BWW Reviews: THE MUSIC MAN Comes To Theatre Harrisburg
If Meredith Willson, the prolific composer, songwriter, and playwright, had written nothing else in his entire career, he would have been enshrined in legend for just one thing: THE MUSIC MAN. Forget (though who can?) "The Unsinkable Molly Brown". Forget humming "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You." Forget his work for Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and Tallulah Bankhead, including his on-air work with them on radio. All in all, Willson had an amazing career… but THE MUSIC MAN would have been enough. Intended as a love note to his home town of Mason City, Iowa (which now boasts a "Music Man Square" incorporating Willson's boyhood home), filled with characters based on people he'd known from all over, it is possibly the most American of American musicals, even more so than anything by George M. Cohan. Filled with songs that many of us know by heart, it is also possibly the most popular show in American musical theatre, an immediate hit on Broadway, revived twice, turned into a hit film, and performed by every regional, community, and high school theatre in the country. It's currently on stage at the Whitaker Center through Theatre Harrisburg, in a production that does it more than a reasonable degree of justice.
Director Eric Dundore has done the show and the audience the service of not casting to the original production types – no Robert Preston clone for Harold Hill, no Iggie Wolfington or Stubby Kaye clone for Marcellus Washburn. Too often we view the characters in this show as being not so much independent characters but as the actors who portrayed them, but there is no divine archetype for them, much as the original casting for movie and film were inspired.
Stosh Snyder is a Harold Hill whose cool, confident façade still shows a few cracks in it, while Michael Popovsky is a Marcellus whose having "gone legit" is tempered by the excitement of helping out in "the game" when his old friend Hill shows up in River City to sell band instruments. This is both actors' second time in this show, and the familiarity with it helps. Both also have the voices for their roles – there is none of the easy route of simply copying Preston's own sprechstimmel delivery here. Popovsky, who also sings opera, frankly deserves even more singing time than the part of Marcellus allows. Says Snyder, "I love doing this show. This is my second time playing Harold Hill, and I'm glad to be doing it again." Popovsky adds, "This is an upbeat, fun show. I've done it before, in Lancaster, as Harold Hill, and it's great to do it from another character's point of view."
Kat Prickett as Marian Paroo is also a veteran of the show, from back in seventh grade. She's a lovely Marian who hits all the right notes, and not just the ones in the score. Aloof without being schoolmarmy, she exudes a sense of self-worth that keeps her from becoming involved with the men around her – she clearly is looking for something more, not just for something else. Prickett notes that "this is just a beautiful show, and we have a wonderful cast." She's very much right – the chemistry among the three leads is palpable.
Aside from the fine casting of the three leads, praise must be given to local veteran actress Nancy Kraft for her portrayal of Mrs. Paroo, mother of Marian and Winthrop (played by Peter Ariano, who leads a rousing "Gary, Indiana") and for the River City School Board, the men's barbershop quartet, Joe Gargulio, Hal Kraft, Moses Mariscal, and Darren Riddle. For all the fine music of this show, the barbershop quartet moments have always been intended as show-stoppers, and as with the original production, the quartet delivers. There is little in musical theatre better than a well-sung contrapuntal "Lida Rose" and "Will I Ever Tell You" in Act Two, and that is exactly what is delivered in this production by the men's quartet and Kat Prickett. Olivia Plessl from Cumberland Valley High School also makes a delightful Zaneeta Shinn, and adds that "it's such a fun show. The dancing is great, and I love the choreography." We may hope to continue to see her in area productions.
It's interesting that no one pays attention to the sexual subtext of THE MUSIC MAN. Although it is not as forthright as, say, SPRING AWAKENING, it does contain implications that Marian, whose behavior appears almost prudish, has formerly sold herself into the position of librarian ("Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little"), and that thanks to this, Hill sees her as relatively available and an appropriate choice for a short fling, as opposed to Marcellus' girlfriend's Sunday-School-teacher sister ("The Sadder But Wiser Girl"). Time has rendered the references, far more obvious in 1957, more innocent to family audiences, but they are still there. The references to "Chaucer… Rabalais… Balzac!" made by the Women's Ensemble in pointing out offensive literature in the River City library are also sexual, but once again, time has diluted public offense at the content of those authors' works. In 1912, when the story is set, all of this would have been much more scandalous in River City than audiences now are able to imagine.
The production is not without its flaws. The cast-wide chorus of "The Wells Fargo Wagon" loses a few of its individual singers' lyrics to the orchestra. Not all of the sets are as perfectly envisioned as the Paroo parlor and patio. It took this reviewer until the original verse of "Seventy-Six Trombones" to be completely sold on Stosh Snyder's Harold Hill – but once sold, she was in for the whole ride, and now can't think why she hadn't warmed up to him earlier. But the choreography by Allison Graham is top-notch (even if a few of the dancers aren't altogether so) and the orchestra is fine – and one of the larger ones seen in the area recently. This reviewer, having been an orchestra pit violinist, does believe there's something missing when shows originally scored with strings don't have string players in their orchestras. This is her favorite orchestra in some months because of that – and this is a show that lives for strings and woodwinds.
If you're looking for a classic musical where you already know the music, or for somewhat more family-friendly fare than the local productions of AVENUE Q and SPRING AWAKENING, this production is a sure bet. If you're one of the many people for whom THE MUSIC MAN never grows old, no matter how many times you've seen it – and this reviewer counts herself among them – you should enjoy yourself tremendously; just don't sing along with the entire score if you're sitting near anyone else. At Theatre Harrisburg through November 18. Call 717-232-5501 or visit www.theatreharrisburg.com.
Photo credit: Jadrian Klinger/Harrisburg Magazine