Arena Stage The Music ManBy Bob Ashby • May 26th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage-Fichandler Theatre, Washington DC
Through July 22nd
$94-$109 (+ fees)
Reviewed May 23rd, 2012
Just when was it, exactly, that fast-talking Harold Hill came to sell the good citizens of River City on their desperate need to start a band? If you listen to the words of script of The Music Man, you’d say 1912. If you look at the American flags covering the walls of the Arena Stage’s Fichandler theater, you would see 48-star flags (accurate for 1912) and 50-star flags (appropriate for the early 1950s and forward), and you might start to wonder. If you look at Judith Bowden’s costume design, you could be anywhere from the 1920s through the 1950s. If you listened to the orchestration of Arena’s current production, you would hear, in many numbers, a jazzy style reminiscent of the big band era. Watching Burke Moses channel more than a hint of Ronald Reagan in his portrayal of Hill, you might even think a bit of the 1980s had found its way into pre-World War I Iowa.
The time-bending eclecticism is all to make a point, apparently: “[M]oving our time forward in a vision of America’s past with echoes of today,” director Molly Smith says in her program note. So musically and dramatically strong and so quintessentially American is The Music Man, however, that going out of one’s way to hammer this point home by adding dissonant elements to the production design seems a case of trying too hard. You don’t need to superimpose a concept on this show to make it work beautifully. Fortunately, a sterling cast; gorgeous singing; and well-conceived, energetic and precise dancing make Arena’s production a delight, notwithstanding the conceptual baggage.
Unlike many past Harold Hills, beginning with the original production’s Robert Preston, Moses sings well, adding a valuable dimension to his interaction with Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin), the barbershop quartet, and the ensemble. His Hill is as quick-thinking and persuasive as can be, instinctively finding the chink in the emotional armor of everyone he meets. So consistent is his charmingly manipulative character that, when his realization that he cares for Marian stops him in his tracks, it is a moment of real dramatic power.
Moses and Baldwin have excellent chemistry together, both in opposition and in love, making for a touching rendition of “Till There Was You.” Oddly enough, Smith chose to place Baldwin offstage during the “Goodnight My Someone/76 Trombones” reprise in Act 2, leaving Moses alone on stage to commune with a disembodied voice.
Marian can sometimes come off as little more than a pretty ingénue with a sweet soprano voice. Baldwin offers so much more. Her voice has a rich, full mezzo sound in her lower register and moves seamlessly into the upper reaches of “My White Night.” She gives wonderful emotional depth and complexity to Marian, above all in the second act as she stands up for Hill for the good he has done her and the town, even knowing that he is a fraud who she believes will soon leave her. I’ve seen a lot of productions of The Music Man over the years; Baldwin’s performance showed me things about Marian I hadn’t seen before.
In casting Donna Migliaccio as Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother, Smith not only picked an accomplished comic actor and singer, but also someone who has a believable family resemblance to Baldwin’s Marian. Their “Piano Lesson” number has the cozy feel of an oft-repeated argument among loving family members who know just how to annoy one another.
Among others in the supporting cast, Nehal Joshi stood out as Hill’s co-conspirator Marcellus Washburn. It was pleasant to see a non-obese Marcellus, especially one who moves so well, not only in his “Shipoopi” number but as Hill’s supple, comic dance partner in “The Sadder but Wiser Girl.” Ian Berlin, as Winthrop Paroo, Marian’s little brother, handled “Gary, Indiana” well and grew nicely from shy and sad to outgoing. Compared to many productions, Winthrop’s lisp was subtly done, and Zaneeta Shinn’s (Juliane Godfrey) repeated “Ye Gods” was likewise moderated, to the benefit of both characterizations. Eulalie Shin (Barbara Tirrell) was appropriately self-important and overbearing, with fine comic timing. (The comic “Grecian Urn” tableau she leads, incidentally, is reality-based. I have pictures of very similar poses in my 1899 copy of The Twentieth Century Speaker by Emma Griffith Lumm, who looks remarkably like a Mrs. Shinn.) Her husband the mayor (John Lescault) was mostly stuffy and disagreeable, missing some of the role’s comic possibilities.
Playing Tommy Djilas, Will Burton was an athletic dance lead, headlining choreographer Parker Esse’s action-packed sequences. “Marian the Librarian” was spectacular, with split-second timing, and in “Shipoopi,” Esse made the somewhat unconventional, but effective, choice to use down-home, Oklahoma-style movement.
One of the most famous features of The Music Man is its use of a barbershop quartet. Arena’s quartet (Michael Brian Dunn, Justin Lee Miller, Joe Peck, and Lawrence Redmond) sing and act well, and, in a positive effect of the costume design, are not made to traipse about in striped jackets and straw boaters. Their “Lida Rose,” in counterpoint with Marian’s “Will I Ever Tell You,” is one of the show’s musical highlights.
The Music Man has been a hit since it first opened in 1957. The high quality of Arena’s production will ensure that area audiences will continue to enjoy it.
I was born in a small town, Yakima, Washington, it’s on the eastern side of Washington state and many families have lived there for generations. It’s farming country – hops, apples, cantaloupe and grapes – and is called The Fruit Bowl of the nation. In small towns, there are tracks to live your life on and it’s shocking when anyone moves out of these predetermined tracks. Some of the most narrow-minded people come from small towns and some of the most visionary. As big cities in America are growing, many of these towns are shrinking and disappearing. I am deeply interested in small towns. They dot the American landscape and they are at the heart of American mythology.
In The Music Man, Meredith Wilson has captured the essence of a small town in the middle of America. We see what it means to be in the center of the country. There are no soaring summits or dramatic valleys, just vast expanses of prairie and railroad tracks stitching the communities together.
Meredith Wilson had so much riding on the creation of Music Man because it was based on his own hometown of Mason City, Iowa. How rare it is to have the book, lyrics and music written by one person and then, he created a score that Broadway had never heard before. Wilson combined that longing for American simplicity with a score that is undoubtedly born of the 1950’s from the innovation of “Rock Island,” the syncopation of “Ya Got Trouble” and the swing of “Shipoopi.”
He wrote the musical in the 50’s in a look back to a simpler time at the turn of the century. We’re moving our time forward by setting Music Man in a vision of America’s past with echoes of today.
The American musical is our country’s seminal contribution to the world of theater. We created it – and it is ours. Others may imitate us, but there is nothing like an American musical with its combination of styles.
As a theater focused on American work, we are drawn to its originators. These are great American artists like Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Learner and Loewe, Meredith Willson and so many others. Their music has been played for decades on radios, phonographs, CD players and MP3s. These are musicals that are loved by millions across the country and the world. For many Americans, these gold-standard musicals are their first exposure to live theater and for many in our audiences for Music Man, this will be the first time they take their children to this great American musical. Each has the power to move and connect with audiences of all ages.
There is an essential optimism, kinetic energy and spirit in musicals that reminds us of something central about America at its best.
Whether you come from a small town like Yakima, Washington, or a big city like Washington, D.C., this wonderful company and I welcome you to River City, Iowa, and the extraordinary world of Meredith Wilson.
Photos by Joan Marcus
- Maud Dunlop, U/S Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn : Janet Aldrich
- Dance Captain, Female Swing, U/S Pick-A-Little: Alissa Alter
- Marian Paroo: Kate Baldwin
- Winthrop Paroo: Ian Berlin
- Tommy Djilas: Will Burton
- River City Kid, U/S Winthrop Paroo: Colin J. Cech
- Male Swing, U/S Barbershop Quartet: Kurt Domoney
- Jacey Squires, Traveling: Michael Brian Dunn
- Zaneeta Shinn: Juliane Godfrey
- Mrs. Squires: Rayanne Gonzales
- River City Kid, U/S Amaryllis, U/S Gracie Shinn: Mia Alessandra Goodman
- Gracie Shinn: Jamie Goodson
- Marcellus Washburn: Nehal Joshi
- Amaryllis: Heidi Kaplan
- Ensemble, U/S Zaneeta Shinn: Christina Kidd
- Mayor Shinn: John Lescault
- Mrs. Paroo: Donna Migliaccio
- Olin Britt, Traveling Salesman, U/S Mayor Shinn: Justin Lee Miller
- Harold Hill: Burke Moses
- Charlie Cowell, Constable Locke, U/S Harold Hill: Sasha Olinick
- Ethel Toffelmeir, U/S Marian: Katerina Papacostas
- Ewart Dunlop, Conductor: Joe Peck
- Oliver Hix, Traveling: Lawrence Redmond
- Olin Britt & Oliver Hix Understudy/Salesman Understudy/As Cast: Michael Schlesinger
- Ensemble: Scott Shedenhelm
- Ensemble, Salesman, U/S Marcellus Washburn, U/S Jacey Squires: Eric Shorey
- Ensemble: Kristen J. Smith
- Alma Hix, U/S Mrs. Paroo: Tina Stafford
- Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn: Barbara Tirrell
- Ensemble: Jessica Wu
- Ensemble, U/S Tommy: Nicholas Yenson
- Director: Molly Smith
- Choreographer: Parker Esse
- Musical Director: Lawrence Goldberg
- Set Designer: Eugene Lee
- Costume Designer: Judith Bowden
- Lighting Designer: Dawn Chiang
- Sound Designer: Timothy M. Thompson
- Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith
- Associate Director: Anita Maynard-Losh
- Assistant Choreographer: Ashley Yeater
- Assistant Music Director: Jose C. Simbulam
- Stage Manager: Susan R. White
- Assistant Stage Manager: Jenna Henderson
- Dramaturg: Amrita Ramanan
- Artistic Associate/Casting Director: Daniel Pruksarnukul
- New York Casting: Stuart Howard And Paul Hardt
- Dance Captain: Alisa Alter
- General/Production Manager: Ian Pool
- Technical Director: Scott Schreck
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8121.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.