I wish I could square my regular dismay at being obliged to review another all-too-familiar musical with the fact—hard to confess to my intellectual pals—that I enjoy them, usually more than the fresher plays that seem serious and important.
That's the case with The Music Man. Most of us had seen the Robert Preston movie at least once by the time we were 9. It was a high-profile TV movie starring Matthew Broderick in 2003. It's a high-school standard. It was played at Maryville's new Clayton Center last year. To be fair, it hasn't been performed at the Clarence Brown since 1975, so it's hardly redundant on this stage.
The show was nostalgic to begin with, evoking an era 45 years before its 1957 debut. It's a little unsettling to realize that the musical and its long-ago setting are closer to each other than either era is to ours. (But Barbara Cook, who created the role of Marian the Librarian in 1957, is still performing today.)
The most dated thing about it is its strongest point. Some of the music was written to remind people in 1957 of people in 1912, but the arrangement will remind you less of the 1912 setting than the era of Disney's live-action musicals—which were probably inspired by The Music Man.
It's calculated to put a spring in your step, and directed by the University of California's Risa Brainin, this large-cast production does the job. It's wonderfully choreographed, sometimes involving 40 singing and dancing actors, and the 18-piece pit orchestra, directed by Terry Silver-Alford, hits the mark on classics like "76 Trombones"—with only four trombones. The barbershop quartet, a real quartet with a life outside of this show, which is the only way to pull this off successfully—they're known as Collectors Edition—was a recurrent treat. The kids, especially Jacob Carpenter and Maggie Kohlbusch—who, as Amaryllis, plays a real piano onstage—are a highlight, so well directed they don't seem directed. Whoever worked with these kids could have taught Hal Roach a few things.
The opening "Rock Island" segment is brilliant, a sort of cooperative passenger-car rap, really a performance-art piece that could stand alone as a nightclub attraction. I thought it was better than the movie version. I'd like to see it at Pilot Light.
Carol Mayo Jenkins, whom we're lucky to have back in her hometown after her long sojourns in London, Broadway, and Hollywood, nearly steals the show with just a few lines as the mayor's wife. Friday night, she was the only actor who got spontaneous applause without singing.
The sometimes-ethereal Katie Wolf Zahn plays Marian, and her solos are almost like soprano arias—that is, in a good way.
The title role belongs to David Kortemeier, who can act, and sing some. The role of Harold Hill requires a lot of energy and concentration, and Kortemeier has it, but his affect seems a bit chilly for the role. It takes charisma to hoodwink a town, make its most eligible bachelorette fall for you and, hardest of all, gain an audience's sympathy. I never got to a point of rooting for him. When it came time for Marian, the beautiful librarian, to kiss him, I was praying, "Please, God, no."
I suspect the playwright knew he'd need an enemy even slimier than the Music Man, a jealous law-and-order anvil salesman (Steve Fitchpatrick), to make Hill seem romantically palatable by comparison. Hill is, after all, a swindler, making a good living exploiting small-town dreams for personal profit, without remorse. How could one like Harold Hill and dislike, say, Bernie Madoff? You wonder how many Wall Street careers have been inspired by this musical about a very successful shark.
The character of the Music Man never showed any redeeming qualities until maybe this afternoon. If Meredith Wilson had written a third act, about how things really worked out between Marian and Harold in River City, I suspect the show would lose its buoyancy.
It does raise some questions, about culpability, and whether creating illusions is such a positive good that it balances out years of criminal fraud. But maybe we're thinking of it too mathematically here. Mainly it's fun to watch.
My only other complaint, and it's a small one, is the mikes. They're as well done as they can be, except that one sometimes seemed a bit louder than another, and it's disconcerting when an actor standing backward sounds just as loud as he does forward. Actors didn't used to need mikes in the relatively intimate Clarence Brown, but I'm told it's better than the alternative.
The music is what will bring people out. Everybody knows its songs—but, perhaps like Paul McCartney when he first sang "Till There was You" with the Beatles—don't realize, or have forgotten, they're from this Broadway show that, for better and worse, has become part of American culture.