The Music Man
At the Goodman (Albert)Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” seemed like an ideal choice for a summer show at the Goodman Theatre. It’s a comfortable slice of Americana, a nostalgic trip back to a more innocent period in this country in contrast to the shrill and confrontational times we are living in today. It’s also a great show on its own artistic and entertainment merits.
Goodman has doubled down on its commercial bets by signing the eminent director Mary Zimmerman to stage the show. It’s no surprise that the theater has extended the production twice to accommodate consumer demand, and at a top three figure ticket price that approaches Broadway numbers. So anticipation has run high, and in some ways expectations have been met. But there are still problems in River City. The Goodman revival can’t be called a disappointment, but I still experienced a let down feeling by the end of the evening.
“The Music Man” draws on Willson’s affectionate memories of his early years in Mason City, Iowa, renamed River City in the musical. The story is build on the unlikely romance between a traveling con man named Harold Hill and Marian Paroo, the strong willed town librarian, who is fighting a losing battle for open mindedness in the starchy and ultra conservative community. The River City establishment is anti intellectual and its blowhard mayor xenophobic in his resentment of the immigrant element in the town. Yet this isn’t a soap box show. It’s a fun work with terrific songs and a collection of colorful characters we are invited to laugh at with amused condescension.
But “The Music Man” isn’t a social document. It wins us over with corny humor, barbershop harmonizing, and opportunities for rousing dances. And we should have no difficulty accepting the happy if improbable love affair between a reformed Harold Hill and the previously frustrated and romance starved librarian.
So what’s gone wrong? For openers, Daniel Ostling’s set design is a series of geometric backdrops, realistic on the surface but abstract in effect like a Charles Sheeler painting. Instead of creating a comfy and familiar backdrop for the action, the set creates an emotionally remote disconnect between the small town residents and their environment.
There is a major difficulty with Geoff Packard’s Harold Hill. Hill is a smooth con man, in the current case launching himself on the gullible River City citizens as a “music man” who promises to elevate the town’s moral fiber by starting a band for the local youth. Of course, the band requires uniforms, instruments, and instructional manuals that Hill will provide, for a fee. His plan is to fleece the rubes and leave town before they realize they have been swindled.
Hill is a crook, but he has to generate some audience sympathy as he melts under the love of a good woman, Marian Paroo. But Packard’s Hill remains a conniving con man for nearly the entire show. And there is little chemistry between Hill and Monica West’s town librarian. Their coupling at the end seems more a plot expediency than a believable evolution of a relationship between two outsiders who finally find happiness.
The announcement that Mary Zimmerman would direct the revival was a surprise. Zimmerman has gained international fame for her imaginative creations, notably for such literary works as the Arabian Nights and Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Zimmerman used her adaptation skills to shape these works into stunning theatrical experiences. But “The Music Man” is fine as it stands. Indeed, Zimmerman hasn’t injected any revolutionary concepts into the production so what we now have on the Goodman stage is essentially the original “Music Man”. The near perfection of the original leaves Zimmerman with little to do. It seems like a waste of her resources.
The choreography by Denis Jones is OK but the only number that really takes off is a rousing “Shipoopi” that allows the young and athletic dancers an opportunity to strut their stuff (and earn the biggest audience response of the evening). Even the usually can’t-miss “76 Trombones” number looks constricted, confined to the town’s small school gym when it needs the freedom of an open air parade.
The show is funny but Zimmerman allows too much super broad comedy. Heidi Kettenring, one of Chicagoland’s best all-round actors, played the mayor’s pretentious wife with pratfalls that turns comedy into farce, not a good exchange.
All is not lost. The score still radiates with wonderfully melodious numbers like “Lida Rose,” “My White Knight,” “Good Night, My Someone,” and “Till There Was You.” The show may be folksy but it still has a sly wit. “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” is as sophisticated as anything by Cole Porter and the line “I hope and I pray for Hester to win just one more A” is one of the hippest in American musical comedy. Unfortunately, the song is delivered as a semi burlesque piece that undercuts its urbanity.
There are fine supporting performances by Mary Ernster as Marian’s mother and Matt Crowle as the traveling salesman who unmasks Harold Hill’s duplicity. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis has some good musical and comic moments as a local man who knows Harold Hill as a real life hustler and still remains his friend. And any show that puts Bri Sudia on the stage deserves applause, even here when Sudia is buried in a small role as a River City matron.
The design credits are filled out by Ana Kuzmanic, who deserves props for her wardrobe of turn of the last century costumes; T.J. Gerckens for his lighting; and Ray Nardelli for his sound design. Jermaine Hill is the musical director.
In spite of its flaws, this revival can be recommended because the show itself is such an entertaining vehicle. One could wish for a more simpatico set design and a more charismatic Harold Hill and more exuberant and inventive choreography, but there are rewards in Monica West’s singing and that great Willson score. The revival is good but not great and that will have to suffice for the throngs of expectant viewers who will crowd the Albert Theatre through August 18.
“The Music Man” gets a rating of
“The Music Man” runs through August 18 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $142. Visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org/MusicMan or call 312 443 3800.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. July 2019
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