You can tell, in the occasional serendipitous gesture, the brilliant telling smile, why this oddball musical, this syncopated torrent of Americana, was chosen over West Side Story by the Tony Award voters of 1958. Sondheim, Laurents, Bernstein et al, showed their brilliance with West Side Story, which became an American classic, but Meredith Willson showed his heart in this play about a flim-flam man who found his cynical exterior melted into goo in the middle of Middle America.
You couldn’t tell it by Arena Stage’s production, though.
Behind all the musical’s sentimental goop, there is a shrewd recognition in The Music Man of the way America grew up. In the early part of the last century, the primary distinction between America and Europe in the territory of commerce was in advertising. European advertising was plodding and virtuous whereas American advertising, having descended from the patent-medicine circuit (sometimes literally; John D. Rockefeller’s father was a patent-medicine salesman), emphasized manipulation, phony results, and confabulation. We celebrated this sly American tradition well past the second war – Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilco typified it – but Willson, with affectionate and unerring eye, pinned it to the wall, and reminded us that in our heartland values we could find something better.
So: Professor Harold Hill (not his real name) lands in the small town of River City, Iowa. His objective is to bamboozle the townspeople into buying band instruments and uniforms from him, on the promise of teaching them how to become a band. The kicker: he doesn’t know a note of music. Enlisting the help of an old con-man buddy gone straight (the excellent Nehal Joshi), Hill (Burke Moses) sets about to actualize his scheme: he will enlist the townspeople to subscribe to his band in order to stave off the imagined threat of a local pool table upon the town’s morals. Knowing (as we all do now) that human vanity is the most powerful motive force in creation, he engages the mayor’s wife (Barbara Tirrell) to head up a dance troupe to supplement the band, and he transforms a bickering school board (Justin Lee Miller, Lawrence Redmond, Joe Peck and Michael Brian Dunn) into a barbershop quartet. But, inadvertently, he makes an enemy right out of the box: the mayor (John Lescault), who is the owner of the benighted pool hall, is immediately suspicious of the Professor, and is constantly on the prowl for evidence of his fraudulence.
But Hill’s most dangerous nemesis is not the Mayor but Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin), the local librarian and music teacher, who has the smarts and the musical background to out him. Hill gives his most serious wooing to her.
But it is not his ardor – first faux, but later f’real – that wins Marian’s heart as much as the deep-dish bond he develops with Winthrop (Ian Berlin, suitably adorable without being cloying), her lisp-locked little brother who – wonder upon wonder – gains his first dose of real self-confidence when Hill pronounces him a natural coronet player.
As for the Professor, the outpouring of unconditional and unfeigned love from these plainspoken Iowa citizens (save their Chief Executive) gives him cause to reconsider his fleece-and-flee scheme. When Sasha Olinick as a sleazeball anvil salesman – boy, I never thought I’d ever string those three words together! – arrives in River City to blow up the Professor’s plans, Harold Hill stays in town to face the music, and thus becomes The Music Man.
How can this story, which subtly reflects America’s growth into commercial maturity from our flim-flam roots, not charm? I am sorry to report that Arena Stage seems to have found a way. Molly Smith’s production, technically excellent as all Arena Stage productions are, seems, curiously, empty. Perhaps it is Eugene Lee’s set, empty except for an occasional piece of furniture lifted hydraulically from under the stage and a dark hole, graced by stairs, through which characters inexplicably exit to their homes, to the town, and to everywhere else.
Or maybe it is Moses who seems red-faced and exhausted as Professor Hill goes through his paces. The incomparable Robert Preston may have ruined the role for everyone else, but the one thing it seems to me the Professor must be is effortless. His patter, composed of many difficult lines delivered very rapidly, must seem as natural to him as breathing, and as sensible. Like the old deodorant commercial says, he must never let you see him sweat. We see Moses sweat. We see the chords of his neck stand out as he delivers his lines. His delivery is flawless, but made at a cost, and thus the air of invulnerability which must mark Harold Hill if we are to be moved when he becomes vulnerable is lost.
Or perhaps it is the operatic Baldwin as Marian the librarian, who at the musical’s outset seems so stricken and sour that it looks like she is viewing her own autopsy. Of course, the story is largely about how she moves from suspecting, even detesting the professor to loving him, and she must be suitably standoffish at the story’s opening. But in Baldwin’s hands, Marian’s distaste for the Professor at the beginning of the play is so extreme that it is hard to buy how much she comes to love him at the end.
Or maybe it’s the supporting characters and the small touches. When he is in the zone, John Lescault is a very fine actor indeed (I loved him in, and as, Brother Russia) but as Mayor Shinn he seems a caricature, all fricatives and frustration. A joke about the anvil salesman which director Smith milks at the beginning of the play – he is carrying an enormous case, which he sets down with a colossal plop – is later shown hollow when he opens the case and we see there is nothing in it but some papers. In short, The Music Man is missing the loving care which Smith and Arena Stage shower upon their best work, like last year’s stupendous Oklahoma!
Well, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk about the great things in this production, starting with Parker Esse’s fabulous choreography. Esse transforms River City into Riverdance, the citizens moving so smoothly and effortlessly through his challenging steps that they look like synchronized swimmers. Among the dancers, Will Burton is spectacular as Tommy Djilas, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks boy who, in a somewhat undercooked subplot, is courting the Mayor’s daughter (Juliane Godfrey).
There are a number of sparkling supporting performances, including Joshi, Heidi Kaplan as a cute little girl with a crush on Winthrop, Tirrell as the Mayor’s overbearing wife, and, in a pleasingly understated performance, Donna Migliaccio as Marian’s mom. The barbershop school board sings beautifully, and probably better than your school board. And Willson’s brilliant opening scene, where five traveling salesmen sling words at each other to the syncopation of the chuffing train while the sixth (Hill) pretends to sleep, is done as well as it can possibly be done.
It is almost impossible for Arena to put on a bad show; with the talent and resources at the company’s command every show is, at the very least, competent. But the best theater is a sort of magic, and this time, Arena has failed to pull the rabbit out of the hat.
Arena Stage’s production of The Music Man is onstage through July 22, 2012 at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington, DC.
The Music Man
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson
Directed by Molly Smith
Music direction by Lawrence Goldberg
Choreography by Parker Esse
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 1 intermission
- Susan Dormady Eisenberg . HuffingtonPost
Diane Holcomb Wilshire . AccidentalThespian
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- Brian T. Carney . Washington Blade
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Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
- Bob Mondello . City Paper
- Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
- Mark . OccamsRazor
Becca Garganious . PinkLineProject
Christine Kowal . BroadwayWorld
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Don . WeLoveDC
Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
Elliot Gould . MDTheatreGuide
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Tiffany Draut . DCMetroTheaterArtsn