Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Music Man
Also see Susan's review of Xanadu
Willson's 1957 musical beat West Side Story for the Tony Award for Best Musical, leading some critics to consider it a throwback to earlier musical comedies in contrast to Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins' jazzy, tragic story of New York street gangs. Don't be fooled. Professor Harold Hill (Moses) is a charming con man out to fleece the good people of River City, Iowa, while insincerely pursuing librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo (Baldwin)and audiences love him for it. More than that, Willson's score is as inventive in its way as Bernstein's is in his: the opening number, "Rock Island," is a spoken (not sung) piece cued to the rhythm of a train, and several songs are performed a cappella.
The main innovation in Smith's conception is to shift the time period from 1912 to an indeterminate "vision of America's past"; Judith Bowden's costumes suggest the 1930s with full, flowing skirts and sober suits. While the change in time period is disorienting at first, it works to free the show from the idea that Willson's characters could only exist in the era of corsets and high starched collars. They're much more general archetypes; prim, censorious matrons who disapprove of the "dirty" books in the library, for example, and small-town social arbiters who don't want their young daughters associating with the sons of day laborers.
Moses plays Hill as youthful, virile, and bursting with charisma; he's physically imposing and has a vibrant singing voice. He's well matched with Baldwin, who plays Marian as a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladlybut conveys yearning in a rich soprano. Other bright lights in the large cast are John Lescault as the harrumphing mayor of River City and Barbara Tirrell as his imperious wife; Donna Migliaccio as Marian's indomitable mother; and Nehal Joshi in a shameless turn as Hill's old friend Marcellus. Michael Brian Dunn, Joe Peck, Lawrence Redmond and Justin Lee Miller are not bone-deep barbershop singers, but they form a credible quartet.
Parker Esse has created some gorgeously athletic dances, specifically the acrobatic antics of "Marian the Librarian," the deadpan Fourth of July pageant, and the self-conscious "high art" of the "Pick-a-Little" ladies. It all takes place on Eugene Lee's set, which appears to be simply a school gymnasium but conceals many surprises.