If you want to know why The Music Man is one of the three longest-running musicals of the 1950s, head on up to Solvang for proof positive that Meredith Willson’s biggest hit is also one of the best Broadway musicals ever.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. After I posted on Facebook that I was going to be seeing the 1957 smash, one friend called The Music Man a “snoozefest” and another added that I couldn’t pay him enough to see this “cornball” show. Thank goodness a third friend piped in to name The Music Man “one of my top four musicals of all time” and another praised the depth of its script and the many dimensions of Harold Hill and Marian Paroo.
And now for my two cents worth:
The Music Man is one of the all-time great American musicals, and despite a few quibbles, PCPA Theaterfest’s production is one that does justice to the show’s brilliance—and makes the drive north well worth the time and gasoline.
I can’t help wondering how many Music Man detractors have based their opinion on second-rate productions. After all, what high school, junior high, or elementary school for that matter hasn’t staged The Music Man at least once in the past half century? Then there’s the matter of the show’s G-rated content, which in these R-rated days must mean saccharine and boring, right?
Wrong! Willson’s valentine (his own words) to his home state of Iowa is in fact quite sophisticated, surprisingly deep, and more than a tad acidic, and naysayers need only to look at the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in favor of marriage equality (putting our own Supremes to shame) to realize that there’s a lot more to Iowans than meets the eye. There’s also much more to The Music Man than your average, everyday run-of-the-mill production would indicate, and the show’s innovative brilliance begins with its very first musical number.
“Rock Island” may well be the first rap song ever heard on Broadway, entirely spoken to the rhythm of a train, starting out its journey, then speeding up and choo-chooing along at a brisk pace until it comes to a halt at the River City train station—without a single note from a musical instrument until the last salesman has spoken. Who can ever forget “Whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayataalk, whatayatalk? Weredayagitit? But he doesn’t know the territory!”? The opening number still packs as hilarious and original a punch as ever, especially as delightfully staged as it is by director Michael Jenkinson.
The “train rap” is immediately followed by “Iowa Stubborn,” and if you don’t pay attention to Willson’s lyrics, you might be fooled into thinking that these are a bunch of country yokels not deserving of a listening by big city folks like us. But open your ears and you’ll hear lines like, “There’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you, when we treat you—which we may not do at all” and “Join us at the picnic. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.” These are people whose words pack considerable bite, and well worth getting to know.
Traveling salesman/con artist extraordinaire “Professor” Harold Hill makes the mistake of underestimating River City, Iowans when he decides to bilk them of their savings by persuading them to spend their hard-earned savings for musical instruments and uniforms for an as yet non-existent boys’ band, promising to teach the band members to play using the “Think System.” (If you can whistle a tune just by thinking it, then surely you can play it without practicing. Makes sense to me.)
First, however, he must convince the townspeople that they’ve got trouble in River City, and news of the town billiard parlor’s first pool table (gasp!) is enough to set Harold to rapping that “Ya Got Trouble,” a song unlike any a Broadway audience had ever heard in 1957, and one so unique that Willson, try as he might, could never again equal. “I say that any boob can take and shove a ball in a pocket. And they call that sloth, the first big step on the road to the depths of deg-ra-Day—I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon. Then beer from a bottle.” Pure brilliance, especially as performed with razor-sharp perfection by the incomparable Robert Preston on Broadway and in the movies. (That an otherwise excellent Andrew Philpot loses points for a lack of that razor-sharp timing in this and a couple other songs is one of my few quibbles about PCPA’s production.)
If Harold Hill is to succeed, he must also find a way to neutralize the enemy in the person of Marian Paroo, the town’s beautiful but outwardly prim-and-prudish librarian. Don’t take Marian too lightly, though. Like Oklahoma!’s Laurey Williams, another misunderstood musical theater blonde-next-door, still waters run deep indeed in Marian Paroo. Not only is she an “old maid” at twenty-six, Marian also has quite a “reputation” around town. She not only reads precisely the kind of dirty books that book-banners want to see burned (Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac!) but she also “made brazen overtures with a gilt-edged guarantee” to town miser Madison, who “left River City the Library building but he left all the books to her.” This is a woman who dreams of “My White Knight,” but not your typical Lancelot. No, Marian is looking for the kind of man who will occasionally “ponder what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great.” “Him I could love ‘til I die,” she sings longingly. A woman who is smart, not at all superficial, and has all the town biddies gossiping about her in “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” (“cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more”)—this is a woman worth knowing, especially as played by the extraordinary Jackie Vanderbeck. (More about her later.)
Making a complete list of favorite Music Man moments is nigh-on-impossible, but here are a few:
•Harold Hill turning the four ever-bickering school board members into inseparable chums simply by showing them how to blend their voices in barbershop harmony
•Marian’s music student Amaryllis’s “cross-hand piece” at the piano
•Mayor Shin’s teenage daughter Zaneeta’s excited exclamations of “Yee Gods!”
•Mayor Shin’s wife, the three-named Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, leading her Ladies’ Dance Committee in their “Ode To A Grecian Urn” tableaux
Then there are the show’s sensational dance numbers (originally choreographed by the legendary Onna White) which director-choreographer Jenkinson makes fresh and exciting, and which PCPA’s talented ensemble execute with grace, energy, and flair. Who can forget the town teens cavorting amongst library books and atop tables in “Marian The Librarian,” the bouncy moves of “Shipoopi,” or the marching kicks of “Seventy Six Trombones”?
Only two other Meredith Willson shows ever played on Broadway, the comparatively minor hit The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and the flop Here’s Love, but his place in musical theater history is secure simply for having created The Music Man, and by “creating” I mean the grand trifecta of book, music, and lyrics. “The Wells Fargo Wagon” is yet another show-stopper. There’s also the sly “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl” (“I smile, I grin, when the gal with a touch of sin walks in. I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more ‘A’”), the sprightly “Gary, Indiana” (“Not Louisiana, Paris, France, New York, or Rome”), and one of the most exquisite love songs ever written, “Till There Was You” (“There was love all around, but I never heard it singing. No, I never heard it at all, till there was you!”) Need I confess that I cried?
As Harold Hill, Philpot has one of the toughest acts for a musical theater leading man to follow. Everyone who’s ever played the role since Robert Preston has had to face comparisons with the quintessential Hill. Philpot makes the role his own, and gives Hill the very complexity that my Facebook friend referred to. He sings well, acts with authenticity, and has great chemistry with his leading lady. Where he could do better work is (particularly) in Hill’s signature number, “Ya Got Trouble,” one which requires absolute precision from its interpreter. Every single syllable must be precisely on the beat of the accompanying notes, and Philpot misses a good number of them. (In his defense [and there are other performers who are occasionally off beat as well], what appear to be prerecorded musical tracks may not be loud enough to be heard clearly on stage, and there is no conductor’s baton to follow.) This quibble aside, Philpot’s is a winning, charismatic performance.
As Marcellus Washburn, Hill’s local accomplice in crime, Erik Stein (Les Misérables’ brilliant Javert) reinvents the role made famous on film by the inimitable Buddy Hackett. Marcellus is usually played short and chubby. At six-feet-and-a half, Stein’s Marcellus is a gentle, geeky, ungainly giant who towers over Philpot, steals every scene he’s in, and leads the cast in a delightful “Shipoopi.” Is there another actor who can dazzle as both Javert and Marcellus? I sincerely doubt it.
Brad Carroll is hilarious as the gruff, stuffy Mayor Shinn. It’s a great part. David Burns won the Tony for it and who can forget Paul Ford from the movie? Carroll gives them both a run for their money. Elizabeth Stuart (Philpot Thenardier’s wonderful Madame Thenardier in Les Miz) gets laughs aplenty as the (not-so) graceful Grecian Urn herself, the mayor’s wife Eulalie (don’t you dare forget the Mackecknie Shinn), though she could steal from the movie’s Hermione Gingold when saying “Balzac.” Kitty Balay Genge is a total delight as Marian’s feisty Irish mother, Corey Jones is a sassy salesman Charlie Cowell, and the town’s amusing barbershop quartet of Jerry Lee, David Laffey, Michael Maisonneuve, and Christopher Spencer have their four-part harmonies down to perfection. Cute Daniel J. Self and the enchanting Kaitlyn Casanova (as town ruffian Tommy Djilas and mayor’s daughter Zaneeta Shinn) shine as the show’s best dancers. Chase Kelly is a wonderful Winthrop Paroo, the role made famous by a very young Eddie Hodges on Broadway and Ron(ny) Howard in the movie, and Katherine Blauvelt is a sweet Amaryllis. In fact, the entire ensemble* (adults and kids) do all-around excellent work.
Finally, starring in the role of Marian is the absolutely divine Miss Vanderbeck. From her very first entrance, I knew I was discovering a true musical theater star. Vanderbeck is beautiful, she’s got a gorgeous soprano, she acts with depth, and she possesses a radiant star quality. And darned if she’s not New York-based, which means it may well be a while before I have the joy of seeing her on stage again. Vanderbeck brings an edge to the role that not every Marian can pull off, and when she tears out that incriminating page from the Indiana State Educational Journal at the end of Act One, I got shivers. Even if you swear you never want to see another Music Man, go see this one just for Jackie Vanderbeck.
The show’s Mayor Shinn (Carroll) does mostly excellent double duty as musical director. Harmonies are great. Again, performers’ occasional difficultly in staying on beat may be from an inability to hear the musical accompaniment. The orchestras for Les Miz and last month’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee sounded live, and if they were prerecorded, kudos are due, because I never would have guessed. The Music Man’s orchestra sounds prerecorded (if there were live musicians backstage, apologies to them). It also sounds too small for this particular musical, occasionally coming across more calliope than Seventy Six Trombones. Again, this is a minor quibble compared to the overall excellence of this production.
Scenic designer Andrew Layton’s colorful sets have a nice storybook look to them, and cast members have been well choreographed to execute set changes lickety-split. Frederick P. Deeben’s costumes are gorgeous recreations of 1912 small town America, and the ladies’ big feathered hats are something to see. Matt Carpenter’s sound design mixes voices and accompaniment well from the audience’s point of view.
I only recall having once before seen The Music Man live on stage, a solid community theater production, so finally getting to see it in a professional production of this caliber will remain one of the great pleasures of my summer of 2009. Treat yourself to a trip to Solvang. Enjoy the atmosphere, the food, and the charm of the town … and stick around to enjoy a first-rate production of one of the true musical theater masterpieces of the mid-20th Century.
*Ben Abbott, Jon Barcellos, Kelly Barrett, Kyle Compton, Sara Michelle Cuc, David Genge, Rhett Guter, William Thomas Hodgson, Keenon Hooks, Layli Kayhani, Jessica Kiely, Matthew Steven Lawrence, Mia Levy, Aaron Lopez, Sarah Maher, Jennifer Marco, Marisa Martinez, Kerry Ann Mayling, Katie Newcomer, Alysa Perry, Dawsyn Perry, Dylan Perry, Chelsea Richter, Kyle Smith, Louise Tremblay, Jillian Van Niel, Kimberly White, Michael White, Hayley Zahn.
Festival Theater, 420 2nd Stree, Solvang.
August 11, 2009
Photos: Luis Escobar/Reflections Photography Studio