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Review: Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘The Music Man’ Remains as Americana as Apple Pie

By SHARON EBERSON

The Music Man reminds us of a time when hardworking, small-town folk cherished simple pleasures, a time when women gossiped, men feuded, teens rebelled, and a charming, cunning con man could make a dishonest living among them. 

The possibility also exists, as in the case of Professor Harold Hill, that he could meet his match, in the form of a “sadder but wiser” librarian, and all will be right with the world. 

I can’t help but think that, when whittled to its core, not much has changed in the years since Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man debuted in 1957, and returned this week, for the first time in 20 years, to Pittsburgh CLO’s summer-stock lineup. 

Marian the Librarian (Nikki Renée Daniels) is courted by con man Harold Hill (Charles Esten, above and below right) in The Music Man for Pittsburgh CLO. (Images: Kgtunney Photography)

You also could argue that The Music Man is at the root of hip-hop, opening as it does with a patter song and a terrific plot set-up. Rock Island is performed as traveling salesmen excoriate the disreputable Hill, to the rhythm of a moving train.

Harold Hill is known for selling the trappings of a band for youngsters – instruments and uniforms – then skedaddling when it comes time to mold them into a band. 

The faithful revival at the Benedum Center boast star power, judging by the warm reception on opening night for TV and country music artist and Pittsburgh native Charles Esten. Polished and clean cut for the role of Hill, Esten exudes charm if not the urgency you might expect of one of musical theater’s most illustrious con men. I needed a bit more deviousness and less delight in his smile – more his Outer Banks character; less the Who’s Line Is it Anyway? guy.

Esten’s previous musical theater experience, in the early 1990s, was as the title character in The Buddy Holly Story, in London. His voice may be more attune to 21st-century Nashville than 19-aughts Iowa, but you believe he can instantly outsmart the sputtering Mayor Shinn (a fun change of pace for E. Clayton Cornelious) and the townspeople in pursuit of his credentials, while having his head turned by River City’s resolute piano teacher, librarian and would-be spinster, Marian Paroo, played by Broadway veteran Nikki Renée Daniels.

Hill reasons that in order to win over the town, he must persuade Marian that his “Think System” of learning music – think the Minuet in G, and it will happen – is legit.

Natalie McGovern plays a student to piano teacher Nikki Renée Daniels in Pittsburgh CLO’s
The Music Man (Image: Kgtunney Photography)

For a guy who believes he has seen it all, he does not see Marian coming.

Yet, who wouldn’t warm up to Daniels’ Marian and her gorgeous soprano? An educated, reliable woman who lives with her doting, widowed mother (Cissy Rebich) and brother, Winthrop (Emmett Kent), Marian presents a force field of strength to the world, while her songs express a longing to find love. 

Esten & Co. get to have much of the musical fun, with different comedic stylings that include the goading Ya Got Trouble, with its dated references but up-to-the-minute objectives. 

The vibrant ensemble brings big doses of youthful energy to the musical numbers, led by Nick Alvino as rebellious Tommy and Kammie Crum as Zanetta Shinn. Both were part of the 2022 Broadway revivall, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster

Also from that production are the Santo Loquasto costumes, creating flair and quick changes for the ladies of the living tableaus. That would be the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn – standout Christine Laitta, employing her trademark comic timing to the hilt – and her entourage of Pick-a-Little Ladies (Ashley Harmon, Jenna Kantor, Savannah Lee Birdsong and Erin Stretor-Seaberg). They are readying their performance art for a town celebration, and all are eating up lavish praise from Professor Hill.

Shipoopi, Wilson’s made-up term of endearment, provides a romp for Ryan Cavanaugh, as Hill’s reformed partner in crime, Marcellus Washburn, and another spot for the dance ensemble to shine. 

The song comes with the town prepping for a big social gathering and with an angry anvil salesman (Pittsburgh’s Michael Greer, in fine form) hot on Hill’s trail, determined to expose his crimes. 

All the while, Hill has managed to rile up the town, creating the illusion of trouble in River City and getting parents to fork over hard-earned money for instruments and uniforms. He also has united four enemies into a harmonious quartet (David Toole, Brady D. Patsy, Aaron Galligan-Stierle and Joseph Torello), charmed every woman who has crossed his path (with one notable exception), motivated disgruntled teens, brought newfound confidence to young Winthrop, and generally raised the excitement level throughout the town.

The Music Man’s harmonious quartet, from left: Joseph Torello,
Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Brady D. Patsy, David Toole. (Image: Kgtunney Photography)

It’s Marian who recognizes what others who eventually want to tar and feather Harold can’t, a realization that leads her to the acknowledged lovers’ meeting place – a beautifully lit, dreamy footbridge. She goes there to meet the man she never dreamed of as her white knight, but whom she now welcomes with open arms.

The intimate scene on the bridge, with Esten’s Hill getting in touch with his feelings for perhaps the first time, and Daniels singing Till There Was You, is among the production’s highlights.

The large cast is led by director Sara Edwards, with Robert Neumeyer conducting the always impressive PCLO Orchestra, and choreography by Mara Newberry Greer.

With The Music Man and another show this season, Pittsburgh CLO has taken us back in time, to the state of musical theater circa 1958. 

Mrs. Shinn (Christine Laitta) and the Pick-a-Little-Ladies of River City confront Harold Hill (Charles Esten). (Image: Kgtunney Photography)

Broadway theater-goers would have had the choice of the “gang warfare” and “beauty amid the rubbish” of West Side Story, as critic New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described the upstart musical of its day, and the wholesome slice of apple pie that is The Music Man, which Atkinson described as “a warm and genial cartoon of American life.”

When it came time for awards season, it was The Music Man that won the hearts of Tonys voters, as best musical. It remains a crowd-pleaser and a time capsule to smalltown Midwest life, idealized in some ways and insightful in others. 

The rumors that are spread about Marian, for her kindness to the richest man in town, certainly seem tabloid ready, and it has always bothered me on the insistence that poor Winthrop, embarrassed to silence by a lisp, say the name of his smitten schoolmate, Amaryllis (Natalie McGovern). When she laughs and he runs away crying, no adult tells her that perhaps that’s not the best way to win over a crush.

That incident does, however, lead to Daniels’ singing Goodnight My Someone, one of the show’s lovely ballads.

The Music Man is easy to parody for modern times – the streaming series Schmigadoon did it brilliantly not long ago. It is, however, a perfect primer into the world of musical theater for families and first-timers. Its ssues don’t go beyond the city limits, and lean into matters of home and hearth. Nothing is solved with violence (it’s a one-punch show). A woman who believes in self-determination remains steadfast, and a man who has led a life of crime finds a way to redemption through love. And then there’s the music, which in its day inspired a Beatles cover of Till There Was You.

Charles Esten visits the Paroo home, with Cissy Rebich and Nikki Renée Daniels,
in The Music Man. (Image: Kgtunney Photography)

The energy level in the current Pittsburgh CLO production of The Music Man ebbed and flowed on opening night – perhaps in keeping with a small-town, long-con pace – while the abrupt ending had anyone who previously has seen the show, or the hit 1963 movie, was left expecting more of a wrap.

Still, it’s darn cute when the beaming kids, most representing CLO Academy, come out in their red-and-gold band uniforms, instruments in hand, and the orchestra transitions into the timeless Seventy-Six Trombones. No matter how many times you’ve seen The Music Man before, that ought to put a spring in your step as you walk out the door.

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, July 9-14, 2024. Tickets: visit  For information on Removing Barriers, visit 

In Conversation With ‘The Music Man’s’ Charles Esten and Nikki Renée Daniels