Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
It's long been controversial that The Music Man beat out West Side Story for the Best Musical Tony Award in 1957, but, as director Mark Bruni explains in his program notes, Meredith Willson's loving look at the small-town Iowa of his youth skewers pretentiousness and hypocrisy, sets up a shameless con man as a hero, and experiments with song forms. (The rhythmic opening number, "Rock Island," has been called a precursor to hip-hop.)
Lewis, calm and confident, seduces the people of River City into believing in his fantasy about the moral and esthetic benefits of a boy's band. He never pushes, he just insinuates, and soon the squabbling members of the school board (Jimmy Smagula, Arlo Hill, Todd Horman, Nicholas Ward) become a harmonious barbershop quartet, and the town's pretentious matrons are attempting classic dance. He also sings the hell out of Willson's crowd-pleasers, "(Ya Got) Trouble" and "76 Trombones," and the rapturous "Till There Was You."
As Marian Paroo, town librarian and piano teacher, Jessie Mueller plays up the prickly aspects of her character at first, then reveals her shimmering soprano voice in "My White Knight" and, when she changes her opinion of Hill, her transformation is totally convincing.
Rosie O'Donnell disappears into the character of Mrs. Paroo, with an Irish brogue and none of her familiar broadness. Veanne Cox luxuriates in the role of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, somehow managing to swoon and stay stiffly upright at the same time. As her husband the mayor, Mark Linn-Baker has his harrumphing character down pat, and John Cariani, a lithe dancer, does moves a heavier Marcellus couldn't carry off.
While the production is semi-staged, with some actors carrying their scripts, Bruni and choreographer Chris Baileywhose work ranges from the way "76 Trombones" builds in a wave through the company to the soft shoe of "Marian the Librarian" and the culturally attuned ladies posing in the attitude of Grecian urnsmake the most of the Eisenhower Theater's wide stage.
Paul Tate dePoo III has designed both a simple set anchored by a porch railing, behind which members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra perform under the baton of James Moore, and stunningly elaborate backdrops and a moving cyclorama that suggest hand-tinted postcards of River City, Iowa, in 1912. Cory Pattak's lighting design subtly shows the passage of time as late afternoon shifts to twilight, then to evening.