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A CurtainUp Review The Music Man
Unlike her ground-breaking new dance play, Contact, director-choreographer Susan Stroman has stayed true to the genre of big old-fashioned book musical. No attempts have been made to modernize it or to read new dark meanings into the original story. Instead, Ms. Stroman relies on her lively choreography and the knockout sets and costumes of Thomas Lynch and William Ivey Long (also her collaborators on Contact ) to give this new production its oomph, an adjective that, like the show, evokes long ago times and attitudes. Under her savvy direction Harold Hill remains Meredith Willson's endearing fraud who helps the ordinary citizens of a small town to find the natural rhythms in themselves -- which, with the doyenne of theater dancing at the helm, naturally includes teaching them to dance. What we have then is the antithethis of cutting edge modernity, but a modern-day replication of an American-as apple-pie musical, with lots of sugar and spice.
The look of the show brings to mind Stroman's first Broadway blockbuster, the Tony-award winning Crazy For You. Props for the various exterior and interior locales slide and swivel into place with remarkable ease. To start things off with a big bang there's a terrific railroad coach in which Charlie Cowell (Ralph Byers giving a zestful portrayal of the closest thing to a bad guy to be found in this amiable story) and the Traveling Salesmen warn us about the bad apple in their profession who goes around selling instruments along with the promise to give the buyers enough musical proficiency to have a town band. Their rendition of "Rock Island" also establishes Meredith Willson's cheerful chug-chug-chug rhythm and intimations of what was to become known as scatting.
The dancing is not just seamlessly integrated with the story and songs, but creates great bursts of energy whenever the show seems in some danger of overdoing its aura of being an animated memorabilia album. The various ensemble numbers -- especially the "Marian the Librarian" show-stopper led by Bierko and an Agnes DeMille influenced cakewalk are thrillingly exuberant.
In the role that introduced the phrase Marian the Librarian into our lexicon of resistant-to-change expressions, we have Rebecca Luker who seems born to play the strait-laced, skeptical and starved for love River City librarian. Her soprano is pure and powerful. Her rendition of "My White Knight " is filled with yearning waiting to be awakened -- as it is in her duet with Harold, "Goodnight, My Someone."
Besides the already mentioned Ralph Byers as the story's "villain", the large cast gives strong support. Some standouts include the town's leading citizens: Ruth Williamson, in a for her understated role, as the Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, Paul Benedict as her righteous husband, Mayor Shinn and Kate Levering as their wing-footed daughter Zaneeta. Max Casella as Marcellus Washburn, Hill's old pal from Brooklyn, adds pizzazz whenever he's on stage. The Hawkeye Four -- Jack Doyle, Blake Hammond, John Sloman and Michael-Leon Wooley -- do the barbershop rhythms to perfection though three numbers seem one too many. Last but not least, there's 11-year-old Michael Phelan who, as Marian's brother Winthrop, manages to be adorable, sing well, and do so without ever upstaging the grownups.
The stage is filled with other kids which adds to its family show pedigree. However, clocking in at close to three hours, this show isn't all that perfect for kids under 8 or 9, who are likely to get restless during the non dancing scenes. Actually, even adults not gung-ho about nostalgia are likely to, if not fidget, catch a few zzz's, whenever the dancing stops. Happily there's plenty of dancing plus enough catchy tunes to send you out of the theater smiling and humming. But don't rush out! Ms. Stroman has provided a rip-roaring "Seventy-Six Trombones" curtain call.
With more and more public school music programs suffering from tiny budgets to fill the big, powerful need for giving kids everywhere a chance to learn to play instruments, one can only hope that a few real Harold Hills will show up with cornets and trumpets, violins and violas. This hokey Americana scene may be a thing of the American past, but the urge to sing and dance remains a vital means for people, young and old, to connect to what's best within them.
Our review of Contact
Our review of the London revival of Oklahoma, choreographed by Ms. Stroman and currently rumored to be headed for Broadway
Our review of Rebecca Luker in Sound of Music