"The Music Man" Delivers!
Check Out Mary Zimmerman's Production at the Goodman Theatre and Leave the Summer Heat and All Your Dark Thoughts Behind
I am not an arts critic. But I do regularly attend theatre. I have two subscriptions, one for the Northlight Theatre and the other for the Lincolnshire Marriott Theatre, which performs five musicals each year. As a journalist, I have interviewed dozens of creative people* including authors, playwrights, artists, directors, musicians, filmmakers, actors, and more. I particularly like to get behind the scenes: how a production came together, what challenges were faced, how they were solved. My readers do, too.
Because of my press credentials, I received two free tickets for The Music Man, which opened this week at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. But, arranging an interview with someone connected with the show would have taken too long to set up and wouldn't do the production any good in terms of drumming up ticket sales or PR. So, I'm going to step outside my comfort zone for a moment.
Other reviewers will delve more deeply into how this production accomplished what it did. I'm not a theatre maven and have nothing much to offer on that score. But I can tell you about what I saw and how this performance made me feel. And I'm pretty sure that no director or performer ever rejected a positive review because the writer wasn't articulate or knowledgeable enough about, say, nuances of tempo or lighting. They are generally delighted to receive the thumbs up. I hope this will be read with that in mind. In a nutshell, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and, unless you are particularly hard-hearted, I suspect that you will, too.
Monday evening, I attended opening night at the Goodman. The 856-seat Albert Theatre was packed to the rafters, which is where I and other members of the press found ourselves.
Before this week, here's what I knew about The Music Man. It was a movie, a musical, vaguely recalled from my childhood. And, we must have performed it (or snippets of it) at camp, because I remember singing "Marian, the Librarian" - not very well. That's it. In short, not much. Which was good, actually. I didn't bring my expectations to the theatre with me. At that point, I was simply glad to have made it in time, despite very very bad directions from Waze, and too much stressful rush hour traffic. I was content to just plop myself into my seat, sigh deeply, and leave the heat, the bad news and any and all dark thoughts behind for a bit. But I got much more than I expected.
I quickly found myself immersed in the world of River City, circa 1912. Meredith Wilson, the creator of this, his first musical, patterned fictional River City after his birth place in Iowa. Incidentally, The Music Man was a huge hit on Broadway in 1957, winning five Tonys, including Best Musical, and running for over 1,300 performances. In 1962, the film adaptation also won Best Musical, even beating out West Side Story. It's been revived numerous times and is a popular choice for community theatre troupes as well as professional companies across the country. Its appeal has been deep and long-lasting. Part of that appeal is nostalgia for an era quite different from today, perhaps, but not without its own set of challenges and issues.
I was excited to be watching such a stellar, high-energy production. If there had been glitches, they were worked out during preview week. It was joyous and lively, spirited but not stagey. After the show, I learned that Director Mary Zimmerman is from Nebraska with relatives in Iowa. Her roots show; the permeating flavor of early 20th century Midwest felt authentic and unforced. I was caught up in the sweep of it: how a traveling salesman cons a whole town and all are changed in the process, including himself. It's an essentially optimistic story set to music about how people can change, and the old-fashioned notion that the love of a good woman can transform a man's life.
I was frankly surprised by the sheer number of memorable songs. The rousing opener, "Rock Island," referring to the now defunct railroad line, was a quick-talking conversation, complete with perfectly synchronized passengers, simulating a none too smooth ride. From that point on, the production never flagged.
Here's what I particularly relished: creative sets and costumes, the choreography (seen best from above), the barbershop quartet, and an 11-piece orchestra, enthusiastically conducted by Music Director Jermaine Hill. Then, there was the sheer breadth of talent - singing, dancing, acting and a delightful soupçon of physical comedy which indicated that everyone was having great fun and not taking themselves too seriously. I was also impressed by the youngest members of the troupe. They were poised and sure and rose to the occasion.