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This ‘Music Man’ wins us over in sign language

Olney Theatre Center production of the classic musical features Deaf and hearing actors

James Caverly as Professor Harold Hill in Olney Theatre Center's “The Music Man,” which incorporates both Deaf and hearing performers. (Teresa Castracane)
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Harold Hill hooks his audience fast. What else would you expect from a virtuoso flimflam artist?

Just check out the infectious number “Ya Got Trouble,” early on in Olney Theatre Center’s impressively executed “The Music Man,” performed by deaf and hearing actors. Traveling huckster Hill, newly arrived in River City, Iowa, is selling his con — a kids’ band — by disparaging the game of pool. Watch his delectable sneer when he compares pool to horse racing (that devil’s sport!). Spot how he deftly weaves the evocation of a pool cue’s motion into his spiel. Relish the assessing glance he sneaks at his enthralled dupes. Hill is effective because he’s a brilliantly calculating showman — but also because he revels in his own hoax.

Olney Theatre reimagines ‘The Music Man’ with a deaf Harold Hill

James Caverly’s Harold Hill is the ace card in this ambitious version of Meredith Willson’s beloved musical, directed by Michael Baron and Sandra Mae Frank. A high-octane opportunist with a jaunty strut and an eye for all exploitable human weakness, Caverly’s Hill is so raffishly charming it’s no wonder River City falls for his racket — except for the librarian Marian Paroo (a nicely steely Adelina Mitchell).

Caverly (Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building”), who is deaf, cinches his characterization while delivering his lines and lyrics in American Sign Language. The magnetic Vishal Vaidya, who plays Hill’s old friend Marcellus Washburn, also sings most of Hill’s songs, including the exuberant “Seventy-Six Trombones.” That kind of complementing turn is frequent in this production, performed in English and ASL by an equal number of deaf and hearing actors, with Willson’s music intact. Honed by a creative team that includes deaf artists Frank, director of ASL Michelle Banks, and scenic designer Ethan Sinnott, this “Music Man” imagines a River City that’s no mere huckster’s patsy. Rather, it’s a place where a substantial deaf community is fully integrated with hearing residents.

The vision is a vivid one, thanks to the gossipy, companionable, squabbling interactions of the characters on the nifty, stylized set, with its farmland greens and picket-fence whites. A fine-sounding 10-person band led by music director Christopher Youstra arcs along the back of the stage. Overhead, two screens relay supertitles, so whether dialogue is just signed (often), or spoken or both — and during songs — both hearing and deaf audiences can follow along as needed.

Musicals incorporating both deaf and hearing performers have a starry track record, with the beauty, expressiveness and physicality of such ASL-rich shows as Broadway’s 2003 “Big River” and 2015’s “Spring Awakening.” Those two buzzed-about productions employed a double-casting strategy whereby a deaf and a hearing actor could both interpret a single character, so that out-loud words twinned with signing.

In the Olney production, there’s no comparable double casting. When smart workarounds assign deaf characters’ songs to others, the singing characters stay distinct, aptly suggesting empathetic bonds. Of course Marcellus can sing for his buddy Hill. Of course youngster Amaryllis (Sophia Early at the reviewed performance, in the role usually played by Sarah Anne Sillers) can sing for the troubled kid Winthrop (Christopher Tester), whom she teases but likes.

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Because much of the dialogue is only in ASL, audiences members who are not schooled in that language must read the supertitles quickly, so as to return focus hastily to the signing performers. This can be a challenge. It’s a shame to miss a second of Andrew Morrill’s droll turn as a pompous yet likable Mayor Shinn, or the radiant flakiness Anjel Piñero infuses into his daughter, Zaneeta, who’s drawn to town troublemaker Tommy Djilas (a lively Matthew August).

As if the project weren’t complicated enough, covid cases pushed back the start date and affected rehearsals, and on opening night a few moments lacked the crispness they might gain later in the run. The initial comedy of the bickering school board (Jay Frisby, Gregor Lopes, Dylan Toms and Christopher Tester) dragged. And Tester’s characterization of Winthrop — tough for an adult actor — is insufficiently sharp.

But it’s the high points that linger in the mind. Like a stirring all-signing moment in the love song “Till There Was You.” Or, some sly stage business involving moving library shelves, which provides humor, artful havoc and, briefly, a visual correlative to instrumentals. Most of all, there is Harold Hill’s charismatic swindle, winning over those Iowans — and us.

The Music Man Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson; story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey. Directed by Michael Baron and Sandra Mae Frank; choreography, Karma Camp; costume design, Rosemary Pardee; lighting, Jesse W. Belsky; sound, Matt Rowe; projections, Sean Preston. With Florrie Bagel, Heather Marie Beck, Amelia Hensley, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Nicki Runge. 2 hours 45 minutes. $42-$85. Through July 24 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.

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