The Music Man, book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Mayor Shinn and the Iowans (Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon top right); photo: Jesse DeGroodt
"One Grecian Urn!"
In River City, Iowa somewhere around the first decade of the 20th century, Professor Harold Hill is prepared to upset the gentle eleven-part harmonies of the locals by letting them know that they are in "Trouble" because a pool table has been installed in town and that organizing a boy's band will absolutely save the day. It will restore the harmony in the "Iowa way we treat you"; it will bring joy even to the upperclass women whose delSarte exercises could culminate in a classic stylization, a harmonic blending of bodies and minds into a single Grecian Urn. Not even close.
Meredith Willson's clever book and delicious songs meld into the memory banks. It is hard to separate Robert Preston from the role of the elemental flim-flam man; after all he played it on Broadway and then in the movie version. It is is hard to remove the vocal ring of Barbara Cook as Marian the Librarian away from the songs. It is even hard to keep the heart from flowing into the lush vocalism of Shirley Jones who took on the role for the film. Luckily for the current production at the MacHaydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, what tops the historic performances is that score, so riddled with close harmony and lovely counterpoint the score carries the evening even when other aspects of this production do not.
Harmony is what makes this show. Squabbling councilmen unable to bear each other's opinions become boon companions once harmony is introduced into their lives and they suddenly walk in rhythm and sing pure "barbershop" including the almost counter-tenor of ultra-handsome Elliott Lane, who blends his high notes with the middle-voices of Griffith Whitehurst, Ben Darragh and Chris Bober. These men symbolize the best efforts of the author to create a place on earth where musical harmony brings political harmony, where lovely sounds breed lovely relationships. Their four numbers are the best things about this show.
Not that there are any problems with the heroine, Marian Paroo as played by Julia Mosby. Like her predecessors she has a perfect pitch voice with a lovely set of top notes and she brings beauty and meaning to her singing moments. She is somewhat weaker and less believable in the angry and romantic moments in the play. On opening night when I saw the show she was almost there, but just not quite unless she was singing.
Her problem could be the handsome, but less than charismatic, Eric Chambless who is never quite her match in the singing (except once in their duet "Till There Was You") and is a definite deadpan performer when he acts. He is not Robert Preston; he is not even Van Johnson (who also played the role on Broadway and in London) when it comes to being believable as a con-man or a lover. With little between them, we are just lucky that Willson wrote that beautiful ballad. Without it the show would be lost and again, it is their vocal harmony that brings them truly close and us close to them.
Among the support players was the excellent Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon as the very funny Mayor Shinn whose malapropisms were delivered with delight. This is one of his best performances to date. As his wife, Eulalie McKecknie Shinn, Lisa Franklin turned in a highly comic performance wearing some of the best costumes Jimm Halliday created for this show.
Conor Fallon was a charming Tommy Djilas and Meg Dooley delivered an excellent Mrs. Paroo. Phil Sloves proved to be a winning Marcellus Washburn and as Winthrop Paroo, young Patch Gallagher was perfect, to a tee. His winning and winsome work in the role is to be commended on every level.
With a cast of about 40 people director John Saunders never crowded the theater in the round stage and he managed to make even the most unworkable moments into believable ones. My one quibble with him is the representation of the classic Grecian urns, usually a lighter than air comic highpoint in the show. I have no idea what he was aiming for, but it was not a Grecian urn. The choreography by Bryan Knowlton was clever and fun to watch. The same can be said for the show's visual look, with excellent character costumes by Jimm Halliday and fine lighting by Andrew Gmoser.
The theater's new sound system is a help, but there were still some coordination problems with the sound operator who emphasized the non-melodic aspects of the orchestra (which was a bit sloppy anyway, I think) and didn't balance the singers very well. All that will improve with the playing, I am sure. It is nice to have real instruments included in this season's productions, a major improvement in the sound of a musical comes from actually using musical instruments.
As wonderful as the movie still is today there is nothing like hearing Willson's score sung live in a theater and discovering how instrumental his writing is to the relationship discoveries in the story line. I would recommend you try the show on, especially if you've never seen it performed just for you rather than for posterity. It makes a difference to be a part of the "Iowa way they treat you if they treat you which they may not do at all." But they will.
Eric Chambliss as Harold Hill; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Lisa Franklin as Eulalie McKecknie Shinn; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
The Quartet and Winthrop; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
The Music Man plays through June 15 at the MacHaydn Theatre, located at 1925 Route 203 in Chatham, New York. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292.