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BWW Review: THE MUSIC MAN at Kennedy Center

BWW Review: THE MUSIC MAN at Kennedy Center
Norm Lewis at center and the company of Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage production of The Music Man. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

There are certain performances from Broadway history that can never be replicated, one of which is Robert Preston's star turn as the flimflamming boys band sales man Harold Hill in the 1958 Tony Award winning musical The Music Man. It was a bit of a shock when it won best musical that year because it beat out the revolutionary West Side Story. Ah well, commercialism nearly always wins.

Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage series is currently presenting the Meredith Wilson classic as its latest entry and it boasts the formidable talents of Norm Lewis as Harold Hill, Jesse Mueller as Marian the Librarian, and Rosie O'Donnell as Mrs. Paroo as the leads. The supporting cast is pretty terrific too as they almost outshine the leads at one point or another, but more about that later.

The Music Man is still not as revolutionary a musical as some others, but there are a few things that make it stand out. The first being the opening sequence. Many musicals from the 1950's and before opened with a big splashy musical number. Here the piece entitled "Rock Island" is no more than a bunch of travelling salesman on a train talking shop. What makes it unique is as the train starts to move the salesman speak in rhythm to the train's motions so if the train goes over a bump the salesman speak as if they are a broken record (Look whatdoya talk, whatdoya talk...). It might be one of the most original openings ever written for a Broadway musical and here the travelling salesmen ensemble headed by David Pittu as anvil salesman Charlie Cowell do it justice. It's an excellent opening.

Once we get to River City, Iowa Norm Lewis as Harold Hill starts to pass himself off as a professor of music. Mind you, he doesn't know one note from another. As if he isn't enough of a con man on that front, he attempts to win over the heart of the town's librarian Marian Paroo (Jesse Mueller) who lives with her mom Mrs. Paroo (Rosie O'Donnell) and brother Winthrop Paroo (Sam Middleton). Winthrop speaks with a lisp and therefore doesn't say much.

When Mayor Shinn (Mark- Linn Baker) gets wind of Hill's shenanigans he promptly asks the school board to obtain his credentials, but because Hill is such a good con man he manages to convince the board that they can sing together. This is just one example of why Hill's cover isn't blown almost until the end of the show.

I said the supporting players almost outshine the leads in some cases. Veanne Cox as Mrs. Shinn (one Grecian urn) proves once again why she is one of the finest comedic actresses around. Mark Linn-Baker is also hilarious as the bumbling pontificating Mayor Shinn.

Sam Middleton as Winthrop Paroo almost steals the show with his rendition "Gary, Indiana" and Emmy Elizabeth Liu-Wang as Amaryllis makes a strong showing in her act one scene feature opposite Mueller and O'Donnell.

Speaking of O'Donnell, to be honest, I was never much of a fan. I always found her to be obnoxious and coarse as a performer. Yet, I found her Mrs. Paroo to be very endearing as she prays to the saints for Marian to end up with Hill.

I did find John Cariani a little too much on the whiney side in his portrayal of Hill's local accomplice Marcellus Washburn, but he does score big with his feature "Shipoopi".

BWW Review: THE MUSIC MAN at Kennedy Center
Jesse Mueller in Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage production of The Music Man. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It took me awhile to warm up to Jesse Mueller as Marian Paroo. Throughout most of act one, I thought she lacked the edge Marian needs, but by "My White Knight" she started to grow on me. By the time we got to her duet with Lewis "Till There was You" late in the show, that's when I started to care about a possible match- up between the two.

Last, but certainly not least, is Norm Lewis as Harold Hill. Lewis, with his legit baritone, is as unlikely of a choice for this character as you will ever see. Because the songs were written for a non- legit singer it might take your ears a bit to adjust hearing them actually sung. Also, Lewis doesn't necessarily come off as the hard selling salesman you are used to seeing so, at least for me, there is less of a conflict. However, there is no denying, of course, that Lewis' voice is splendid on "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Marian the Librarian".

BWW Review: THE MUSIC MAN at Kennedy Center
The men and women that make the music in Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage production of The Music Man. Pictured are Maestro James Moore and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The eighteen piece orchestra under the direction of James Moore sounds wonderful playing Don Walker's original orchestrations as well as Laurence Rosenthal's original dance music. Moore's ensemble sounds as big as a brass band singing Herbert Greene's original vocal arrangements.

Director Marc Bruni's pacing is brisk, but I wonder if his "concert staging" would have been even better if he focused more on the two leads and less on the technical side (for example, how many projection cues or flying lighting practicals were needed in Paul Tate dePoo III's minimal, but attractive design)? This series is supposed to emphasize the performances and the material, yes? With a little more direction, Lewis and Mueller's performances could have been fully realized (even with only two weeks rehearsal).

Chris Bailey's choreography is energetic and lively throughout.

'Overall this production of The Music Man features some trouble here in River City, but it is still a crowd pleaser. Stay all the way to the end of the curtain call...trust me on this one.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission.

The Music Man runs through February 11, 2019 in the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center. The venue is located at 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.

For tickets, click here.

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