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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Music Man

Also see Susan's review of Xanadu

The Music Man
Burke Moses and Kate Baldwin
Molly Smith's production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, takes a little time to get up to speed, but when it does it captures the audience in its warm embrace. If it isn't quite as revelatory as Smith's earlier take on Oklahoma!, it's a first-class piece of work, headlined by Broadway performers Burke Moses and Kate Baldwin.

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 gladly—but 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.

Arena Stage
Meredith Willson's The Music Man
May 11th - July 22nd
Book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Harold Hill: Burke Moses
Marian Paroo: Kate Baldwin
Maud Dunlop: Janet Aldrich
Winthrop Paroo: Ian Berlin
Tommy Djilas: Will Burton
Jacey Squires/Traveling Salesman: Michael Brian Dunn
Zaneeta Shinn: Juliane Godfrey
Mrs. Squires: Rayanne Gonzales
Gracie Shinn: Jamie Goodson
Marcellus Washburn: Nehal Joshi
Amaryllis: Heidi Kaplan
Mayor Shinn: John Lescault
Mrs. Paroo: Donna Migliaccio
Olin Britt/Traveling Salesman: Justin Lee Miller
Charlie Cowell/Constable Locke: Sasha Olinick
Ethel Toffelmier: Katerina Papacostas
Ewart Dunlop/Conductor: Joe Peck
Oliver Hix/Traveling Salesman: Lawrence Redmond
Alma Hix: Tina Stafford
Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn: Barbara Tirrell
River City Townspeople: Christina Kidd, Scott Shedenhelm, Eric Shorey, Kristen J. Smith, Jessica Wu, Nicholas Yenson
River City Kids: Colin J. Cech, Mia Alessandra Goodman
Female Swing: Alissa Alter
Male Swing: Kurt Domoney
Directed by Molly Smith
Choreographer: Parker Esse
Music Director: Lawrence Goldberg
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine Avenues SW Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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