The Music Man offers a musical conundrum at the Goodman | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

The Music Man offers a musical conundrum at the Goodman 

Mary Zimmerman’s production sings, though the gender politics creak.

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click to enlarge The Music Man

The Music Man

Liz Lauren

You can say this for director Mary Zimmerman's staging of Meredith Willson's multiple Tony winner, The Music Man: like the titular con man in the 1957 musical, she sure knows the territory. From the corrupting influence of the bawdy humor magazine Captain Billy's Whiz Bang to the Isadora Duncan-inspired modern-dance ode to a Grecian urn, Zimmerman packs the story (by Willson and Franklin Lacey) with as much charm as you'd expect from the tale of a flimflammer colliding with truculent Iowans in 1912.

But as good as this revival is, there are two potential deal breakers. First, it's impossible to see "Professor" Harold Hill as the beloved character that made The Music Man the trendiest ticket on Broadway more than 60 years ago. He is, after all, a man who compares virgins and their wiles to web-spinning spiders ("The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl") and who harasses the town librarian, Marian Paroo, despite her unambiguous, repeated requests that he leave her alone ("Marian the Librarian"). Second, there's River City's female townsfolk. They are primarily bellowing harridans who love nothing more than ridiculous plumage and petty gossip, particularly if it involves trashing Marian and the scandalous books she peddles. (Balzac is a particular target.) Marian is the exception. She's not petty, but both her big solos ("Goodnight, My Someone" and the unfortunately titled "My White Knight") are all about yearning for a man.

So we have a conundrum. Zimmerman's production is lively, entertaining, and makes Willson's warhorse bloom with the freshness of Iowa corn in high summer. It is also a show that couldn't pass the Bechdel test if Alison Bechdel herself were playing all the parts. Last but hardly least, the supposed hero here is—at best—a jerk. It's a rather dazzling testament to Zimmerman's own powers of charm that The Music Man is so entertaining even though it's so problematic. She truly sells it.

It's tough to be mad at a production that opens with Bri Sudia center stage as a traveling salesperson slouching authoritatively across a train car while chomping on a cigar the size of a small plantain. Having a woman in a traditionally all-male scene in no way fixes the show's treatment of women, but it is funny as all get-out. Ditto Zimmerman's decision to put some of the town's so-called ruffians (they're actually all incredibly clean-cut) in petticoats rather than pants.

"Rock Island" is a mini masterpiece of scene setting via spoken word, and Zimmerman's cast positively nails the darn thing with a percussive, physical comedy that's a joy to behold. Ten minutes in and The Music Man has already delivered a bona fide showstopper.

Still, this is a show that rises or falls flat on its Harold. Geoff Packard brings something akin to innocence to a character whose survival depends on his cynicism. That adds a poignant element and gives Hill a vulnerability throughout, even at his most manipulative. When he eventually chooses between integrity and chicanery, the moment is unexpected, yet not entirely surprising.

Furthermore, Packard can sing—something that isn't necessarily a given in the role. (Robert Preston famously talked through the lyrics in the 1962 film version.) His "(Ya Got) Trouble" is magnificent, and "Seventy-Six Trombones" will make you want to march even if you are one of those people who eschews parades of any sort.

Monica West brings spine and dignity to Marian, even though her journey from not-in-love to in-love is laughably abrupt and never convincing (that's a book problem, not an actor problem). The part is a showpiece for the most ethereal heights sopranos can ascend, and West scales the stratosphere with strength and beauty.

Choreographer Denis Jones honors the show's signature moments (the invisible band is resplendent in "Seventy-Six Trombones") while creating some of his own (look for American Gothic to surface in "Iowa Stubborn.") Daniel Ostling's set captures rural Iowa's endless corn and parochial isolation (a tiny Wells Fargo wagon is whimsy done right). Best of all, music director-pianist Jermaine Hill and his 11-piece orchestra sound marvelous, from the lush, opening strains of the overture to the triumphal closing reprise of "Till There Was You."

Is The Music Man lacking in any fully formed femme characters? Yes. Is it nonetheless as entertaining as a John Philip Sousa march on the Fourth of July? Yes. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the latter cancels out the former enough to merit your time and money.  v

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