Over the years, fans of Meredith Willson's beloved 1957 show "The Music Man" have developed certain expectations.
One is that they will be greeted with Willson's jolting overture, which is the theatrical equivalent of five shots of espresso and helps to rivet audiences to the production for the rest of the evening. Another is that the first thing the audience will see when the lights come up - by official decree of the musical theater gods - is some version of a train car.
In his production of the musical that opened Wednesday night in MusicalFare Theatre, director Chris Kelly dispenses with all that. There is no rousing overture. There is no train car. All we hear are the rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of the show's cast members. All we see, by Chris Cavanagh's stark and beautiful lighting, is the mechanical movement of their limbs. Together, the sounds and movements merge perfectly to simulate the labored acceleration of a locomotive en route to some distant town. And before that train grinds to a halt, Kelly has us in his grip.
And his hold only tightens as the production's comically gifted cast launch into a pitch-perfect performance of "Rock Island," by far the best and most inventive song in the show. The piece, in which a group of traveling salesman chatter in rhythmic language tuned to the chugging and bouncing of the slowing train, features Eric Rawski, Brandon Barry, Matthew Crane, Matthew Iwanski, Ben Puglisi and Joe Donohue III - all in top form.
Kelly has recently delivered refreshing interpretations of two canonical musicals on the MusicalFare stage, last year's reorchestrated and sepia-toned "Oliver!" and a nerve-fraying production of "Hair" earlier this summer. To "The Music Man," beloved of hard-core musical devotees and casual theatergoers alike, Kelly has brought his gift for perfectly calibrated theatrical moments and an almost molecular understanding of how to hit audiences in the funny bone.
The show stars the gifted John Kaczorowski as the charming con man Harold Hill, who has been scamming small-town residents out of their money by selling instruments to their children on the promise of teaching them to play in a band, and then hightailing it out of town. His next target is the wholesome community of River City, Iowa, where he encounters an extraordinarily daft collection of locals willing to buy into his scheme. While he's there, Hill encounters a lovely librarian with the lyrically convenient name of Marian (Amy Jakiel), and things get complicated.
Kaczorowski plays Hill in an understated way, eschewing the blustery style we sometimes associate with the traveling salesman and going in a more subtle, if not Willy Lomanesque, direction. It works for him up to a point, but because some of his best dialogue gets lost in the shuffle and his restraint sometimes inadvertently verges on the creepy, it seems in need of a boost. Jakiel is a perfectly lovely Marian and does her level best with a character that Willson wrote as two-dimensional.
The real joy of this show comes from watching the ensemble work together, from Rawski's sardonic, tongue-tied Mayor Shinn and Kerrykate Abel's self-obsessed Eulalie to strong work from three members of Buffalo band The Albrights (think of them as a hipster version of the barbershop quartet known as the Buffalo Bills): Donohue, Barry and, especially, Matthew Crane. Young Adam Kluge was excellent. Maria Graham, the side-splitting Diane Curley, Wendy Hall and Christina Golab rounded things out beautifully as River City's cheeping gossip-spreaders and other characters.
And though on opening night the pistons were not all firing precisely on time, the production is more than well-oiled enough to allow audiences to suspend their disbelief to swallow Willson's questionable and even somewhat cynical premise about the wages of deception. Even if that premise rings slightly false in 2012 for those of us who've seen our share of Bernie Madoffs and Bashar Issas, there's no doubt that the music still rings true.


"The Music Man"
Three stars out of four

Through Oct. 14 in MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst. Tickets are $39. Call 839-8540 or visit