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.
And the other 17 members of the ensemble? (Yes, it's a big cast!) They sing thrillingly, dance winningly and capture the spirit of a frontier town that thinks it's not. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them learn a little bit of spunk and trust and unabashed maturity. And the choreography! Matt Raftery's dances whirl, invigorate, surprise and give you a thousand and one things to look at, all the while directing your emotional gaze directly at the setting, the story and The Situation. I was extremely impressed.
As "Professor" Hill, Bernie Yvon is a smiling, thinking and disarming man, so charming and just a little on the glamorous side. As maid Marian, Johanna Mckenzie Miller is really my only qualifier in this satisfying evening of musical comedy joy. While a tremendous presence and an experienced, accomplished musical theater actress, Miller seems somehow too contemporary in style, even in the early going (when Marian is often portrayed as "repressed"). This Miss Paroo also sings with much more high belt in her voice than Shirley Jones, Rebecca Luker or Kristin Chenoweth ever employed in the role (even though she sometimes sounds remarkably like the original Marian, Barbara Cook, especially in "My White Knight" and "Will I Ever Tell You"). Her voice, even in the show's quieter moments, usually lacks enough roundness and warmth for my taste, as if she didn't approach the role as a legit soprano but as a contemporary Broadway pop-belt role. Clearly, Miller has the high notes, in spades. But her steely delivery of the role's mid-range phrases struck my ear on opening night as out of place.
If the two leads lost their way a bit, during the lengthy second act parlor scene when they work out whether or not they are willing to give up that which they stand for (in order to grab a hold of something wonderful they've just discovered), then I trust that they will find more of a connection to the material and to each other as the run of the show progresses. And yes, the scene on the bridge was not a high point last Sunday, but rather a respite from all the excitement surrounding the characters at that moment. I took that as a choice for this production, rather than a shortcoming. "Till There Was You" is lovely, of course, and here it seems like an inevitability, rather than a moment of thrilling discovery.
The show's Musical Direction by David Kreppel (Patti Garwood conducts the Marriott Theatre Orchestra) is bright, clear and crisp, like the sun on a summer morning by a riverbank. The Marriott design team's work (Set Design by Tom Ryan, Costume Design by Nancy Missimi, Lighting Design by Diane Williams, Sound Design by Bob Gilmartin and Props Design by Sally Weiss) is, once again, state of the art for a theater in the round. Everything is flexible, creative, effortless, effervescent and immediately understood. Director Griffin convened the team well.
So, with the exception of one stylistic disconnect, and the possibility of a key scene needing some focus, I really do recommend this production. It worked for me, in a big way. I felt like I knew these people, and I felt their struggle to learn and grow. I shared in their happiness, too, as the entire theater became a part of River City and its acceptance of Harold Hill, of librarian Marian, of insecure little Winthrop and the alternative family they represent. And those boys and their uniforms, and their instruments? Well. Sign me up. I want to be in that big marching band, too, proud of myself and proud of my part in a wonderful community. Can music do that? Absolutely. I think I was the 77th trombone!
"The Music Man" at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire, Illinois, runs through January 9, 2011. For tickets, call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com for more information.
Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre