BWW Reviews: Anything But Shipoopi: Arena Stage's THE MUSIC MAN


Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.

Repeat. Multiple times. At increasing speeds. In unison. While dancing, singing, making facial expressions, and flailing your arms about. With any luck, you'll make it through one refrain successfully and get a small glimpse into the seasoned talent of the cast of Arena Stage's The Music Man, playing now through July 22nd, 2012.

With book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, The Music Man centers around con man "Professor" Harold Hill, played by Burke Moses. Hill makes his living posing as a band organizer and leader, traveling from town to town convincing parents he will teach their musically challenged children to play musical instruments. One by one, he rallies townsfolk behind his allegedly "must-have" addition to their community. He is the consummate salesman; the purest example of the shady and slick traveling salesman possessing just the right words and gusto, who is capable of selling ice to an iceman. As band fever builds in each small town with parents throwing money towards new instruments and uniforms, Hill quietly escapes cash in hand, leaving behind hopeful parents and starry-eyed children - with newly empty pockets.

Hill, both fortunately and unfortunately, lands himself in River City, Iowa. Imparting his usual antics on the gullible townsfolk, Hill convinces the community elders "Ya Got Trouble", insinuating that without his band, the children of the town will wallow in idleness and gather at the town's new billiard parlor - which, of course, can only lead to sin and corruption. The town is thrown into a frenzy, and one animated personality after another breaks from the crowd, turning Hill's usual routine upside-down. The Mayor of the town, Mayor Shin, played by John Lescault, as owner of the billiard parlor, leads several attempts to uncover Hill's true character, all of which are diverted by Hill with his smooth-talking ways. As the local school board is tasked with obtaining Hill's credentials, Hill teaches them to sing as a barbershop quartet to distract them, and Mayor Shin's plan is foiled time and time again - in a perfectly harmonious manner.

Enter Marian Paroo, the prim and proper librarian and piano teacher, and the object of Hill's attention while navigating his way through River City. The gossipy women of River City make many attempts to convince Hill that Paroo is not what she seems, nor worth his affections. In an ambitious rendition of "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little", the women stress that Paroo advocates the "dirty books" of Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac (who?), and is not worthy of a decent, law-abiding gentleman. Never-the-less, Hill does not slow down his pursuit, unaware that Paroo sees right through his fraudulent ways. She refuses all of his flirtatious advances, despite Paroo's mother advocating that Paroo's "old age" is getting in the way of her finding true love, and clearly she should jump at the first living thing headed her way. Always a comforting thought coming from one's mother.

The tide turns, however, when Hill helps Paroo's younger brother overcome his anti-social nature due to his lisp. As is to be expected (this is a musical, after all), Paroo begins to fall in love with Hill, and while Hill doesn't recognize it in the beginning, the feelings are certainly mutual. Of course, Hill has more at stake, as in order to win her affection, he risks being caught.

The plot continues to thicken as a fellow traveling salesman arrives in town and threatens to uncover Hill's true intentions. The town is thrown into a tailspin once again, and Paroo, while most directly intertwined with Hill, is actually the least affected. Having known of Hill's fraudulent ways since the beginning, she interestingly views Hill's role in River City in a completely different light. Paroo asserts that Hill brought the town to life and gave the community an entirely new purpose and sense of ambition. The children began to dream for the first time, and Hill's promise of pulling a band together did come to fruition - though the band's finale rendition of Beethoven's Minuet in G certainly won't be headlining any national competitions in the near future. In the end, Paroo successfully convinces the town of Hill's true contributions to River City and he is welcomed with open arms as the town's new band leader. It is at this point that Hill decides he should finally learn music, and with Paroo by his side, the town is content once again.

Arena Stage, true to its form, pulls off an incredible theatrical feat in pulling together some of DC's best and brightest cast and crew for The Music Man. Burke Moses's performance as Hill is spot on, and he expertly pulls off the role of a smooth-talking traveling salesman - yet, this one is lovable, and Moses manages to walk that fine line with excellent craftsmanship. He is well-balanced by Kate Baldwin, who pulls off a successful portrayal of Paroo's "Ms. Independent" personality with an endearing tender side most evident in her musical numbers. Baldwin's voice is true talent and she uses her instrument well to impart Paroo's personal insecurities, bringing small cracks into her otherwise full-proof and uncompromising personality.

Job well done, Arena Stage. Job well done. I don't anticipate an empty seat in the house.

Illustration by Doug Fraser.

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