Audiences can still be carried away by 'Music Man'

by David A. Rosenberg

“The Music Man,” eight; “West Side Story,” two. In 1958, Tony voters chose the sunny tribute to small-town American life over the dark tragedy about urban gang warfare. You can argue with the result but, judging by the number of amateur and professional performances of each since then, “Music Man” wins by miles.

Now the show is back in a competent, good-natured revival at Stamford’s Rich Forum, directed with style by Melody Libonati. Featuring a 50-member cast, 12-piece orchestra and authentic-looking period costumes, the production boasts admirable attention to detail and enough color to rival a pinwheel. It should please just about anyone looking for light summer fare. And you can take the kids.

Winningly sung, the work features a cascade of memorable songs. “Seventy-six Trombones,” “Marian the Librarian,” “My White Knight” and “Till There Was You” are graceful and endearing. Not to mention amusing patter numbers like “Rock Island” and “Trouble.” (“Music Man” won the first Grammy Award given for best cast album.)

Meredith Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, had troubles of his own getting his baby produced. Broadway investors weren’t initially bowled over by a corny story, set in corn-happy Iowa, about a mountebank saved by the love of an understanding woman, even if it was a typically American theme tinged with satire.

Then, kaboom! With Robert Preston giving one of the American theater’s peerless performances as Harold Hill, and Barbara Cook shining as the spinster Marian Paroo, the show was a smash hit.

Hill, a salesman of such ill-repute that he gives fellow travelers a bad rep, breezes into River City, Iowa, on July 4, 1912. Up to his old tricks, he cons the town’s parents into shelling out money to buy their kids musical instruments and band uniforms. Promising to teach the tykes how to play, he’s a pied piper who not only promotes romance between one of the boys and the mayor’s daughter but gets four men who don’t like each other to form a barbershop quartet.

One person he can’t seem to con is straight-laced librarian and piano teacher Marian. Getting around her through Winthrop, her lisping, lonely young brother, and her match-making mom, he also intrigues her with his Think System, where just imaging notes will make them emerge. Swindler or no, Hill brings happiness to the music-starved town and, for the first time, actually falls in love with one of his “victims.”

As Hill, Richard Hartley is more sympathetic than scheming, more a softy with a scalawag heart than the other way round. But he plows through with determination. As Marian, Allison Gray sings attractively and acts winsomely without being sentimental, while Joan Mitchell Carlo is a tart Mrs. Paroo, Nathan Brenn a cute Winthrop and Allison Demers and Allan Broadbent a cheerful young couple.

It’s a bubbly cast, but it’s Paul Aguirre as Hill’s sidekick, Marcellus, who almost steals the show. A large man with a light step, he sends “Shipoopi” into the rafters and quite dominates his every scene. Delightful, too, is the barbershop quartet -- Michael P. Cartwright, William Cruse, Roy Mazzacane and Richard Rowan -- but the less said about Tony Rossi’s incomprehensible, over-acted Mayor Shinn the better.

The evening’s success owes a lot to Doug Shankman’s choreography, Frank Martignetti’s music direction and Scott Cranston’s conducting, which outweigh some of the more plodding dialogue scenes. (Cranston tries to hurry the musical numbers along.)

By now, “Music Man” must be familiar to everyone. At the Broadway opening, a surprised audience that didn’t expect much was, in Variety’s words, “spectacularly carried away.” Willson’s show still has that ability.
 
This review appeared in The Hour, July 24, 2008

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