What’s “The Music Man” without a music man? Meredith Willson’s wonderfully tuneful Iowa tribute requires a charming con man to pull the show off. In the Goodspeed production, the role of the unreformed swindler, Edward Watts, so terrific in that theater’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” looks great and sings well but he’s more hale- fella-well-met than charlatan. The concept, under Jenn Thompson’s soft-hearted direction, is in keeping with the revival’s squishy approach to the material.
The trouble right here in River City starts with the act curtain, which displays a sampler embroided with the name of the musical. What we’re led to expect is a homespun, cornfed version. And that’s what we get and that’s fine, to a point, since Willson was not an acerbic composer and loved Iowa.
But a completely rural interpretation of a mutual taming of a swindling city slicker (Prof. Harold Hill) by a librarian in a naive town undercuts the show’s premise. While it’s plausible that this Hill would bring differing factions together, the familiar idea of a mysterious, immoral stranger who brings passion and fellowship to quarrelsome townspeople lacks credibility because this would-be swindler is non-threatening.
Hill, you remember, is a successful traveling salesman with schemes galore. Presently, he’s selling band instruments and uniforms to gullible, unsuspecting citizens, with the promise, not to be fulfilled, that their kids will learn to play and, thus, be saved from the evils of the pool hall. He must convince the skeptical town librarian, Marian Paroo that he’s honest, which she discovers he isn’t.
But her mind is changed when one, she falls is love with him; two, he gives hope and support to the town’s children, including her shy, lisping little brother, Winthrop. See? Beneath all that greed he has a generous heart.
This “Music Man” is not without its virtues. First, there’s the affection with which Willson’s score of marches, ballads, patter songs and a delicious barbershop quartet, is performed: “Seventy-six Trombones, “Till There Was You,” “Marian the Librarian,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Lida Rose” and others. Then there’s Patricia Wilcox’s joyful choreography, danced by the highest-kicking, most accomplished dance ensemble this side of Des Moines. (Raynor Rubel, Shawn Alynda Fisher, Iman Barnes, Kelly Berman, Elise Kowalick, Matthew B. Moore, Benjamin Sears and Corben Williams).
As Marian, Ellie Fishman spins out her songs with loving care, acting the role with a combination of yearning, skepticism and melting acceptance. As her mother, Amelia White is sharp-tongued but warm, while the barbershop quartet (Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner, Kent Overshown) is a shot of delight as is Alexander O’Brien as Winthrop.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s scenic design, Paul Miller’s lights and David Toser’s costumes are in line with the production’s cramped look, but Michael O’Flaherty’s music direction and Jay Hilton’s sound design cue the audience into being carried away. When at the end, they clap in rhythm with “Seventy-six Trombones,” they show their feeling for this beloved musical, which, by the way, gets a Broadway revival next season with Hugh Jackman as Hill.