Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review of "The Music Man"

The Music Man – the Meredith Wilson show that took Broadway by storm in the late 1950’s – has been reimagined for the small stage in a disconsonant and cross-purposeful production at the Sharon Playhouse.  The decisions by director Morgan Green are at times intriguing but, in the end, the overall presentation is just too incongruous to produce a satisfactory musical.

The storyline of the show remains the same, but has been updated from the early part of the 20th century to 2017.  There is still Harold Hill, the slick talking con man looking to swindle the good folks of River City, Iowa by selling them band instruments, costumes and music lessons.  His main obstacle is the no-nonsense, unattached librarian Marian, the suspicious piano teacher who doesn’t believe his verbal double-talk or, at first, fall for his persistent wooing.  In the end, Hill’s roguery and dalliances win over the girl and show the townsfolk how to overcome their partisan, quarrelsome views while also instilling confidence in the denizens, both young and old.

The book, written by Wilson, is an ode to small town life, which is immediately incongruent with the thrust of this production as a number of decisions create unworkable and confusing scenarios.  This is immediately exemplified in the opening sequence, where traveling salesmen are aligned on stage singing “Rock Island.”  The song, through the cadence and lyrics, is supposed to mimic an old steam train traversing the plains, but the staging doesn’t imply motion or even the suggestion they are navigating the tracks.

The score, also by Meredith Wilson, is awash in timeless classics such as “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” and “Till There Was You.”  They evoke a simpler, bygone time.  Most are presented in a straightforward manner, while others are given an unexpected twist that come across as more gimmicky.  “Marian the Librarian” is sung to a Latin beat.  The show-stopping “Shipoopi” is an exercise video/disco infused number, disco ball and all.

The cast is led by Robert M. Johanson as Professor Harold Hill.  He is a cagey, calculating huckster who comes across more as the razzle dazzle Billy Flynn character from the musical Chicago then a wily, homespun rascal.  In fact, the way “Seventy-Six Trombones” is staged could fit perfectly into that long-running show.  Elizabeth Thomas’ Marian Paroo has a lovely voice with an appealing stage presence.  Larry Owens, Harold Hill’s partner in crime, Marcellus, is suitably boisterous in a limited role.  Vin Knight could have leavened his role as Mayor Shin somewhat so as not to appear too much as a befuddled country bumpkin.  The bickering school board members—Matthew Krob, Robert Bannon, Daniel Walstad, and Jacob Pressley—unite delightfully to provide sweet-sounding barbershop quartet harmonies, exemplified in such songs as “It’s You” and “Lida Rose.”  Myles Crain is endearing and winsome as Marian’s little brother Winthrop, who overcomes his silence and reticence caused by his lisp.

Choreographer Chris DeVita’s production numbers are successful as audience-pleasing dance routines that fit within the scope of this reimagined version of the show.  They can be energetic and playful.

Director Morgan Green’s vision for the musical has flair and provocative choices, but do not, altogether, work for a musical that is so time and locale specific.  For example, the way Harold Hill ingratiates himself to the residents of River City is by extolling the harmful effect the newly installed pool table will have on the young ‘uns.  In 1912, this could cause considerable consternation, but in 2017?  Likewise, in the ebullient “The Wells Fargo Wagon” number the folks sing with joyful excitement about the impending arrival of the turn-of-the-century delivery vehicle.  But, nowadays, packages just appear at our doorsteps.  Some other choices were deemed too troubling to the licensing company.  Originally, cell phones were incorporated into the production, but these were ordered removed.  Additionally, two songs the director had displaced from the musical--"The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl" and "My White Knight"—were instructed to be put back into the show.

The creative team delivers mixed results.  Carolyn Mraz’s Scenic Design of a spare red and white bleacher setting does evoke a small-town vibe as well as sneakily showcasing itself as an American flag.  Alice Travener’s Costume Design keeps in line with the modern flavor of the show with more leisure wear and summery outfits.  The Video Projections by Jessica Medenbach, utilized throughout the show, come across as more of a distraction that does little to enhance the production. 

The Music Man, different, but disappointing, playing at the Sharon Playhouse through August 20th.  Information and tickets are at or 860-364-7469 ext. 200 & 201.

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