I must admit, right off the bat, that I have never seen Meredith Willson’s The Music Man in my life, not on stage nor the iconic 1962 film that starred Robert Preston (“Victor Victoria“) and Shirley Jones. To be honest, I’ve never really been drawn to the musical, even with its classic status. It seems sweet but I can’t think, off the top of my head, of any of the numerous songs that made it into my obsessional frontmezzjunkies orbit, except of course “76 Trombones” and I can’t say that causes my musical mind to go all misty. I did almost have the chance to march into the town of River City, Iowa and see the bypassed musical when it was produced this past season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. I heard through the theatrical grapevine that the production, starring Daren A. Herbert and Danielle Wade (and, hilariously, my namesake, Steve Ross as the Mayor of River City), was “irresistible” (NOW Magazine), reminded us all of “the joy of the Stratford Festival” (Toronto Star), but I never did, in the end, make it over. I did get the chance to see their lovely production of Christopher Sergel‘s To Kill a Mockingbird, mainly so I would have something to compare the new Broadway staging of that classic story to, as rewritten by Aaron Sorkin. Little did I know that I would be given a second chance to see The Music Man, but this time at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy of wonderful Broadway Center Stage productions. More importantly and to be honest, the main reason I went, this Encores!-like production is starring the phenomenal Norm Lewis and the magnificent Jessie Mueller, both extraordinarily gifted singers, with a strong comic assist from the brave and very funny Rosie O’Donnell. How could I miss that, even if I had to take “The Wells Fargo Wagon” to get there.
So I jumped on a train, much like the gaggle of traveling salesman, lead by the talented David Pittu (Public’s Girl From the North Country), as Charlie Cowell, a traveling salesman with a never-dying chip on his shoulder, who are riding the rhythmic rails from “Rock Island” on their way to River City, Iowa. The dynamic-ness of the level of professionalism is certainly on display here in that miraculous number, swaying and repeating to the rhythm of the train engine. It’s “cash for the crackers and the pickles and the fly paper” as they weave the web of what’s to come, and his name is “Hill. Hill?”, yes, Professor Harold Hill, played by the illustrious Lewis (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd). Hill’s a “fake, and he doesn’t know the territory“; a snake-charmer disguised as a music teacher/salesman, riling up the Townspeople of River City, with his pool-table fear-mongering, all beautifully enmeshed in the brilliantly calculated “Ya Got Trouble“. He “must create a desperate need” that is true, as this “fake” is in reality, nothing even remotely close as performed by the phenomenal Lewis, and from the moment I heard his rich and illustrious voice singing out that classic (yes, I remembered it once it started), I knew we were all in for a delicious slice of “Shipoopi” pie.
With a gorgeously re-imagined Marcellus Washburn, portrayed by the adorably goofy John Cariani (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit) lending a hilarious helping hand to Hill, the sting is on, “right here in River City“, but things aren’t as easy as he thinks. The Mayor, played with a wink and a smile by the lovely Mark Linn-Baker (Broadway’s On the Twentieth Century), has his eye on the Hill, but the townsfolk are pretty much a push over for the smooth talking Professor, especially the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, played to perfection by the wonderfully game Veanne Cox (Broadway’s An American in Paris). She and her ladies give us a “Pick-a-Little” good time with their “Talk-a-Little” prancing, a musical moment that made me truly value the book, music, and lyrics created by the smart three-time Broadway composer, Meredith Willson (The Unsinkable Molly Brown). And the four barbershop buddies, Jacey Squires, Ewart Dunlop, Oliver Hix, and Olin Britt, played by the harmonious quartet of Jimmy Smagula (Encores’ Damn Yankees), Arlo Hill (Encores’ Little Me), Todd Horman (Broadway’s My Fair Lady), and Nicholas Ward (Broadway’s Frozen), brilliantly sing them out with the gloriously grand “Goodnight Ladies“. Musical gorgeousness if there ever was.
The lot of them are just putty in the hands of Master Hill, but not so much at the piano-teaching Paroo House. the “brazen” Marian, played by the sweetly voiced genius, Jessie Mueller (Broadway’s Waitress, Carousel) is the librarian who sees right through the crafty thinking facade. She does her research all right, and finds everything she needs to knock this Hill down, but that doesn’t really stand much of a chance against the eager Professor and the fast-moving dancing-feet book-slamming showdown at the library, choreographed to perfection by the brilliant Chris Bailey (Broadway’s Gettin’ The Band Back Together, New Group’s Jerry Springer the Opera). It’s really spectacular, especially when taking into consideration the fast and furiously rehearsal timeline, where a number as magnificently intricate as “Marian the Librarian” can be produced so cleanly, but this ensemble pulls it off beautifully, without a tap, stomp, and hop out-of-place. The falling of the librarian is almost too quick to be seen or felt, but it is as inevitable as the young Tommy Dijilas, handsomely portrayed by the talented Damon J. Gillespie (Broadway’s Newsies), a good-looking young man “from the wrong side of town” winning the heart of the Mayor’s oldest daughter, Zaneeta Shinn, hilariously enlivened by Eloise Kropp (Broadway’s Cats).
Mueller’s take on Marian is as charming as you’d expect, and with her solo, “My White Knight” and her duet with Hill, the famous “Til There Was You“, she solidifies my reasoning to come all the way to D.C. to see an old-fashioned musical. Under the rich musical direction of James Moore (Broadway’s Gigi, On The Town) leading the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Mueller delivers another gorgeous rendering, this time it’s the lovely “Piano Lesson/If You Don’t Mind My Saying So“, beautifully trio’d by the young Amaryllis (Emmy Elizabeth Liu-Wang) and the glorious Mrs. Paroo, played with a grand funny slice of Irish ham by the absolutely charming Rosie O’Donnell (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, Grease). Rosie’s Mrs. Paroo is a sweet and loving mother, watching over her young son, Winthrop, played with lisping perfection by the surprisingly good Sam Middleton (National Tour of Les Miserables) with as much warmth and kindness as you can imagine. Within Winthrop’s “Gary, Indiana” (so much better than the young Ronnie Howard from the iconic film version), with Mueller and Rosie at his side, his charm is effervescent, and as adorable as the Quartet’s “Ice Cream/Sincere“.
As directed with a grand fine air by the talented leader, Marc Bruni (Broadway’s Beautiful, Encores’ Hey, Look Me Over!), backed up by the wise set and utterly fantastic old-school-esque projection design by Paul Tate dePoo III (Broadway’s Titanic), majestic lighting by Cory Pattak (BCS’s In The Heights), lovely costuming by Amy Clark (ATC’s Describe the Night), and solid sound by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels), The Music Man showcases just why it’s such a darn fine musical, a loved classic based on a sweet simple story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey. It’s brought to Encores!-style life joyfully for all eyes in Washington to see and hear, and it’s just what the doctor ordered. With Mueller and Lewis at the helm, this Music Man doesn’t fall or trip as it marches down the aisle, but playfully soars. The magical ending (as I now see because of the beauty of YouTube), didn’t register in the same way, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work in its own sweet-natured right. This Music Man ends on a quieter and simpler off-key note, but it has a heart that can’t be busted or turned away. And with the surprise big brass band finale we were lucky to witness at The Kennedy Center, the whole musical magical event was well worth the wait and the train trip over to River City, Iowa, by way of Washington, D.C. Do yourself a favor, and catch that same rhythmic train while you can before this Music Man sings its final “Goodnight, My Someone“.
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