willson. Derrick Mitchell (last seen in Fairfield in Musical of Musicals) gives an excellent performance as Louis Armstrong, and as an itinerant banjo player who becomes a member of the Banjo Boys’ foursome that sets Willson on his way to fame and fortune. And Willson’s Chinese lover and eventual wife, Zi Ling, is played to sweet, believable perfection by Christie Burgess.
The show’s tunes are outstanding. The musical support provided by Justin Hill and his orchestra showcase them at their best. The song that ends the first and second acts, “Thanks Be to Music” delivers solid, full-cast ensemble musical song-and-dance theater. And you’ve probably never seen or heard a tune quite like “Sears, Dear Sears”, which is an homage to (I’m not making this up) the Sears & Roebuck catalog and the excitement that its arrival generates in Mason City, Iowa in 1928. Adam Cates’s choreography for “Sears, Dear Sears” is worth the price of admission all by itself, and the other dance numbers for the show are great fun to watch as well.