BWW Reviews: Music Marches To The Fore In The Paramount's Postcard-Pretty THE MUSIC MAN
A-way out west in Aurora, Illinois, situated halfway between the bucolic Gary, Indiana, of the song of the same name, and the fictional River City, Iowa, inspired by composer-author Meredith Willson' real-life hometown of Mason City, one finds the stunning, Venetian Art-Deco Paramount Theatre, awe-inspiring with its 1,888 seats. And in that very same theater, the crown jewel of an Illinois river town that's been renovated with money given by folks like the Caterpillar tractor company, a crowd of city slickers and earnest rural theatergoers gathered this past Friday night, to witness a lovely looking, lovely sounding revival of "The Music Man," a crown jewel of Broadway's Golden Age and a genuine love letter to small-town America.
But this show, which I've seen and reviewed before, is more than that. In the Paramount's production, directed and choregraphed by Rachel Rockwell, the show lives and breathes in the very music that a con man and flim-flam artist, "Professor Harold Hill," uses to sell band instruments, uniforms and instruction booklets to the parents of young boys he knows he cannot really teach. Music is everywhere, in the men who form the town's school board, in the part-time job of the town's librarian, young Marian Paroo, in the town's busybody married ladies who become dance dilettantes, in the dancing high school kids, in the shy young Winthrop, he of the lisp and the sad-sack demeanor and dreams of a shiny cornet.
The whole town falls for Hill's pitch and vision of a boys' band because, as the show's score shows, music is amazing! Under the baton of Michael Mahler's 18-piece orchestra, it struts, lilts, interweaves and emerges from the rhythms of train cars, whistling and childhood piano awkwardness. Music is the air that we breathe. And that's why the show's climax works. It's the triumph, not of blind parental devotion for anything that little tykes put their minds to, but of the hope that the souls, the minds and the hearts of the young can and will be elevated by any encounter with music, even one orchestrated by a man who doesn't really understand his own true gifts.
Hill is played at the Paramount by Stef Tovar, an actor of great likability and musicality, but one with a somewhat contemporary acting approach and with a higher, lighter voice than one usually associates with this role. The comedy certainly works, and his dramatic showdown with Winthrop in the second act works as well. But for much of the show, this Harold is nice, not flashy, and this makes for a unique, unexpected situation. Tovar is watchable, but not insistently so. He grows on you, like he does on the unsuspecting but suspicious Marian. Let me know what you think when you see it.
Maid Marian Paroo, the lady in question, is played by the placid period beauty that is Emily Rohm, one of Chicago theater's leading legitimate sopranos and one who simply must be seen and heard in this role. Indeed, if you close your eyes, you would swear that role originator Barbara Cook herself is in the room, so bright and pleasing is Rohm's Broadway soprano sound. Her acting is spot on, too, hitting the touchpoints of character progression nicely. Rohm is so good, one wonders what Broadway revival star Rebecca Luker could possibly have brought to the role that Rohm hasn't. If you know, please let me know.
The star of the recent Broadway production of "A Christmas Story," 12 year old Naperville native Johnny Rabe, sings exceptionally well as Winthrop, with a clarion Broadway belt and every word intact. He's a little old for the role, but no one cares. It's a treat to have him here! (While we're on the subject of children, the two little girls in the show, Peyton Shaffer and Emily Leahy, can do round-offs like nobody's business.)
The large ensemble cast of 34 (yes, there are 34 performers here!) sounds fantastic in the big choral climaxes. The barbershop quartet of Rob Dorn, Matthew R. Jones, Sean Effinger-Dean and Rob Anderson, is mostly wonderful, though they are saddled with a few unmotivated crossovers that are vestiges of the show's "in one" origins. The dancing, led by Rhett Guter and Laura Savage as the secondary love couple Tommy and Zaneeta, is exuberant and balletic and all-American. And the character actors, led by Mary Ernster as the old-world Mrs. Paroo, Don Forston as the blustery Mayor Shinn and Liz Pazek as Eulalie ("Trickle, Trickle, Trickle") Mackecknie Shinn, carry a surprisingly large part of the show's dialogue. Michael Aaron Lindner is Marcellus, pulling off a role that is probably too high for him with panache and journeyman aplomb.
If it were not for Rohm's and Rabe's remarkable, Broadway-quality voices, and an orchestra of a size that one hears far too rarely these days, the stars of this production might very well by scene designer Kevin Depinet and lighting designer Jesse Klug (both recent BroadwayWorld Chicago Award winners for their work last season). Depinet has provided one of the most beautiful bare-bones sets I have ever seen, and Klug has lit it to resemble every kind of two-dimensional artwork you can imagine, from construction paper silhouettes to landscape painting to stereopticon slides to classic tourist postcards. There isn't a lot of scenery going on, but the wide open spaces of the upper Midwest and the Queen Anne architecture of the first decade of the 20th century are etched with breathtaking clarity. It's just lovely!
Melissa Torchia has selected fetching gowns and dresses for the ladies, and a variety of suits and period pieces for the men. Jeff Dublinske's sound design renders every word intelligible, if obviously amplified. And the properties design by Sarah Ross seems inevitable and as charming as Professor Hill himself.
And the songs! From the a capella, proto-rap opening number, "Rock Island," to the dazzling dichotomy that is the juxtaposition of "Iowa Stubborn" and "Ya Got Trouble," to the seamless dialogue and singing of "If You Don't Mind My Saying So" and "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little," the thrills of "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Wells Fargo Wagon," the sheer beauty of "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You," and more--well you get the idea! Despite the humor and the heartwarming message, it really is the music that does it for me, and for many. And did I mention that you get an overture, an entr'acte and exit music! Oh yes. The joys are many. Many, indeed.
"The Music Man" is a show that everyone who cares about the American musical must see and understand. And this is a rare chance to see it in a high-quality staging, in a way that resembles the way it was originally performed. Did I mention that I teared up toward the end? And I don't have kids, either. What I do have is a love of music, a love of the American musical, and a love for the America that produced this show. And that, gentle readers, is more than enough reason that you should go west and see "The Music Man" in the next two weeks. You will regret it if you miss this extraordinary and moving evening of greatness. I guarantee it.
THE MUSIC MAN runs through February 3, 2013, Wednesdays through Sundays, at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd. in Aurora, Illinois. Go to www.ParamountAurora.com for tickets, or phone 630-896-6666.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tom King