Musical Theatre West takes one of the truly great 20th Century musicals and gives it a splendid 21st Century revival, one that would be even more splendid with an age-appropriate leading man.
Refreshingly sophisticated, surprisingly deep, and more than a tad acidic at times, Meredith Willson’s self-described “valentine” to his home state of Iowa turns out to be far from the saccharine musical some have accused it of being, its innovative brilliance beginning 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?” or “But he doesn’t know the territory!”? The opening number still packs as hilarious and original a punch as ever, director Jeff Maynard staging it with the imagination and flair he brings to the entire production.
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 small town 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 who are well worth getting to know.
Traveling salesman/con artist extraordinaire “Professor” Harold Hill makes the mistake of underestimating River Citizens when he decides to bilk them of their savings by persuading them to spend their hard-earned cash on 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.)
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 get Harold 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 it. “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 on Broadway and in the movies by Robert Preston—and at Musical Theatre West by Broadway’s Gaines, not letting a little thing like an injured shoulder get in the way of his showmanship.
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 girl-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.
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 in “Ice Cream/Sincere,” “Goodnight, Ladies,” and “Lida Rose”;
•Marian’s music student Amaryllis playing her “cross-hand piece” at the piano, Amaryllis’s left hand going ever so high before descending on the composition’s extra-high final note;
•The attempts made by Marian’s preteen brother Winthrop to hide his pesky lisp, until the arrival of his much dreamed about cornet provokes an excited “Thithter! Thithter! I never thought I’d ever thee anything tho thcrumpthyuth ath thith thcrumpthyuth tholid gold thing! O thithter!”
•The advice given to Marian in “Piano Lesson” by her Irish mother Mrs. Paroo: “When a woman has a husband and you’ve got none, why should she take advice from you? Even if you can quote Balzac and Shakespeare and all them other highfalutin’ Greeks.”
•Teenage Zaneeta’s excited exclamations of “Ye Gods!” to the dismay of her father, stuffy River City Mayor Shinn;
•Mayor Shin’s wife, the three-named Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, leading her Ladies’ Dance Committee in a hilarious “Ode To A Grecian Urn” tableau.
•Eulalie’s baritone delivery of one of the show’s funniest and most repeated lines, “Balzac!”
Then there are the show’s dance numbers, created on Broadway by the legendary Onna White, and brilliantly choreographed for MTW by the one-and-only John Todd, who gets his cast of talented young triple-threats doing plenty of excitingly energetic moves in “Marian The Librarian.” Add to that the bouncy steps of “Shipoopi,” led by Marcellus, Harold Hill’s local accomplice in crime, and the entire cast’s marching kicks in “Seventy Six Trombones,” and you’ve got one of the danciest shows in town this or any year.
MTW leading lady Gail Bennett fills Barbara Cook’s and Shirley Jones’ shoes to perfection, giving Marian, aka Madame Librarian, just the right blend of starch and heart to make it clear why Harold is both propelled by the challenge she poses and hooked by the passionate woman he perceives just itching to break free. Audiences have applauded Bennett’s pop vocals in The Drowsy Chaperone and White Christmas, but wait till you hear her glorious legit soprano in “Goodnight My Someone,” “My White Knight,” and “Till There Was You.” Wow!
Joey D’Auria and Rebecca Spencer simply could not be funnier as Mayor Shinn and Mrs. Eulalie Mackecknie Shin without once resorting to imitating the inimitable Paul Ford and Hermione Gingold. Simply put, D’Auria’s blustering bag of wind and Spencer’s outrageously overbearing diva steal every scene they’re in.
It’s a real treat to see Troubies head honcho Matt Walker, ingratiating as all get-out as Marcellus, and quite a hoofer to boot. And speaking of hoofers, they don’t get any better, or more charismatic than Ashley Anderson (Zaneeta Shinn) and Christian Villanueva (Tommy Djilas), the latter of whom surely has Newsies in his future.
MTW offers a great big SoCal welcome home to the Queen Of Tours herself, the always stellar Cathy Newman, who gives Mrs. Paroo just the right blend of maternal warmth and Irish sarcasm. Christopher Utley is terrific too as sassy salesman Charlie Cowell, hot on Harold Hill’s pursuit and with a thing for “Girly Girl” Marian.
Among the many preteens in the cast, Maggie Balleweg proves herself a bona fide charmer as Amaryllis, while Kevin Ciardelli reveals the triple-threat talents you’d usually expect from someone twice his young age, song-and-dance chops he shows off in a crowd-pleasing “Gary, Indiana.”
Emzy Burroughs (Oliver Hix), Peyton Crim (Olin Britt), Michael Scott Harris (Ewart Dunlop), and Bryan Vickery (Jacey Squires) could not be more four-part harmonious as River City’s first ever Barbershop Quartet (and as Traveling Salesmen), while Paige Brinskele (Maud Dunlop), Caralee Hill (Mrs. Squires), Donna Louden (Ethel Toffelmier), and Jenny Moon Shaw (Alma Hix) provide delightful backup to Spencer as Eulalie Mackecknie Shin’s henchwomen in Grecian Urn-dom.
Any Broadway stage would be proud to welcome The Music Man’s supremely talented triple-threat-tastic adult ensemble, but till then, MTW’s got them and Southern California musical theater lovers are the beneficiaries. They are Eboni Adams, Steven Agdeppa, Nichole Beeks, Seth Belliston, Jay Gamboa, Jenna Gillespie, Jon Hand (Constable Locke/Traveling Salesman), Nancy Lam, Tellina Lee, Derek Lewis (Traveling Salesman), Jamison Lingle, Tyler Logan, Kim Mikesell, Michelle Pedersen, Steven Rada (Traveling Saleman), Christanna Rowader, Taylor Simmons (Traveling Salesman), and Stephen Weston (Conductor).
And the children are all marvelous too: Mack Balleweg, Luke Beshoff, Kenzie Braithwaite, Makenzie Browning, Caitlin Ciardelli, Matthew Funke, Samantha Gayer, Shayna Gayer, Mckennah Kaplan, Emilie Lafontaine, Gemma Pedersen,
All of the above brings me to the titular Music Man, and while Broadway’s Gaines has proven himself time and time again a world-class triple threat (most recently in Kiss Me Kate, Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Man Of La Mancha), he is no longer the right man to play Professor Harold Hill, whom the script suggests is in his very early thirties, and who gets referred to by quite a few River Citizens as “young man.”
It’s important that we be on Harold Hill’s side, and when you add twenty years of bilking innocent victims to his life experience, his charming con man act doesn’t seem so charming, or redeemable, anymore, nor does his romancing of 20something Marian seem quite fitting, her interest in this older man acquiring an Oedipus complex not in the script. Gaines gives the part his all, and gets extra points for performing arm-in-sling, but this reviewer can’t help wishing that MTW hadn’t placed such a priority on name value and opted for someone like Allen Everman, perfection as Candlelight Pavilion’s Harold a couple years back.
Musical director Corey Hirsch gets his large cast singing quite splendidly, in addition to conducting the Broadway-caliber MTW pit orchestra.
The Theatre Company’s Technicolor costumes are 1910s joys to behold, and the uncredited sets are regional theater quality. Jean-Yves Tessier, who lit the abovementioned Candlelight production, scores high marks once again for his vivid lighting design as do Matthew Reeves Oliver for the ladies’ many wigs and Melanie Cavaness and Gretchen Morales for the production’s countless props. Brian S. Hsieh rates high too for his impeccable sound design and mixing.
Kellie Marie Pate is stage manager, Kevin Clowes technical director, and Mary Ritenhour production manager/assistant stage manager. Paul Garman is executive director/producer.
Harold Hill may be past his prime this time round, but The Music Man itself seems hardly to have aged a day in the now fifty-seven years since its Broadway debut. This is truly one of the all-time greatest American musicals. Check out MTW’s 2014 revival and you’ll see why.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
February 17, 2014
Photos: Caught in the Moment Photography