Review: The Music Man at Arena Stage

If one had to decide on a best American musical, The Music Man would surely rank in the top half dozen. It feels quintessentially American, with equal parts of turn of the (20th) century small town America and shysterism.

I have a special connection to the musical. It was first released in 1957, the year I was born. Second, I grew up listening to its music. Sunday mornings were music day in our house, and the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record from the movie starring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston was often playing before or after breakfast. Its story and lyrics are stored in my permanent long-term memory. It was also something of a naughty musical for its time and our conservative Catholic household. My parents often had us skip “Shipoopi” because it elicited so many giggles from us kids. It wasn’t until I had read Nathaniel Hawthorne that I understood what Harold Hill meant by the lyrics that he wanted “for Hester to win just one more A.” My Dad found the music irresistible. In 2009, I took him to The Kennedy Center to see a highly abridged staging, but mainly for him to see Shirley Jones. So this is really the second review of The Music Man to grace this blog.

This staging is being done locally at Arena Stage in southwest D.C. in its theater in the round (well, more accurately theater in the square), the Fichlander. We haven’t been to Arena stage since 2004 where we saw a spectacular production of M Butterfly. Since then the theater has been remodeled, although the stage itself appears unaltered. Before the show we were remarking that we had never seen a bad production at Arena Stage. I am happy to report that Artistic Director Molly Smith did not disappoint with this current staging of The Music Man either.

If The Music Man has a problem, it is that it is done too often and thus is too familiar. I have seen it performed at least three times before last night. The movie is committed to my brain as well. It’s become almost like holy writ: there should be no messing with the musical. Putting it on a theater in the round though did introduce some complications. At least at Arena Stage, the musical doesn’t transition too well to a theater in the round. The stage is not that big and the audience across from you is impossible to tune out. River City is supposed to be as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread, but this is the 21st century, so Molly Smith added a couple of African Americans and an Asian. Yeah, it’s just theater and shouldn’t matter but is still a bit jarring.

This staging has some great plusses to it. You don’t particularly think of dancing when you think of The Music Man, but Molly Smith makes it a feature and there is not a clubfoot among the cast. In fact, they are all little Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, which makes the otherwise unmemorable “Shipoopi” memorable indeed. Also terrific are the two prominent child parts: Ian Berlin as the stutterer Winthrop and Heidi Kaplan as Amaryllis. It is truly surprising to see such talent from children so young.

The heart of the musical of course is the relationship between Harold Hill and Marian Paroo. Hill (Burke Moses) is the traveling salesman masquerading as a music professor but just out to make some quick bucks selling boys bands to gullible townies. Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin) is the town librarian and one of the few people in the town who knows how to think critically. She is immediately suspicious of this “common masher”, particularly when he is hardly off the train before he is wooing her. Marian, of course, is secretly worried about becoming an old maid at (gasp) age 26 and with no prospects. Marian apparently had a close relationship with the founder of the library before he died, and inherited all the books in the library as well as the position of librarian. Harold Hill assumes she is a fallen woman, and finds such women attractive.

Robert Preston originated the role of Harold Hill. In fact, Meredith Willson wrote his music specifically for him, since Preston did not have much of a singing voice. Mostly he speaks more than sings. Preston is long gone, but Moses does an impressive job of recreating Preston on stage. One minor problem for Moses is he is arguably too old for the part. He is 52. Kate Baldwin is not quite the 26-year-old Marian either (she is 37), but certainly looks like she could be. Aside from the age incongruity, both deliver exceptional performances. Baldwin makes a terrific Marian, which is good because arguably she has a hard part to get right. She must be at once critical, smart and perceptive, yet emotionally vulnerable and ultimately kind hearted. She also has to be an exceptional singer as well as dancer, and Baldwin delivers all the goods magnificently. Try not to cry when she hits those high notes at the end of “Will I Ever Tell You.”

Both are blessed with an able cast of supporting actors. It’s hard to pick favorites but I especially enjoyed John Lescault as Mayor Shinn and Will Burton as Tommy Djilas, the local “bad boy”, such as they have in bland River City. The orchestra sits under the stage, making the quality of the sound a tad less than ideal.

The Music Man may be over performed and feel mostly out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but it is undeniably musically infectious. Particularly if you have never seen it before, this staging should delight. You are almost guaranteed to be humming tunes from it for days afterward. While not the best showing I have seen at Arena Stage (so hard to decide between Animal Crackers and Guys and Dolls) it is A-grade stuff, guaranteed to please in all its surreal Republican wholesomeness.

Review: M. Butterfly

Once or twice a year I go see a show or a movie that I carry it home with me. It has the power to keep me awake at night or sometimes to infect my dreams. Yesterday my family and I (along with my brother Tom and his girlfriend Rebecca) went to Arena Stage in Southwest D.C. to see their production of M. Butterfly. And I found that all night long I was living the M. Butterfly universe in my brain. As much as I wanted to turn it off I couldn’t. I’m still processing it. I likely will continue to process it for sometime.

No we did not go to see Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera Madama Butterfly, although I definitely want to see that performed some day. Instead we went to see M. Butterfly, a play written in the late 1980s by David Henry Hwang and actually first staged back then at Arena Stage. The plot of M. Butterfly borrows a lot from Madama Butterfly but twists and perverts it in different directions. Instead of Japan in the early 20th century we are in China in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of an American sailor named Pinkerton we have a French diplomat stationed in Beijing named Rene Gallimard. Rene, a guy of course, gets involved with a Chinese opera singer. He seems to have no clue that in Chinese operas at the time men performed the roles of women. He ends up falling in love with this “woman” and over the course of a 20-year affair manages to remain wholly clueless that his illicit lover is actually a guy.

The plot has lots of diplomatic intrigue but concentrates on two areas. First it explores the male psyche and the proposition that is the natural need by men to completely dominate and own a wholly submissive woman. The second area it explores in the difference in Eastern and Western philosophies. It suggests that Westerners are by their nature dominant types and Orientals are submissive types. It examines the proposition that with a sufficient show of dominance by the West, the East will submit and all will be well. The play posits this philosophy but constantly challenges it with incidents, both on and off stage. The dynamics between Rene and his “mistress” Song Liling result in a constant tug of war between two personalities and two prisms of viewing the world. Rene projects into his mistress those ideal virtues of subservience that he expects in the model Oriental woman. Song at once seems to tacitly agree by playing the role of the submissive while outwardly rebelling.

Yes, it’s a confusing and complex plot. It was made more confusing to me because I don’t buy into these premises. I confess I find Oriental women in general very attractive. But I have never once thought of Orientals as inherently submissive, and I have never looked upon women as objects for my own selfish pleasure to be used and consumed like tissues. I acknowledge that many men may have this mindset but it is a perspective I just can’t grok.

Nonetheless the performance was wonderful. It is being performed on the Fichlander Stage, which is a theater in the round at Arena Stage. The acting is solid but newcomer J. Hiroyuki Liao delivers a completely stunning performance as the Chinese opera singer Song Liling. The incendiary material practically burns up the stage. And to call the show “adult” does not quite do it justice. This is a play that intrudes into your personal space, grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you violently to and fro, slaps you in the face a number of times and forces you to rethink your orientation, even if just for a little while. It requires you to ponder the stereotypes of sex and gender. It tries to make you reconsider your notions of love.

If this weren’t enough for your money you get one naked man scene. Near the very end of the play Song finally disrobes to prove to Rene that the “she” is actually a “he”. Had I known this in advance I might not have had my 15-year-old daughter attend, but she seemed to handle it without any particular trauma. In fact both she and my wife were crying at the end of it. At the intermission I wasn’t sure what to make of the play. It seemed too weird and I just wasn’t getting it. But by the end I was stunned. I liked it but it was hard to say why I liked it because it also really upset me.

There is not much to criticize about the performance. My brother Tom did not particularly like Stephen Bogardus as Rene. He thought he should have been played a bit plainer than he was. J. Hiroyuki Liao is absolutely mesmerizing as Song. While you are aware that there is a guy under all that makeup it is hard to believe, and he has down so well the little Chinese feminine ways of doing things. He comes across as wholly believable in what has to be one of the oddest roles in all of theater history.

I kept thinking how difficult it must be to act in this play. The actors must be totally drained at the end of each show, and to project the complex forms of affections required must be incredibly difficult.

Staging? There was no staging as it was a theater in the round, but there was excellent lighting work with patterns of lights on the stage floor representing rooms. At key moments the lighting and effects like flower petals floating from the ceiling, along with excerpts from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on the sound system added a surreal edge to the production. The play is full of surprises and keeps you at the edge of your seat right until the final seconds. I am sure most of the patrons were like me and left the theater more than a little stunned by what they witnessed.

There are some subjects that we so deeply repress that we have no desire to go there. This play opens boxes within boxes within our psyche. It is unnerving and should make you feel uncomfortable. But why go to the theater at all we are not forced to see the world through a different set of lenses now and then? This play will do this and much more. And if you are like me its aftershocks will linger for days, weeks or perhaps even longer.

Catch it if you can or if you dare. The production closes October 17th.