- May 8, 2018
American fiction is a rogue’s gallery of grifters — "Elmer Gantry," "The Rainmaker" and "The Wizard of Oz," to name a few. Our authors and playwrights are particularly obsessed with con artists who become what they pretend to be. Harold Hill is the prime example. He’s currently working his scam in The Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.”
You’ve heard of it, right?
Unless you were born and raised in an Antarctic research station without cable, you’re probably familiar with this musical. It is, as they say, an American classic. The chances are good you’ve seen one or more stage productions, or the movie, or the other movie, or endless reruns of those movies on TV. Many of you can probably sing “76 Trombones” from memory. Or “Shipoopie.” Or “Gary, Indiana.” Or …
You get the idea.
This tub-thumbing, feel-good show has some catchy numbers, all right. If enthusiasm were electricity, it could light up the city of Des Moines. There’s a gee-whiz, cornpone, aw shucks, innocent naïveté to the whole affair. The nostalgic glow of all-American nostalgia tends to obscure one central fact …
The hero is a heel.
“Professor” Harold Hill (Noah Racey) is a con artist. He’s the early 20th-century equivalent of an identity thief. He walks around with ease in the skin of a fake identity. He cheats people out of their hard-earned money and ruins their lives. It’s also strongly implied that he ruins a fair number of trusting young women.
His top scam? Blow into some rube town, convince the rubes that putting their boys in a marching band will save their souls; promise you’ll teach their hick kids how to play; collect the rubes’ money for instruments, uniforms and music lessons; skip town. So long, suckers.
Hill’s done this before. In at least 102 counties.
But this time around, he changes his mind. Or love changes it for him. Hill falls for the levelheaded Marian (Britney Coleman), the town librarian. His love for her tethers him. Hill doesn’t skip town — and the townsfolk embrace him. Hill stays, and becomes what he pretended to be. A bandleader.
So, how do you make “The Music Man” relevant to the 21st century? The answer is, you don’t. How do you make it interesting? Add tap dancing, of course. And that’s exactly what director Jeff Calhoun and choreographer Paul McGill did.
While my knowledge of dancing is up there with my knowledge of arc welding, I can say with confidence that McGill does an excellent job. Looking at the kinetic flurry of bodies, I could only think one thing: “I really need to work out more.” Seriously, folks. It’s good stuff.
Racey is a whiz-bang in his tap-dancing numbers. (He moves like Dick Van Dyke, though there’s no physical resemblance.) The attention-grabbing rat-a-tat dance style perfectly fits the cocky, swagger of his character.
Now let’s talk character.
Racey’s Harold Hill is the quintessential confidence man. Like the Wizard of Oz, he fills people with confidence. He makes them believe in themselves, despite all objective evidence to the contrary. And whenever a posse of upright citizens tries to obtain Hill’s bona fides, he deflects them with flattery, and turns them into barbershop quartets and dance ensembles. Hill fills the prepubescent marching band with the same self-esteem. But Marian is more than his match. She can easily seem like a prim, goody two-shoes. But in Coleman’s characterization, she’s the only person in town with any good sense — and she sensibly sees right through this fast-talking “music man.” Her Marian is immune to Hill’s con artistry, but not his charm. (In the #MeToo era, his persistent stalking gets a tad creepy.)
The musical’s two leading characters are well-drawn and full of depth. The rest are well-drawn caricatures. If you’re looking for broad types, look no further than River City, Iowa. The town is full of them.
Sure and begorrah, Marian’s mother clearly hails from the Emerald Isle; her 10-year-old brother (Charles Shoemaker) is basically Tiny Tim with a lisp instead of a limp. The town’s bullying, blustering mayor (Lenny Wolpe) is a font of platitudes and threats. But he’s henpecked by his overbearing wife, (Matthew McGee in Harvey Korman-esque drag). For even more misogyny, she often joins forces with a clucking clique of other ladies, to form a hen-like chorus of gossips. There are also two star-crossed young lovers (Marie DiNorcia and Raynor Rubel). Just like Romeo and Juliet, aside from not dying. Hill’s old shill is also in town (Danny Gardner). He’s gone straight — and his nasal-voiced character is straight out of “Boardwalk Empire.”
“The Music Man” is fast, furious, funny and never realistic. The characters may be cartoony, but I like cartoons.
On page or stage, staying true to life is never this musical’s goal. It’s larger than life, and proud of it. Music director Steve Orich and the unseen band fill your ears with the hypnotically catchy tunes. Michael Gilliam’s lighting seems to shout TA-DA! Tobin Ost’s colorful costumes look like intricately frosted cakes; his set design is a synecdoche on wheels. He cleverly evokes the town in bits in pieces: a door here, library shelves there. “Our Town,” this isn’t. Or “Ragtime,” either.
Much like Harold Hill himself, director Calhoun grabs you by the lapels and pulls you into this dream world before you know what hit you. His fast-paced approach makes the 132 minutes fly by. It never feels like a long show, but it is. More importantly, it’s big.
It’s a very big show, gentle readers. It’s a show that tells you: “You’re in for a show!” And it doesn’t disappoint. You’ll walk out with a smile on your face. You will be entertained.
I was, too. The spectacle dazzled me. But I’m still wrestling with the underlying story.
Meredith Wilson was a brilliant writer and a keen observer. The “Ya Got Trouble” rap sizzles. (Fun fact. He originally wrote it as prose.) The blur of nostalgia softens the playwright’s smart, sarcastic jabs at the American heartland — the references to “Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang,” and the like. Wilson wrote a sure-fire story. But the road to his happy ending is riddled with plot holes. It’s a long list, starting with a veteran con artist’s improbable change of heart. Not to mention Marian’s … Ah, but you probably have things to do, so let’s skip it.
Ignore the gaps in logic and follow the road.
A happy ending awaits you.