Director Mary Zimmerman lends her whimsy to THE MUSIC MAN at Goodman Theatre in a production that pays homage to the small-town charm and iconic score of Meredith Willson’s classic musical. Under Zimmerman’s direction, this MUSIC MAN becomes a joyful company piece showcasing, in particular, the talents of the formidable actors in the supporting and ensemble roles. The production finds all the earnest humor embedded in THE MUSIC MAN, and Jermaine Hill’s music direction ensures that each note rings out fully from the 12-member orchestra.
Zimmerman’s staging allows audiences to indulge in all the nostalgia that comes from this 1957 musical. The tightly structured musical adheres to some of the best practices in writing from the Golden Age of Musicals, and that’s plain to see here. The patter style of the opening number “Rock Island” introduces us to a troupe of traveling salespeople bemoaning the challenges of a life in sales—and wondering about the particular schemes of the infamous Harold Hill. George Andrew Wolff, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Bri Sudia, Matt Crowle, and Jonathan Stewart nail the song’s unique, fast-paced rhythm without ever compromising diction. These performers also underscore the stark contrast between the lives of the traveling salespeople and the spirited townspeople of River City, Iowa, whose songs have a more traditional musical theater styling.
Production-wise, this MUSIC MAN remains firmly rooted in the 1950s. Daniel Ostling’s set makes River City a sprawling and detailed playground for the entire ensemble. The train he has designed for the show’s opening number is particularly stunning. Ana Kuzmanic’s costume designs reflect the colorful personalities of River City’s citizens and are visual marvels.
The worlds of the salespeople and the River City citizens become intermingled when Harold Hill arrives in town. Hill warns the townspeople that trouble is coming to River City (for the unfamiliar, “Ya Got Trouble” is perhaps one of the most iconic songs in the American musical theater songbook) and that parents can keep their children off the streets by having them join Hill’s band. The real trouble, of course, stems from the fact that Hill has no musical training whatsoever, but rather plans to take the money he collects for the band instruments and uniforms—and run.
THE MUSIC MAN posits that Hill’s charm and cleverness as a salesman can easily win over the townspeople and spread joy along the way. Given that, actors often have the option of playing Hill as either a slightly manipulative crook with a heart of gold or as a genuinely charming individual. While Geoff Packard makes an affable Harold Hill, he does not make a firm decision in either direction with his performance. Thus, I wish Packard’s Hill had a slightly stronger personality so as to be fully convincing that his character could cause such a stir in town—and such a change of heart for the town’s strongly independent and intelligent librarian, Marian Paroo.
Monica West makes a formidable Marian. She delivers Marian’s classic “I Want” songs “Goodnight My Someone” and “My White Knight” with beautifully crystalline vocals and carefully studied emotions. West also clearly plays the arc of the character, making us see how Marian becomes changed after meeting Harold Hill. But I wasn’t fully convinced that Packard’s Hill could bring about such changes in her character. West and Packard seemed to resonant better vocally, especially with their duet “Til There Was You,” than they did acting-wise.
Accordingly, THE MUSIC MAN becomes more of an ensemble piece in this case. The performers essay the score’s robust vocal harmonies with ease. Denis Jones’s high-spirited and balletic choreography forms a centerpiece in the production, elevating some of the more outdated musical numbers in the show. “Shipoopi,” in particular, feels terribly old-fashioned and dramaturgically non-sensical now, but Jones’s choreography places the spectacle more on the movement than the lyrics.
The supporting roles are expertly and humorously portrayed. Ron E. Rains is magnificently daffy as River City’s Mayor Shinn, pulling off all his non-sequiturs with a convincing determination. Rains is well-matched by Heidi Kettenring in the role of his wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Kettenring is deliciously quirky as Eulalie. She’s also in great company with her close-knit group of gossiping ladies: Alma (Nicole Michelle Haskins), Ethel Toffelmier (Lillian Castillo), Mrs. Squires (Danielle Davis), and Maud Dunlop (Bri Sudia). This quintet makes funny and clever work of the gossipy “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” and they’re all gifted physical comedians, as well. As Hill’s nemesis Charlie Cowell, Matt Crowle displays his natural knack for comedy and his ceaseless desire to beat out Hill.
On the whole, Willson’s score sounds extremely pleasant at the hands of this ensemble and orchestra. For audiences looking to revisit THE MUSIC MAN or see it for the first time, the joys of the score and the quaint humor in the musical are fully present to enjoy.
THE MUSIC MAN plays through August 18 in the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$142. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312.443.3800.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren