I have always regarded the 1958 decision to award the Best Musical Tony® to The Music Man over West Side Story to be one of the greatest “what were they thinking” moments in theatre history. Yet after seeing the utterly charming Washington Savoyards’ production of The Music Man, I get it.
This production is a delightful piece of Americana. Director Michael Baron and his creative team embrace the small town Iowa atmosphere of 1912, from the colorful building backdrops designed by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, to the bright and pleasing period costumes of Eleanor Dicks. Even the earnest acting of the cast is totally appropriate to the story of the initially reserved townsfolk (“Iowa Stubborn”) who emerge from their shells when enthralled by Professor Harold Hill.
For those of you who have somehow escaped seeing The Music Man on stage or screen (including the beloved 1962 film version in which Robert Preston reprised his Broadway performance), Professor Hill is a travelling sales/con man. He pitches the idea of musical education as a tool to prevent teenage boys from falling into vice (“Ya Got Trouble”), painting a majestic picture of a marching band (“76 Trombones”). His scheme calls for selling lots of expensive musical instruments and band uniforms, but skipping out before the townsfolk discover he his background in musical education is phony.
Stephen Schmidt delivers a wonderful performance as Harold Hill, imbuing the character with all of the magnetism and charisma that the role requires. We, along with most of the town, quickly fall under his spell as he conveys his enthusiasm with an articulate voice and a spirited manner.
One of the few who resist Professor Hill is Marian Paroo (“Marian the Librarian”), an educated woman who sees that he has no musical knowledge. Sandy Bainum does a fine job with a woman who slowly sees that Professor Hill is good for the town, especially when he helps bring her shy young brother Winthrop (an appealing Marley McKay) out of his shell. Where she really soars is when she uses her clear operatic soprano to render classics such as “Til There Was You.” It’s no surprise that Professor Hill falls for her despite the fact that he risks being arrested as a fraud the longer he remains in town.
The two lead performances alone would be enough to recommend the show, but this production has so much more to offer. The breadth onstage is a wonderful surprise. The large cast (nearly forty, including five children and an eight member teen dance ensemble) is consistently entertaining, moving and sing together with smooth professionalism.
Both director Michael Baron and choreographer Matthew Gardiner demonstrate real skill in the way they maneuver the large cast around the stage. Gardiner also does a fine job with the teen dance ensemble, assisted by dance captain Jamie Eacker. The choreography is consistently strong throughout the show, drawing appreciation from the audience.
It is difficult to single out anyone in such a strong cast, but the performance of the four school board members who evolve into a barbershop quartet (played by the group Bachelor Party) is a consistent crowd pleaser, reaching a musical peak with “Lida Rose.” Fine character performances are given by Judy Simmons as Mrs. Paroo, who encourages Marian to take a chance on love, and Liz Isbell as the mayor’s wife, who becomes one of Professor Hill’s biggest boosters.
If you’re still on the fence about seeing this production, the music alone could justify the trip. The musical direction by N. Thomas Pedersen is superb, as he capably leads an 18-piece orchestra through the classic score. Live musicians of this quality make a real difference in the musical theatre experience.
The Music Man
Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Directed by Michael Baron
Musical Direction by N. Thomas Pedersen
Choreography by Matthew Gardiner
Produced by Washington Savoyards
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running Time: 2:20 with one intermission
Where: Washington Savoyards at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC
When: Through March 8th. Wed through and Sat at 8:00 pm (except special fundraiser gala on Sat, 2/28 at 7:00 pm); matinees on Sun 3/1, Sat 3/7 and Sun\ 3/8 at 2:30 pm. Closing show is Sun 3/8 at 7:30 pm.
Special Note: The H Street Shuttle drops off at the theatre. Here’s the schedule.