The Music Man, book by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson. Directed by Malcolm Ewen. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Shipoopie": Megumi Nakamura, Matthew Pitts, David Bonanno, Mariss McGowan, Felicity Stiverson, Michael Mendez; photo: provided
"Jealousy, mostly, starts rumors about traveling salesmen."
Jim Raposa (center) and the salesmen; photo: provided
"The Music Man" starts on a train on July 3, 1912 and ends a modest amount of time later, but it is a long enough period of time for a careful woman to fall in love with the man who already loves her but can't be the person she needs. On stage at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont the show has a definite glow surrounding some fine actors and singers and dancers. Company favorite David Bonanno plays Professor Harold Hill, the title character. Marissa McGowan, Marian, the Librarian, is a returning lead player. Dorothy Stanley has also graced this stage before, (even earlier this season) and so has Michael Mendez and Munson Hicks. These are all people we've come to know and respect. And here they are again under the direction of Weston veteran and leader of the pack, Malcolm Ewen.
While familiarity is a good thing, usually, sometimes it breeds expectations that cannot be fulfilled. That seems to be the case with Meredith Willson's superb Broadway classic, "The Music Man." Filled with hit songs the basic play beneath the music is a simple and straightforward tale that is meant to touch the heart and not so much the mind. We are meant to feel and not to think about it. What this production lacks, for the most part, is this last aspect of theatrical involvement. We don't feel much about these people and what happens to them.
We are meant to fall in love with con-man Harold Hill. Bonanno plays him very well, but we don't get involved in his schemes and his dreams. There is just a shallow aspect to his playing here, something difficult to define, that keeps us at arms length. We are, likewise, meant to adore wise, old Mrs. Paroo, played here by Kathy Newman, but her charms escape us. Her daughter, Marian, the heroine who has been maligned by the women of River City, Iowa, should be sympathetic also but even that is denied us. Marissa McGowan is lovely, sings beautifully, has a wistful quality but something is just not right with her.
For example, when her usually silent brother Winthrop suddenly bursts with enthusiasm over his new trumpet and begins to rattle on about it ignoring his lisp and showing his true nature for the first time, Marian only stands still and looks at him as though he was the family cat and she was mildly allergic. There is no connection made over this marvelous change in him. This is almost the curtain of the first act and we are left in the dark about her feelings. That is a killer. That removes us from her and that is something this show cannot afford.
Many of the cast members are delightful in their quirky roles. Munson Hicks is terrific as Mayor Shinn. He is blustery and overbearing, but when he rails loudly and often about Tommy Djilas, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, touching his oldest daughter Zaneeta it takes on an odd sense because Tommy is played by a black actor, Matthew Pitts. Pitts is handsome, a great dancer and a nice singer. He does Tommy proud. Zaneeta is played sweetly by Megumi Nakamura.
David Bonanno, Marissa McGowan; photo: provided
Sander Scott, Marissa McGowan; photo: provided
One thing about this musical that has kept it among the most beloved of shows is the odd effect of music and the arts in general that pervades the plot. For example, The School Board is in pursuit of Harold Hill's credentials but each time they try to pin him down he hits them with a musical cue and they turn into a barbershop quartet. The four actors in this production are absolutely divine: Daniel Leonard, Roger Seyer, Allen Kendall, Gideon Chickos. Their counterparts, The Ladies Guild, led by Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn - the Mayor's wife, gossip in song and provide counterpoint for the male quartet. They are played by Anne D'Olivo, Allie Siebold, Felicity Stiverson and Thursday Farrar. Dorothy Stanley is very funny as Mrs. Shinn, although one of the great things in the second act is strangely down-played in this production:
The women take up DelSarte posturing and perform a classic turn of portraying Grecian Urns. The positions and postures used in this production seemed only vague and not very funny which was a shame.
Michael Mendez was a fine Marcellus Washburn. Young Margo Potter was a fine Amaryllis. The band of five, under conductor/keyboardist Larry Pressgrove, were decent players. The sound mixer, I guess, Tanner Elker, showed an odd tendency to let the miked musicians overwhelm the singers and actors a lot of the time which is, frankly, the wrong way to go. Howard C. Jones' sets were very good and Kirche Leigh Zeile dressed her cast of 27 people to perfection. Stuart Duke's lighting was generally all that it should have been and the show had a nice look to it.
"The Music Man" is a musical par excellence. Clearly, though, it is not always exactly what it should be. This time around, and in spite of so much talent, it just misses the mark. I can cheer individual triumphs, but not the play as a whole.
Dorothy Stanley (center) and the ladies; photo: provided
The Music Man plays at the Weston Playhouse on the square in Weston, VT through August 19. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.