The Music Man
Despite being a mainstay in the American musical theater scene, Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" is tricky material.
While its satire of small town America during the Taft Administration may have seemed on target when the show premiered in 1957, the days of barbershop quartets and Wells Fargo wagons are now a century old.
Not to mention the fact that Professor Harold Hill, the traveling salesman protagonist, is quite the unsympathetic character. To stage "The Music Man" is to ask the audience to spend over two hours with a smooth-talking con man whose revenue is paid by the dashed hopes of children. Certainly not subject matter that reads as family-friendly holiday fare.
Which is why Marc Robin's production of the show, currently playing at the Walnut Street Theatre, is a surprising delight. Without reinventing the show, Robin delivers an enjoyable evening with a brisk pace and stellar ensemble, while still delivering a small wink to the show's darker side.
With very little overture, the show launches with one of the most unusual opening numbers: A spoken-word train ride that could be argued as the birth of hip hop. This sets up the story of Professor Hill (Jeff Coon), who infiltrates small naïve towns, sells the denizens on the idea of starting a boys marching band, and leaves when the supplies arrive -- and the money is collected -- without teaching the boys a single note.
What makes River City different is the local librarian/piano teacher Marian Paroo (Jennifer Hope Wills) and her depressed, lisping little brother Winthrop (an aggressively adorable Vincent Crocilla), who slowly manage to melt the Professor's heart. This climaxes with that age old debate: love vs. duty, albeit a duty to deviousness.
As is expected at the Walnut, the production is gorgeous. Robert Andrew Kovach's set, Paul Black's lighting and Colleen Grady's costumes all work together to paint a lovely picture of a 1910's-era Iowa. And under Douglass G. Lutz's vocal and music direction, "The Music Man" delivers a sumptuous, full sound that is often breathtaking.
Coon seems to be having a great time as Hill, alternating between mock-piousness to the town's citizens and devilish grins to the audience. And Wills has a stunning voice, delivering a powerhouse "My White Knight."
But when these two central figures share the stage, there seems to be little chemistry. What should be an enjoyable cat-and-mouse game fails to spark, leaving numbers like "Marian the Librarian" and "Till There Was You" feeling routine.
The rest of the cast, though, delivers winning performances throughout. The always reliable Mary Martello brings sincere warmth and fun to Mrs. Paroo, Alene Robertson's Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn manages to get big laughs from the smallest gestures, and Fran Prisco makes the most of Marcellus Washburn's show-stopping number "Shipoopi."
Particularly enjoyable are the moments when the bickering school board members (Randall Frizado, Chuck Ragsdale, Nicholas F. Saverine, and Joseph Torello, all excellent) unite into an accomplished barbershop quartet, or when the townsfolk explode into Robin's inventive choreography (Sarah Meahl's Zaneeta Shinn and Ellie Mooney's Ethel Toffelmeir are especially fantastic in these numbers).
That transforming power of music is when "The Music Man," both the character and the show, is at its most fun. And it is those moments that this production becomes an enjoyable night of musical theater.
"The Music Man" continues through Jan. 6 at the Walnut Street Theater, 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. For info and tickets, call 215-574-3550 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.