Marriott's 'Music Man' Brings A Singing, Dancing Town To Vivid Theatrical Life


Now through January 9, 2011, a most miraculous thing is happening onstage at the Marriott Theatre in far north suburban Lincolnshire, Illinois. An entire town is coming to life. Its citizens sing, they dance, they hum, they can't tell where talking starts and singing begins. They adore their children like Americans usually do. And messy American democracy somehow sorts out all their dilemmas, and common decency, bracing humility and uncommon confidence triumph in the end. It's a beautiful and moving theatrical experience. It's "The Music Man." 

Once again, Mr. Meredith Willson's tale (book, music and lyrics) of the summer of 1912 in fictional River City, Iowa, hits the boards in a big way. This production, starring Bernie Yvon and Johanna Mckenzie Miller, directed by Broadway and Chicago director Gary Griffin and choreographed in stunning fashion by Matt Raftery, isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn close. 

In "one of musical theatre's most famous and coveted roles" (according to the production's press materials), Bernie Yvon is Harold Hill, "the fast-talking con man who matches wits with River City and its lovable cast of characters" (including the hilarious John Reeger as Mayor Shinn, and Iris Lieberman as his surprisingly open-minded wife). His con is to sell the citizens of River City instruments and uniforms for a boys' band he vows to organize, "despite the fact he doesn't know a trombone from a piccolo." The town's music teacher and librarian, Marian Paroo, figures him out halfway through, but she falls in love with him anyway. 

And along the way, there's something interesting going on. Despite the fact that he isn't really a music teacher, Harold Hill has an uncanny knack for noticing the inherent musicality in other people, whether to sing, dance or play. I have never believed it was a scam when he partners up the four members of the school board into an inseparable barbershop quartet--it's a gift! And it foreshadows the biggest emotional wallop of the show, as written and as it's performed in Lincolnshire. (Spoiler alert for a 53 year old show.) The boys in the town really do manage a rudimentary version of Beethoven's "Minuet In G," using only the supposedly non-existent "think system." Harold Hill is a genius who can't prove it, to himself or anyone else. Until the final curtain, the approval of proud parents and the love of a good woman. I was actually crying, watching those proud boys and their prouder parents, which has never happened to me at this show before. 

And the score for this show (the show that famously defeated "West Side Story" for most of the awards in New York, when they came out at the same time) is far better than even its list of hit songs would indicate ("Seventy-Six Trombones," "Gary, Indiana," "Wells Fargo Wagon," "Ya Got Trouble" and "Till There Was You"). The show is constantly weaving songs with dialogue, songs with other songs, songs with dance, songs that characters know they are singing with ones that they think are dialogue, etc. It's fascinating to witness! The legendary and virtuostic opening number, "Rock Island," written in the choral speech style invented in the 1920s by future Hollywood composer Ernst Toch ("Geographical Fugue") bridges the gap between various German speech/song performance modes and rap and hip-hop, doesn't it? And the Beatles were big fans of this show, as I recall. 

Many of the cast members in this production are impeccably cast, and look like they are having a ball, by the way. Adrian Aguilar as Tommy Djilas and Amanda Tanguay as Zaneeta Shinn dance up a storm, and are engaging and honest. The quartet of Elic Bramlett, Paul Pement, Jarrod Zimmerman and Roger Anderson are tight as a stubborn Iowa fist. Cory Goodrich as Ethel Tofflemier and Mary Ernster as Mrs. Paroo turn in solid, all-American character performances. The Winthrop of young Johnny Rabe (alternating with Daniel Coonley) is just right, neither annoying nor robotic. Michael Gerhardt's anvil salesman delivers the goods, and Andy Lupp, while not ideally cast, is likeable and smart as Marcellus, the human plot device who sings the famous "Shipoopi" song. 

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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