BWW Review: March to see THE MUSIC MAN at SERVANT STAGE
I'm often asked if Meredith Willson's THE MUSIC MAN is dated. Perhaps I should say yes, but I tend to say no. A production that can remind you that the underlying plot of the story isn't all sweetness and light and that it actually has what was once controversial material that we usually gloss over can make this classic of 20th century American musical theatre something anyone can appreciate. Unlike RENT, THE MUSIC MAN is pretty much wholesome, but done right, it's not too sweetly wholesome.
Servant Stage's music director, Wally Calderon, has a good sense of direction for this production: suitably rapid pacing, fast cuts. the implication of fast women, and just enough con-man slipperiness around the edges to remind you that you're looking at Professor Harold Hill, scam artist, snake oil salesman, and low-down about-to-be-former bad guy.
Said about-to-be-reformed Professor Hill is delivered to greedy audiences with cheerfully oily panache by Servant Stage's executive director Johnathan Bauer, back in his element on stage. With charm that can separate grannies from their hard-earned cash in a way that no one in THE PRODUCERS ever could, Bauer's Hill pockets the fees from selling tubas and gold-trimmed band uniforms until he can run out of town... or not. He does it, thanks to Calderon's direction and Bauer's talent, in a way that won't scare the horses or make anyone raise an eyebrow at Hill's would-be badness. Hill and the show are, in Servant Stage's usual way, clean but freshened up with some life back in them.
Hill's shown up in River CIty, Iowa to rob grannies and find a good time and some real trouble with some woman of less than pure repute. Alas for him, the woman most suspected of unsuitable morals is... Marian, the town librarian and piano teacher. Played by Amber Emerson, Marian is a woman of stricter virtue than the women who gossip about her. Still, she'd like to get married, and the man she doesn't want to let her guard down around is the only truly interesting man she's met. What's a Marian Paroo to do?
One thing she has to do is find a way to help her struggling young brother WInthrop, played delightfully by alternating performers Quinn Fickes and Jacob Jarkowsky. One good point to the slippery Professor Hill? He's the only person who's able to crack Winthrop's shell. Hey, to be a successful con artist, you have to know people. That's how he gets the school board that's breathing down his neck to form a barbershop quartet and to make the Mayor's wife, Eulalie Shinn (Renee Markell), a true termagant, into the chair of the women's dance committee. It's also how he gets Winthrop to talk to people, and yes, Winthrop's "Gary, Indiana" is worth everything, as is his ending of the rousing ensemble of "Wells Fargo Wagon."
Dan Lehning is a perfect as the perfectly awful Mayor Shinn, who smells a rat in Hill only because the Mayor owns the source of the perceived trouble in town, the pool hall. Chris Faith is great fun as the gone-respectable former accomplice of Hill, Marcellus, who doesn't mind helping Hill scam the town but can't find him a suitably sadder-but-wiser lady for the duration of Hill's intended stay in River City. Katherine Rundall is hilarious as Mrs. Paroo, who wishes her daughter would in fact loosen her completely unrealistic moral code and personal checklist just a little and who has designs on fixing Marian up with HIll.
Whether the school board is barbershopping "Lida Rose" or Marcellus is leading the youth of town in a new dance ("Shipoopi"), or the entire town is down with "Trouble," the cast and Calderon do full justice to some of Meredith Willson's finest compositions. It goes without saying - but it will be said anyway - that Bauer's leading the town in "Seventy Six Trombones" is an audience favorite, and that Bauer and Emerson lead the younger ensemble brilliantly in "Marian the Librarian." That last is also a marvelous piece of choreography, as Hill leads the school students through passing books, annoying the librarian, and threatening to, most direly of all, make sounds in the library.
This is simply a beautiful fantasy of a show, with a brightness many other productions lack and a knowing nod to the mores of Willson's time. The subplots aren't so blatant that children will beg to have everything explained, and in this day they're not really shocking, even for adults who can see what's really going on. It's just a joy to see that Calderon and the cast realize that it's there.
March on over to Lancaster Mennonite School. Make it double time as the last weekend is here. But whatever you do, go follow those darn trombones right now.