Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Music Man
Guthrie Theater

Also see Arty's review of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas


Danny Binstock (center) and cast
Meredith Willson's The Music Man is the Guthrie's summertime gift to Twin City audiences, a picnic banquet with hearty portions of music and dance and a stick–to-your-ribs story, dished up by spirited performers on a blanket of gorgeous costumes and handsome stage sets. No summer's eve snack, this Music Man is a full and thoroughly delicious meal.

The Music Man has one of Broadway's best scores, a barrel of tunefulness and witty lyrics that flow organically from the characters' speech and cadence, and arising logically from the push and pull of the story. It is matched song for song by a smart book that poses conflicts that are fully believable for their everyday-ness, gradually revealing to us its two main characters as they are revealed to one another, flush with humor that is grounded in a specific time and place.

The year is 1912 in the fictional town of River City, Iowa, patently based on Willson's hometown of Mason City. The Music Man is on one level Willson's love letter to the innocence of the people and their era. Their openhearted goodness guarded by their outer veil of "Iowa Stubborn," is easily moved. The show is also a sharp satire on the way a community can be stirred up by a cleverly framed campaign of words and images—in 1912 by a huckster perched on a soapbox in the town square, in 2015 on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, it works the same. In the end, the story is also a tale of redemption, for a snaky huckster, an embittered librarian, and a heartbroken little boy, all of whom find paths to fulfillment by the final curtain.

Harold Hill arrives in River City, his racket being the sale of a full-out boys' band program, complete with instruments, uniforms and sheet music. His ploy is to find something new in town, playing on the stereotypic small-town wariness of change. He whips up a frenzy about the evils of this new activity—in this case, the arrival of a pool table at the local billiards parlor—and convinces the desperate populace that a boys' band will be the perfect solution to their "Trouble." He pledges to instruct each boy on his instrument of choice, though Hill's actual plan is to be on a train heading out of town with his cash in hand. For the truth is, he doesn't play any instruments and can't tell one note from the other.

Hill manages to sidestep repeated requests to see his credentials. The town librarian, Marian Paroo, who herself gives piano lessons, is especially suspicious of this fast-talking stranger. Marian's young brother Winthrop is a sad, self-loathing little boy—sad because his father died two years ago, self-loathing because of the lisp for which he is constantly teased. Hill gives Winthrop renewed confidence and spirit, and in spite of her resistance, Marian begins to see good coming from the fantasy he has sold to the town, especially in her brother's change of heart. In Marian, Hill finds a depth and fullness of heart beyond the easily led ladies with whom he has kept company while passing through other towns.

Aspects of The Music Man are like a fable, such as the way good finds unexpected routes to overcome evil, and the transformation of squabbling school board members into a mutual admiration society in the form of a barbershop quartet. Other times, the show captures the pulse of real life ... the opening number, "Rock Island," that uses the lurching, propulsive sounds of a train to capture the banter of a gaggle of traveling salesmen, or "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little," perfectly mimicking the gossiping ways of small-town society. At other times, The Music Man draws from the depths of human feeling. "Goodnight, My Someone," "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You" are straight-forward paths to the heart. Willson's creation is simple, but never simple-minded.

To carry this off calls for a high caliber cast and crew, and the Guthrie comes up with a bumper crop. Danny Binstock at first seems a bit too youthful and shiny-faced to pull off Hill's deception, but he soon proves more than up to the task. It is easy to believe his quick wit, flattery, and way with an argument. Stacie Bono is a moving presence as Marian Paroo, with a beautiful soprano to deliver her songs. She is believably feisty, cynical, and suspicious of Hill's claims and attention to her, believably frustrated by the town's resistance to her efforts to raise their level of culture, and believably protective of her troubled young brother. As these two self-contained beings begin to develop caring for one another, the chemistry between them bubbles up before our eyes.

The supporting players—Margaret Daly as Marian's Irish-throated mother, Peter Thomson as blustering Mayor Shinn, Barbara Marineau as his vanity-driven wife Eulalie, Richard Ruiz as Hill's buddy Marcellus, Therese Walth as piano-pumping Ethel Toffelmier, and J.C. Cutler as a salesman bent on exposing the nefarious Hill—all are splendid. Ingénue couple Tommy Djilas and Zaneeta Shinn (the mayor's daughter), played by Brandon Timmons and Shinah Brashears, are not as strong in their speaking parts, but dance up a storm together. Seth Beil (at the performance I attended) is a credible young actor as Winthrop.

John Miller-Stephany directs The Music Man with constant motion, drawing upon all of the show's strengths. Joe Chvala has cooked up lively dances that add to the merriment, reaching a peak in the jubilant "76 Trombones" and rebounding in the joyful "Shipoopi," performed by a uniformly strong ensemble. He also manages to give the Ladies' Auxiliary for the Classical Dance a measure of grace when they perform their goofy tableaus.

Before the unseen orchestra plays the opening notes of the overture, conductor Andrew Cooke enters the thrust stage and descends a set of stairs into a pit near the edge of the thrust, in the center of its arc. His head and shoulders are visible to the audience for the duration of the show as Cooke conducts the excellent orchestra through the cornucopia of music. Mr. Cooke, our very own music man, is front and center throughout, a driving force of this show.

Todd Rosenthal's set provides a look at Iowa through the eyes of Grant Wood, rolling hills in warm summer colors with a streetscape that resembles many Iowa small towns even to this day. The costumes, designed by Matthew J. LeFebvre, are glorious. The characters' personalities, as well as their status in the social hierarchy, show in their attire, and for the ladies, an imaginative feast of millinery. David Lander's lighting moves us seamlessly from day to evening, and back to dawn, and reflects the changing tone as feelings deepen.

The Music Man is top of the pack, high-gloss entertainment. It helps to arrive in River City with an open heart; The Music Man pre-dates the age of irony. Cynics may resist the warmth, the corny humor, the unlikely outcome, the belief in good triumphing over evil ... yet, even a cynic is a bet to fall prey to the wiles of Professor Harold Hill, Meredith Willson, and the Guthrie's cast and creative team whose affection for the work and artistry in its execution light the Iowa sky.

The Music Man continues at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage through August 30, 2015. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $34.00 to $86.00. Seniors (62+), Students (with ID), and Children's discounts available. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Book, Music and Lyrics: Meredith Willson; Story by: Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey; Director: Jon Miller-Stephany; Music Director and Conductor: Andrew Cooke; Choreographer: Joe Chvala; Set Design: Todd Rosenthal; Costume Design: Matthew J. LeFebvre; Lighting Design: David Lander; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Voice and Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Chris a. Code; Assistant Stage Managers: Alexandra Gowdy-Jaehnig and Justin Hossle; Assistant Director: Adrian Balbontin; Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Associate Music Director: Denise Prosek; LTD; Dance Captain: Tony Vierling; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Tom Mays (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound); Interns: Robert Whiston (directing), Jane Heer (Stage Management)

Cast: Mathias Anderson (traveling salesman, River City resident), Ruthie Baker (River City resident), Seth Beil (Winthrop Paroo*), Robert Berdahl (traveling salesman, Ewart Dunlop), Danny Binstock (Harold Hill), Staci Bono (Marian Paroo), Shinah Brashears (Zaneeta Shinn), Jen Burleigh-Benz (Maud Dunlop), Caitlyn Carroll (Gracie Shinn*), Carley Clover (Amaryllis*), J.C. Cutler (Charlie Cowell), Margaret Daly (Mrs. Paroo), Robert DuSold (Jacey Squires), Austin Fischer (River City resident), Ella Freeburg (Gracie Shinn*), Michael Gruber (traveling salesman, River City resident), Renee Guittar (River City resident), Sarah Lawrence (River City resident), Joel Liestman (traveling salesman, River City resident), Barbara Marineau (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn), Molly Sue McDonald (Alma Hix), Soren Thayne Miller (Winthrop Paroo*), Tinia Moulder (Mrs. Jacey Squires), Wesley Mouri (River City resident), Maeve Moynihan (River City resident), Kasono Mwanza (River City resident), T. Michael Rambo (traveling salesman, Oliver Hix), James Ramlet (Olin Britt), Mark Rosenwinkel (train conductor, Constable Locke), Richard Ruiz (Marcellus Washburn), Brandon Timmons (Tommy Djilas), Natalie Tran (Amaryllis*), Tony Vierling (traveling salesman, River City resident), Therese Walth (Ethel Toffelmier). * alternate performances

Children of River City: Henry Constable, Jeremiah Cox, Meredith "Mimi" Kol-Balfour, Laura Kupper, Andrew Timm, Nate Turcotte, Zel Weilandgruber


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


- Arthur Dorman


Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region


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