Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
Some old musicals are just that – old. But The Music Man is one of that handful of shows that is always fresh and fun. Written in the 1950’s but set in an amorphous and idealized 1912 (some of the topical references in the show are later than that) “The Music Man” wasn’t of its own time to start with, so it hardly matters that its’ not of the present. There is a cleverness and joy in the music that will never age, and in the current the Mac-Haydn production, with favorites Jim Middleton and Karla Shook in the leads, John Saunders directing, and a passel of talented local children strutting their stuff, it is a sure-fire end-of-season crowd pleaser.
Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like what it is describing, but I am not familiar with a similar term for music that echoes its inspiration. I hope someone will write and tell me if there is one because it certainly applies here. From the opening number, which is more spoken than sung, in which the traveling salesmen provide the sounds of the train on which they are riding, to the matrons of River City in their feathered hats chirping Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little, creator Meredith Willson allows the sounds of everyday life to meld effortlessly into musical expression, and then to intertwine with one another in surprising ways. Barbershop harmony blends with original tunes, one melody set at two different tempos becomes a love song and a rousing march, and the insistence undercurrent of rhythm in Marian morphs inevitably into a soft shoe with the slap of books on the desk providing the punctuation.
I had always believed that The Music Man was a wholly original creation of Willson’s – an anomaly in the risky world of show business where most musicals are based on plays or novels whose popularity has already been established – but now I see that it was based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. Certainly the story is partly based on Willson’s own childhood in Mason City, Iowa, and his career as a musician. He actually knew a librarian named Marian, and I have sneaking suspicion that he may have written the entire show just so he’d have an excuse to write that number. It just makes me happy to hear that dum-dee-duddely-dum-dee-duddeley-dum-dee-duddeley-dum-dee riff begin.
Willson (1902-1984) was a flute and piccolo player. He graduated from what is now known as Juilliard and was the flute soloist with John Philip Sousa’s band from 1921-23 as well as a member of the New York Philharmonic. Before his debut on Broadway with “The Music Man,” he had a successful career as a conductor and composer in film and radio. “The Music Man” opened in December, 1957 and was an instant hit, winning the Tony for Best Musical. The original cast album held the #1 spot on the Billboard charts for twelve weeks in 1958. It didn’t realize The Beatles had ever stooped to covering a showtune, but they did once and it was Till There Was You from The Music Man.
I have been assuming that you are familiar with the plot, but in case you are a total musical theatre newbie I will give you a brief run-down. Professor Harold Hill (who is not a professor and is not named Harold Hill) comes to River City, Iowa, to pull his latest con game – selling boys’ band instruments and uniforms. (Here, in order to accommodate more children, the band has gone co-ed, which softens the punch of Hill’s pitch in Trouble.) Since he can’t play a note of music, let alone teach anyone else to, he advocates the revolutionary “Think System” in which the children will learn the Minuet in G through a sort of artistic osmosis. This allows time for the uniforms to be delivered before Hill collects the cash and skips town. Another part of his scheme is to keep the local music teacher, in this case a spinster named Marian Paroo, “off balance” so she won’t catch on to his con. Will Hill escape with the cash before the townspeople can tar and feather him? That’s the suspense that keeps you in your seat for the run of this show.
Middleton is a natural to play Harold Hill with his game-show-host good looks and bass voice. I wonder if he talks that way in real life? It would be alarming to hear someone ask you to pass the ketchup with such orotund articulacy. But I digress. Here he is in fine form, whether conjuring up those 76 trombones or threatening to drop a bag full of marbles all over the floor of the Madison Memorial Library.
He is well matched with Karla Shook (whose sister Kelly L. Shook also appears in this show so we will once again refer to the Shooks by their first names) who is at her warm and winning best here. Karla can exude a very touching aura of maternal love, and here she makes it absolutely clear that Marian falls for Harold Hill the minute he is able to help her little brother Winthrop open up and enjoy life for the first time since the death of their father two years previously. Karla is in fine voice, as she has been all season.
Speaking of Winthrop, I saw Garrett McClenahan, whose performance I had enjoyed so much last fall in Ragtime at the Cohoes Music Hall last fall, in the role and liked him very much. (Everyone knows that Ron Howard played Winthrop in the 1962 film of The Music Man, but did you know that a very young Christian Slater played the role on Broadway in the 1980 revivial?) I also saw Alison Lehane sing and dance very sweetly as Amaryllis, but I am sure that George Franklin and Bryce Goyer, the youngsters with whom McClenahan and Lehane share their roles, are equally charming.
Carol Charniga has dusted off her adorable Aunt Eller costumes and assumed an Irish accent to play the Widow Paroo, Marian and Winthrop’s mother. While Charniga does well by these feisty old broad, my favorite performance of hers is still as the bawdy Jeanette Burmeister in the Theater Barn’s 2005 production of The Full Monty.
I was pleased to see Rachel Black, whose performance I had liked very much in White Christmas back on the Mac-Haydn stage. She is a tall and Rubenesque young woman (and I think now that she is considerably younger than I thought she was back in July) who, while she misses the overwhelming gravitas that Hermione Gingold brought to the role in the film, is an impressive and very funny Eulalie Mackenchnie Shinn. I have always liked a woman who, in 1912, had the chutzpah to use her birth name as well as her married one.
Black is joined by Kelly L. Shook, Erica Wilpon, and Kirstin Reigler as the matrons of River City who spend their days gossiping and their nights rehearsing the dance of the Grecian urns in their bloomers. (I did get a giggle that the ladies’ gym suits were the Williams College colors. Had Williams had female students in 1912 I am sure they would have cavorted in just such purple and gold ensembles.) All of these actresses have had leads or featured roles already this season, and they worked well as a group.
Thom Caska is also playing much older than his chronological age, and not for the first time this season, as Mayor Shinn and doing it very nicely. I loved the little spring in his step. But why is it that suddenly the character of a bumbling politician who misapprends the English language at every turn is much funnier than it used to be...??
Richard Gatta is another up-and-coming young performer whose chorus work and performances in minor roles I have enjoyed at Cohoes and now at the Mac-Haydn. Here he plays a variety of parts, most notably Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman who exposes Hill in the end. I wish he had been given a few more chances to act as well as sing this summer, but it is nice that he has this moment to shine.
Peter Stoffan was hopeless miscast as Marcellus, Hill’s old crony from cons gone by, which made that peppy but pointless second act number Shipoopi (Shipoopi??) a disappointment since Stoffan can dance but not really sing. I would have preferred David Purdy in this role, but I can understand that his fine high tenor was needed in the barbershop quartet, which was excellent, by the way, and was rounded out with Matthew Johnson, Jamison Foreman, and Jeffrey Funaro. I think having the bickering school board of River City suddenly morph into a world-class barbershop quartet is one of Willson’s most brilliant inventions. Often real barbershop groups are hired to play the roles, but here the Mac has corralled and trained four of their own talented young men into a delightful ensemble.
And then there are those children. Saunders and Kelly L. Shook, who also choreographed the show, have divided them by age/height and given each group featured bits that showcase age appropriate skills and abilities. All of the kids comport themselves professionally and look like they are having a blast. Many are familiar faces from previous Mac-Haydn shows and other area productions, and I am sure that Kelly and Karla have a warm feeling as they help these youngsters come up in the business the way earlier generations of Mac-Haydn performers helped them launch their careers.
Set designer Dana Kenn has designed a real wrap-around environment for this production, with many of the sights of River City described in the show depicted on the murals running around the audience and playing area. Brandy Jacobs’ costumes are not quite up to Jimm Halliday’s standards of opulent fabulosity, but she did manage to come up with costumes to fit and flatter that entire intergenerational cast, which is no mean feat.
I defy you to come out of a performance of this show without a smile on your face and a song on your lips. What a lovely way to end a memorable Mac-Haydn season.
The Music Man runs through September 2 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007