Tuesday, May 23, 2006

partial review of *The Music Man*

at Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage, through June 18

Conned Into Harmony

*The Music Man* recalls the values of arts education and community involvement — even if it takes a con man to do it

People who say they hate musicals are usually thinking of shows like *The Music Man.* All that mid-century Golden Age stuff, they scoff, with its flimsy conflicts and complacent view of the good old days, its warm fuzzies and break-out-into-song moments.

Unlike all those chirpy, peppy shows that hammer you with their false feel-good optimism, however, *The Music Man* doesn’t shy away from darker concerns. Several characters are grieving a death; parents don’t care to know their own children; deceptions, small-minded rumors and censoriousness abound; con men demonstrate that the public is an ass.
The Civic’s *Music Man* (through June 18) makes a solid if not stellar attempt to refute that kind of “pick-a-little, talk-a-little, cheep-cheep-cheep" cynicism.

With Danae Lowman’s beautifully sung Marian the Librarian, Michael Rhodes’ skillfully danced Harold Hill, Melody Deatherage’s inventive direction and — especially — Meredith Willson’s classically honed book, lyrics and music, this *Music Man* makes a case for the union of entertainment and actual thought. Because Willson himself spent most of the 1910s living among stubborn Iowans and brass bands — and because he spent most of the 1950s writing and rewriting this show — *The Music Man* has some genuine claims to make amid all its tuneful nostalgia.

Far from validating fundamentalists’ family values, *The Music Man* makes fun of them, opting instead for a kind of moral relativism. Sometimes, people employ questionable methods to arrive at worthwhile goals. Harold Hill may dupe people, but he also scoots them along the path to self-realization.

There are miscues, of course. Gary Laing’s six-piece orchestra was off-key in the overture and entr’acte, compounding the errors by overloading “Till There Was You” with a swelling, then swollen crescendo. Pauses between jokes slowed the pace unnecessarily in early numbers like “Rock Island” and “Trouble.” Some of the chorus dancers spend too much time looking at the feet of the next person in line.

On the other hand, Susan Berger and Jan Wanless contribute their usual flotilla of colorful costumes; Marian’s gowns and the primary-color bloomers of the dancing housewives were particularly catchy.

And for a play with 17 scenes in half a dozen distinct locales, set designer Peter Hardie creates a versatile and colorful look. The footbridge under a starry sky created a romantic, even moving look for “Till There Was You” — and the effect was enhanced by Lorna Hamilton’s balletic choreography, with dancing couples promenading to make way for the main couple.

As the traveling salesguy and con man, Harold Hill’s repeated tactic is to appeal to people’s vanity: Oh, Mrs. Shinn, you have a foot made for dancing. Olin, your voice could anchor some four-part harmony. And so on. He’s deluding them, but in a nice way. In somewhat the same way, community-theater productions of classic musicals, thrown together with the equivalent of tinsel and chewing gum, shine distracting lights in our eyes. But by bringing us together, the illusion is actually constructive. Attending my umpteenth production of *The Music Man,* you see, was like going to church: I groused and grumbled all the way — but once I arrived, I got that good old-time religion once more.

Oskar Eustis’ production at Providence’s Trinity Rep introduced entire, actual high school bands into the finale’s reprise of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” as if to underscore how *The Music Man* makes the case for arts education in America. Even if the Civic can’t muster those kind of resources, Deatherage’s production still reminds us of the formative influence of music — of performance in general. Bowling alone — watching DVDs at home alone — won’t help us bridge our differences. But showing up for a musical like Willson’s brings us together, and America still needs shows like *The Music Man.*

*** For the rest of this review, see the Thursday, May 25, issue of *The Inlander* ... comments on Michael Rhodes as Professor Harold Hill, Danae Lowman as Marian Paroo, Doug Dawson as Marcellus Washburn, Maria Caprile as Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn, and Melody Deatherage's direction ...


At May 24, 2006 3:01 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Or tune in to KPBX 91.1 on Thursday, May 25, at 7:35 am (the hour when all theater people are wide awake) for yet another (shorter) version of the full-length review.

At May 24, 2006 4:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I am still turned off by the Civic's need to mic the actors. I was particularly aware that Prof. Hill was over-micked (sp?). That house does not require mics. I don't know why the powers that be at the Civic insist on it.
As for the production itself, no doubt in my mind that Lorna Hamilton's choreography was the best thing about it. Not easy to move a cast of 40 around as smoothly as she did. And methinks that without Lorna's choreography
the show would have appeared to drag.

At May 31, 2006 3:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was just ok for me


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