BWW Review: THE MUSIC MAN at The Des Moines Playhouse
Summer theatre in Iowa can only mean one thing: trouble. That trouble in River City has been happening again and again for countless summers including in the recent production of The Music Man at The Des Moines playhouse that kicks off its 2017-18 season. Any Iowan knows that at least one local community theatre will perform The Music Man, with book, lyrics, and music by fellow Iowan MerEdith Wilson each summer and maybe even more than once if the time is right. While this Des Moines Playhouse take definitely exceeds the usual community theatre production of The Music Man, the incredible female leads and female ensemble reveal the outdated themes present in The Music Man, which are a little hard to sell to a modern audience. Yet, the spirit and energy of the classic still prevail and solidify that The Des Moines Playhouse is capable of producing high-end modern and classic theatre.
In fact, the spirit and love of The Music Man can be seen in many ways during this production: the chatter of audience reminding each other of the songs before the show, the audience member next to you humming along to "Seventy-Six Trombones" and the pure excitement on the ensemble members' faces during the iconic numbers. For those unfamiliar with The Music Man (you're clearly not from Iowa), the plot follows con-man Harold Hill (Brad D. Church) as he tries to swindle the stubborn town of River City, Iowa into buying instruments and uniforms for a fake marching band that will supposedly save the citizens from the heinous new pool table in town. The main obstacle in Hill's way is Marian Paroo (Katy Merriman), the unmarried librarian and piano teacher who will not fall for Hill's charm. Throughout the show, Hill attempts to not only woo the citizens but also Marian while avoiding exposure by the many forces acting against him.
This act of "wooing" reveals how outdated The Music Man is. Merriman's Marian is a strong and intelligent unmarried woman who will not fall for any of Hill's tricks and even begins an investigation against him. In one song, Merriman sings with a beautiful soprano voice how she is waiting for a man who will actually care about her but is perfectly fine waiting until that man comes along even against her mother's (Melanie Hall) persistence that she should get married fast. Of course, in classic musical theatre, the two leads end up together, but this time the reunion doesn't feel right. In fact, I found myself rooting that Marian and Hill do not end up together, which could have been caused by the somewhat creepy ways Hill attempts to win Marian's affection (shoving a marshmallow in her mouth during Marian the Librarian?), Marian's somewhat grey motives for not exposing Hill, or the contrast between Merriman's powerful Marian and Church's firm salesman delivery of Hill. Either way, this production makes me finally see an alternate ending to The Music Man where Marian and Hill do not end up together, and for the better.
Only adding to this hypothetical ending is the other amazing women on stage that don't need men to succeed in entertaining the audience. Melanie Hall as Marian's mother adds a much needed warmth to a sometimes stiff show and Preshia Paulding as the mayor's wife steals every scene she is in with fantastic comedy. Also notable are Tess Meggison's Amaryllis, Taylor Millar's Zaneeta Shinn (with excellent dancing as well), and the "Pick-a-Little" ladies who entertain every chance they are given. Seeing all these wonderful characters made me wonder if River City would be better without the men altogether.
That's not to say that the men in this production do not deliver. One highlight of the show is the act two number "Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?" where the tight and balanced schoolboard-turned-quartet (Kyle Bochart, Tyler Hackman, Greg Kephart, Rob Larsen) sing behind Merriman's pure and beautiful tone. The quartet delivers again and again throughout the show and reminds the audience why The Music Man remains a classic. Other notable men included leading man Brad D. Church as Hill who, although sometimes seems a little too stiff to swindle the entire town and Marian, uses his vocal talent and presence to nicely take the audience through the many numbers Hill has in the show. One standout is "Marian the Librarian" where Church really gets to show his vocal chops as opposed to the fast-paced talking song "Trouble." Michael Garrison's Charlie Cowell, the man trying to expose Hill, lifts the energy in act two well even though the character also has an uncomfortable scene in which he "woos" Marian. Finally, Jack Gabby as Marian's brother Winthrop steals the hearts of the audience in his perfectly lisped performance.
Although this alternate ending went through my head while watching this version, The Des Moines Playhouse's production, directed by Steven Flaa, is able to keep the audience on track with the pure joy and excitement that exuded from all ensemble members and the wonderful score played by live orchestra and conducted by Adam Yankowy. The beautiful scenic design by Andrea Nice and costumes by Angela Lampe round out the production and caused several gasps throughout the night as certain set pieces or costumes appeared on stage.
In recent years, The Des Moines Playhouse has really advanced its execution on technical aspects, which prove that the power of community theatre is still strong in Des Moines. This transformation has been amazing to see, and I applaud The Des Moines Playhouse for executing both modern and classic shows alike with the same zeal for performance that has been thrilling audiences for generations. This production of The Music Man will lift your spirits and remind you of a great staple of American musical theatre, even if it does need some modern rewrites.
Final fun fact: After seeing this production, I ventured over to Grinnell, IA to see their community theatre do The Music Man. Like I said, it is truly Iowa summer theatre season.
The Music Man
The Des Moines Playhouse
July 14 - August 6, 2017
For tickets and more info: https://www.dmplayhouse.com/events/the-music-man