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May 31, 2012

Arena Stage offers buoyant revival of 'The Music Man'

Great American musicals from the past could not ask for a better revivification center than Washington's Arena Stage.

As demonstrated with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" in 2010 and reaffirmed by the terrific production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" currently on the boards, Arena artistic director Molly Smith knows the secret of a successful revival.

She starts with genuine respect for the original work, the most essential ingredient of all, and one you can't count on everywhere. Then she adds inspired layers of fresh thinking to create an interpretation that is at once comfortably familiar and freshly involving. For a finishing touch, Smith engages performers with the personality and commitment to make it all work.

No wonder "Oklahoma" was a box-office record-breaker for Arena. "The Music Man" deserves to be a big hit, too.

Compared to, say, the urban grit, passion and violence of "West Side Story," the Leonard Bernstein musical that also hit Broadway in 1957, Willson's show, which bested that other work for the Tony that year, might strike some folks as quaint, even inconsequential -- all con and apple pie.

But this tale of a "Professor" Harold Hill who lines his pockets and lifts spirits in an Iowa town by selling marching band instruments and uniforms to the local youths contains considerable substance and sophistication.

Willson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, was a gifted, formally trained composer with a reliable flair for melody and a remarkable ear for harmonic and structural variety.

You might not think so if ...

you only know the first few bars of "Seventy-Six Trombones," the big hit from "The Music Man" score, but the bridge in that song makes delightful turns that easily show Willson's craft (same for the bridge to "Till There Was You").

And consider the flip side of "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Goodnight, My Someone," which takes the same melody, slows it down and, voila, creates a charming ballad that can be used later to bring two characters together musically.

And don't forget "Rock Island," the brilliant opening number, which doesn't have any actual notes at all -- just rhythmic patterns ("Whad-a-ya talk, whad-a-ya-talk, whad-a-ya talk") that match the motion of a train, propelling the dialogue by a group of traveling salesmen and setting the wheels for the whole musical spinning.

The effectiveness of Willson's curtain-raiser becomes doubly apparent in the Arena production because Smith, as she did with "Oklahoma," dispenses with the overture and plunges right into the action.

That opening gets a clever treatment, too. The salesmen rise from underneath the center of a bare, in-the-round stage and, with just two rows of seats for props, conjure up the whole bouncing experience of a ride on the rails.

Such seemingly simple, smoothly executed stage business abounds in this production, complemented by Parker Esse's vibrant choreography, giving the whole show a fresh-breeze feeling. And since the performers are so consistently natural and engaging, nothing seems dated (the time setting has been moved up from the original 1912 by a decade or two).

Even the weakest bits of humor somehow sound new and funny. As for the romantic heart of the matter -- the gradual reformation of the notorious Hill and the blossoming of Marian the librarian -- that, too, emerges to telling effect.

As brought to life at Arena, "The Music Man" provides a welcome excursion into an America that is part myth, part all-too-real, where the locals have "a special chip-on-the-shoulder attitude we've never been without," but will "give you our shirt and a back to go with it if you crop should happen to die."

It's a place where minds can be awfully small, especially those attached to local politicians or school board types, and where books are occasionally banned, just like today. And where people can fall easily for things that are too good to be true, like Hill's music-learning "Think System," the same way someone is always falling for a TV infomercial now.

But beneath the surface of River City is an impulse to be creative, to get out of ruts, even to check out a little Balzac. All that everyone needs is just a little trigger, and that starts with 't' and that rhymes with 'b' and that stands for Burke -- Burke Moses, that is, who heads the Arena cast as the irrepressible Hill.

Moses has something of the dash and wicked charm of Robert Preston, who created the role on Broadway and repeated it in the subsequent movie version. Moses isn't a commanding vocalist, but he puts the songs across with panache, and he's a disarming actor.

Kate Baldwin is likewise a winner, vocally and theatrically, as Marian. She sings with a sweet, but never cloying, voice and an unfailingly stylish manner of phrasing.

The large cast is filled with deft actors, especially Barbara Tirrell as the mayor's ballet-prone wife and Donna Migliaccio as Marian's mother. Young Ian Berlin does a cute turn as Marian's lisping brother Winthrop. The townsmen-turned-barbershop quartet do a great job. Same for the spry dancers and and the brassy orchestra, led by Lawrence Goldberg.

Eugene Lee's set design keeps things uncluttered, but nicely atmospheric, aided by Dawn Chiang's lighting.  

Judith Bowden's costumes subtly reflect the inner journey of the River City folks -- they're in bland colors early on, but start sporting more and more vibrant shades as they are gradually led out of their shells by a most magnetic music man.

The production runs through July 22.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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