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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Music Man and The English Bride

The Music Man
Jeffrey Coon and Ensemble
Photo by Mark Garvin

Meredith Willson's The Music Man has long been one of my favorite musicals. Willson composed a near-perfect score, blending the style of vintage parlor music with a sophisticated use of counterpoint. (I could, however, sleep easily knowing I would never have to hear "Shipoopi" again.) And his book, with its alternately loving and tart-tongued evocation of Middle America in 1912, is full of humor, insight and distinctive, memorable characters. It's a great showcase for some old-fashioned showmanship, and there's plenty of that in the Walnut Street Theatre's new production.

Much of the appeal in director/choreographer Marc Robin's production comes from how he gives the rich supporting cast so many chances to shine. Bill Van Horn is delightful as the pompous, red-nosed mayor of River City, Iowa, who pokes himself in the eye with his glasses when he's about to deliver one of his long-winded speeches. With his sideburns, puffed hair, vest and longcoat, he's a 19th-century relic who looks like he's stepped out of Ulysses S. Grant's cabinet. (Colleen Grady did the finely detailed costumes.) Alene Robertson gets a lot of laughs as the mayor's wife, who pushes for her own moment in the spotlight then seems startled when that moment arrives. There are nice turns by Walnut regulars Mary Martello, Fran Prisco, Ellie Mooney and Rebecca Robbins, and from a barbershop quartet (Joseph Torello, Nicholas F. Saverine, Chuck Ragsdale and Randall Frizado) with a terrific vocal blend. (Douglass G. Lutz provides the musical and vocal direction.) The role of shy young Winthrop is played at different performances by Vincent Crocilla and Jared Brito; on opening night, Crocilla's spirited "Gary, Indiana" got the biggest hand of the evening.

As Professor Harold Hill, the con man out to dupe this small town by selling them instruments and uniforms for a marching band he has no intention of leading, Jeffrey Coon relies on his big smile, his booming voice, and his smooth manner. He does a good job, but he doesn't show enough of Hill's dark side. That's most evident during "Ya Got Trouble," in which Hill is supposed to turn into a fire-and-brimstone preacher to convince the townspeople that their children are in danger of moral degradation. Coon gets the words and the tricky rhythms right, but not the attitude; he seems way too happy that the children are headed to hell. As his love interest and foil Marian the Librarian, Jennifer Hope Wills shows off a lovely soprano. While she lacks the grace and gumption that Rebecca Luker brought to the last Broadway revival, she does a fine job at suggesting how conflicted Marian feels about giving in to this tempting huckster.

Robin's direction keeps the complicated production running smoothly, despite the necessity of many scene changes. (Oddly, he chooses to reveal Hill's face several minutes before his first line, thus ruining one of the greatest introductions in musical theatre.) But the faults are minor in this heartwarming, uplifting production.

The Music Man runs through January 6, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 - $95, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


English Bride
J Paul Nicholas and Corinna Burns
Photo by Paola Nogueras

In The Music Man, Marian Paroo recognizes that Harold Hill is a crook, but falls in love with him anyway because she sees the hope and good will he inspires in people. In Theatre Exile's The English Bride, a barmaid from Leeds named Eileen Finney has suspicions that her fiancÚ Ali Said is a terrorist, but she falls for him anyway because, as middle age creeps in, she knows this shadowy man is her last chance for happiness. What makes Lucille Lichtblau's new play so absorbing is that none of the three characters are as innocent as they seem—not even the victim. And as the play's viewpoint keeps shifting, we see these characters insist that they are full of morality and certainty, even as their lies get exposed and their stories crumble.

The English Bride was inspired by a true incident in the 1980s in which a terrorist placed his pregnant girlfriend on an airplane; the girlfriend did not know she was carrying a bomb designed to kill her, her unborn child, and everyone else on the plane. As the play opens, both Ali and Eileen have been arrested, and we see an Israeli agent alternately interviewing them. Ali, a Muslim from Israel, is cynical and manipulative, changing his story to suit his needs: first he claims to be innocent, then portrays himself as a man of action, then as a victim who was manipulated by an unseen Syrian to carry out the bombing. Eileen, chipper and trusting, portrays herself as an innocent, downtrodden victim. "I know I'm plain—ugly, even," she says—and she revels in her newfound sexual power over the handsome, exotic Ali. But like Ali, she can't keep her story straight—hedging on what her real age is, or whether she was a virgin when she met Ali. Yet in her mind, she's consistent: "I'm Catholic—I always tell the truth." Dov, the interrogator, has his own set of lies, starting with his comforting words to Ali: "I'm on your side."

Lichtblau's words aren't especially poetic, but they are effective, sketching out the story with precise detail. And her characters are intriguing, especially Eileen, a pitiful character who refuses to be pitied. Director Deborah Block stages the play in a minimally-furnished booth surrounded on three sides by the audience, with scene changes accomplished by discreet lighting adjustments and sounds. Nothing distracts from the drama. (Colin McIlvaine designed the set, Drew Billiau the lighting, and Christopher Colucci the sound.) And Block has elicited intense, focused performances from her cast—J Paul Nicholas as Ali, Damon Bonetti as Dov, and the supremely expressive Corinna Burns as Eileen.

The English Bride runs through December 2, 2012, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 - $34 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-218-4022 or online at www.TheatreExile.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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