Goodspeed's "Music Man": High Watt-age Harold Hill

The Cast of "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know you're in good hands when the first song in a musical is an a cappella number that introduces a notorious con man headed for River City, Iowa, as envisioned by the multitalented
Meredith Willson. A traveling trainful of salesmen eloquently mimic the sounds and jostling of a moving railroad car. It's the unforgettable beginning (“Rock Island”) of The Music Man, with Book, Lyrics and Music all by Willson, now being performed by Goodspeed Musicals. It was his first musical (to be followed by The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Here's Love, and 1491), and arguably his best as well as most popular. This production shows why; it now looks and sounds as terrific as the great American iconic work that it has become.

Ever hear of any salesman Hill (Edward Watts), a fake who doesn't know the territory?” That would be Harold Hill, and he's certainly interested in the local librarian, Marion Paroo (Ellie Fishman), whose mother, Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), warns her she's becoming a spinster, and whose little brother Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O'Brien) suffers from a speech impediment with pronouncing his “s's”, as piano student Amaryllis (Katie Wylie) announces. There's another questionable character in town, Hill's old associate Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams), and a few odd locals, including Mayor Shinn (D.C. Anderson), his wife Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope) and their daughter Zaneeta Shinn (Shawn Alynda Fisher), who's fond of a boy from the other side of the tracks, Tommy Djilas (Raynor Rubel). There's also little Gracie Shinn (Maddiekay Harris) and a suddenly formed singing Quartet: Jeff Gurner, C. Mingo Long, Kent Overshown and Branch Woodman. Well, you no doubt know how everything turns out in this quintessentially small town tale. Along the way, Willson provides some true knee-slappers (and a few groaners) as well as an infectious score.

Ellie Fishman & Edward Watts in "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Willson, in his autobiography covering the creation and nurturing of The Music Man, his first musical, appropriately titled But He Doesn't Know the Territory, shares the somewhat torturous journey from page to stage as he resisted the idea proposed in 1951 with the typical Iowan “posture of irrefragability (sic) that is the normal Iowa response to any suggestion of any nature whatsoever.” Such an attitude found its way ultimately into the show in its second number, "Iowa Stubborn", not to mention the ladies' paean to small town gossip, “Pick-a-little, talk a little”. So many of the songs that found their way into the score display this first-hand and first-rate knowledge of this slice of Americana, which ended up taking its author/composer six years to finish. And that score is far more complex than one might catch on first hearing. Consider that the two songs sung by Hill (“Seventy-Six Trombones”) and Marion (“Goodnight, My Someone”) are in fact the same number, as illustrated by their use toward the end of the play when each character swaps melodies, proving beyond reasonable doubt that these two were meant for each other all along. Meredith surely knows the territory.

Alexander O'Brien & Ellie Fishman in "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

As do the cast and creative team of this version. In the title role, Watts is an inexhaustible dynamo, and Fishman is his perfect match (though we don't have the chance to appreciate her talent's full range until the second act, a fault one always feels with the libretto which doesn't feature this role early enough in the play). The rest of the cast consists of some familiar performers as well as some who will be new to Goodspeed audiences. Standouts include White who never permits her character to become a caricature, and O'Brien, who makes an endearing Winthrop. The dancers are wonderful, as are the rest of the entire cast uniformly  (though Mayor Shinn could show more bluster).

This production is energetically helmed by Goodspeed favorite Director Jenn Thompson (Oklahoma!, Bye Bye Birdie), with Choreography by Patricia Wilcox (Bye Bye Birdie), picture postcard perfect Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePOO III, witty Costume Design by David Toser, fine Lighting Design by Paul Miller, Sound Design by Jay Hilton and typically wonderful Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-eighth season with the company).

The Cast of  "The Music Man"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

It's hilarious to see how Harold Hill's “think system” works in this show. At many points in this production (yet not overdone), members of the cast enter, exit and entertain from the audience aisles, drawing one into the action and involving all of us as River City folk. Is it ever corny? You bet. But it's the cream of the crop of American musicals.

The production has already been extended through June 20th. In order to nab a ticket, start using the think system.

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