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.