June 7, 2012 | by Brian T. Carney
Heralding Harold

‘The Music Man’
By Meredith Willson
Runs through July 22
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington
Ticket prices vary

The cast of ‘The Music Man’ at Arena Stage. It runs through July 22. (Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy Arena Stage)

The wonderful thing about a classic is that when you scrape away the sugary coating of memory and the dust of benign neglect, you can find a work of great emotional depth and artistic vigor. That’s certainly the case with the delightful production of the classic musical “The Music Man” now on stage at Arena Stage under the visionary direction of Artistic Director Molly Smith.

Everyone thinks they know “The Music Man,” the quirky musical by Meredith Willson, with favorite songs like “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Till There Was You” and standard characters like the smooth-talking con-man, the prim librarian and eccentric townspeople. But Willson weaves a much richer tale than we remember.

First, there’s the remarkable score. Songs rise naturally not just out of everyday speech, but out of everyday sounds like the clanking of a train, a piano lesson, the shelving of library books, the clucking of small-minded matrons and the unexpected harmonies of the quarreling school board. The lyrics are delightful, yet also rise naturally out of the situation and the character. With new orchestrations by Musical Director Lawrence Goldberg, the score sounds better than ever. He’s subtly rounded out the original sounds with broader echoes of the American musical tapestry to great effect

Second, there’s the story itself. The characters and plot are more well-rounded than we remember. The musically untrained Harold Hill (Burke Moses) sells a boys’ band (complete with instruments, uniforms and music lessons) to the unsuspecting citizens of River City, Iowa. His main obstacle is Marion Paroo (Kate Baldwin), the unmarried town librarian and music teacher. The townspeople quickly fall under Hill’s spell, but the surprisingly worldly Marion stays aloof. When she does finally fall for Hill, she knows full well that he’s a snake oil salesman, but she’s grateful for the transformation he has wrought in the town and in her.

Then there’s this remarkable production. While Willson is a patriotic American and proud optimist, he is not naïve about the dark side of the American character. The citizens are easily gulled by Hill, yet just as easily turned into a mob against him. They are also casually racist and sexist, and very stubborn and narrow-minded. Yet, through the potent combination of love and art, Harold and Marian change the town into its better self. Smith depicts this transformation with incredible finesse. The stage is always a lively-yet-focused swirl of movement and Smith creates clear character arcs for the entire company.

Burke Moses is captivating as the con man who finally gets caught in his own trap. He is fleet-footed, silver-tongued and golden-voiced. He is well matched by Kate Baldwin as Marion. She has a shimmering voice with a thrilling lower register and silvery high notes, moves with incredible grace and doesn’t file away the character’s rough edges. It’s easy to see this con man and this librarian settling down for a long, interesting life together (maybe even a career in politics).

They are given able support by a strong ensemble, all of whom create rich and detailed characters that leap into comic life yet never sink into caricature. They also sail through the soaring choreography by Parker Esse with ease, confidence and style.

Finally, Molly Smith’s color-blind casting broadens the impact of the story. Her choices are not quite as bold as in her groundbreaking “Oklahoma” (the more realistic “Music Man” may have less room for such play), but the production still holds up a mirror to a diverse country that can still be transformed by believing in its dreams.

 

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