Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Aug. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When I reviewed the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “West Side Story” a couple of months ago, I couldn’t believe that Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece lost the 1957 Tony Award for Best Musical to “The Music Man.” But seeing Meredith Willson’s merry tribute to his boyhood home of Mason City, Iowa, directed by Mary Zimmerman at Goodman Theatre, I get it—sort of.
Set in the Mason City stand-in, River City, in 1912, “The Music Man” oozes nostalgia for a time that never was, making it a fine fit for the optimistic mid-1950s. While it satirizes the stubbornness and narrow-mindedness of small-town Iowans, the satire is gentle and loving. Combining a con that doesn’t go as planned with an unlikely romance, the show celebrates values we tend to hold dear: the can-do spirit, faith in man’s basic goodness, the idea that anything is possible, and a belief in the power of love to overcome all obstacles.
Most of all, Willson, a flautist and piccolo player, composer, music arranger, and conductor who created the story of flimflam man “Professor” Harold Hill with Franklin Lacey, wrote songs that have become classics. “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Gary, Indiana,” “Goodnight My Someone,” “My White Knight,” “Till There Was You”: Rousing anthems, patter songs, and beautiful ballads, all are memorable, even hummable (at least for those of us of a certain age). Combining a patter song with a barbershop quartet, as in “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” with “Goodnight, Ladies,” was sheer genius. (Who doesn’t love a barbershop quartet?)
The musical numbers sparkle in Zimmerman’s hands, thanks not only to the wit and wisdom of her direction, but also to the multiple talents of the large cast, the excellence of the 12-person orchestra under music director/conductor/pianist Jermaine Hill, and the endlessly inventive choreography of Denis Jones. My favorite probably is “Marian the Librarian” because of all the ways the library furniture is used to help and hinder Harold (Geoff Packard) in his pursuit of “stuck up” librarian Marion (Monica West).
Two caveats are in order, however. First, Zimmerman doesn’t radically rethink “The Music Man” to eliminate its sexism. The library scene, which could be deemed as harassment in this #MeToo era, is meant to be cute. Marian’s two solo songs are about longing for love, while Harold goes for “The Sadder But Wiser Girl.” He also comes to town to form a “boy’s band.” The other women in River City are shrill gossips, and we’re probably meant to sympathize with Mayor Shinn (Ron E. Rains) when his wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Heidi Kettenring) is being bossy. Zimmerman undercuts the period preconceptions in subtle ways, but mostly we have to accept them as they are.
Second, the lack of chemistry between Harold and Marion is a problem. Packard has a certain vulnerability and a loose-limbed quality that reminds me of Donald O’Connor, and a very good voice that varies nicely in tone for his different songs, but I didn’t believe for a moment that Marion would fall for him, not even out of desperation. Part of that may be West’s fault. Her conversion comes across as too sudden for such a complicated self-contained woman, even if it is spurred by watching her younger brother Winthrop (Carter Graf) come out of his shell to be in the band.
One of Zimmerman’s many strengths, on the other hand, is her way with visual images. The opening number, “Rock Island,” with the salesmen chatting away about knowing the territory while bouncing on the moving train, is a mini tour de force, especially when they start climbing over each other. And in the middle of it all is an unexpected saleswoman (Bri Sudia) in proper 1912 attire with a fat stogie hanging out of her mouth.
Daniel Ostling’s stylized, minimalist set has a storybook feel and also becomes a canvas for Midwestern jokes, such as a living “American Gothic,” and experiments in perspective. One of the funniest marks the arrival of “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” which crosses the stage, starting out tiny (upstage) and ending up almost full-size (downstage). The water tower where couples meet also appears at a distance and close-up. T.J. Gerckens lighting, Ray Nardelli’s sound design, and especially Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes are all spot on.
Despite sparks of realism, most of the characters are cartoonish most of the time. That’s probably deliberate and very much in keeping with the storybook aesthetic. Nonetheless, quite a few of the performances are delightful, among them Mary Ernster as Marion’s oh-so-Irish mother Mrs. Paroo, Sophie Ackerman as young Amaryllis, and the barbershop quartet: Jonathan Schwart, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Christopher Kale Jones, and James Konicek. Kettenring’s Mrs. Shinn dressed up as the Statue of Liberty is a hoot, as are the Grecian urns she and her friends portray in an interpretative dance.
When all is said and done, what I’ll remember most about “The Music Man” at Goodman is its joyfulness. The very ending is a bit flat, but before that, the vision of the ensemble marching over the bleachers to the tune of “Seventy-six Trombones” is irresistible. As much fun as an ice-cream social, it’s the perfect entertainment for a hot summer night.