“He’s a what? He’s a what? He’s a music man!!” But does he know the territory? That is the question…. My answer is that he’s familiar with it, but could use a GPS!
“The Music Man” is now playing in the Fichlander Theatre at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater in Washington DC. For those who have never been, the theatre itself is an artfully designed masterpiece. The 683 seat Fichlander Theatre is one of three theaters at Arena Stage. It’s newly designed and allows for a terrific view, no matter where you sit and gives the illusion of being right there, in the action. Money well spent, I’d say!
Now for the show itself…Burke Moses of Broadway fame (the original Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast”) has graced Washington DC with his presence. Having seen multiple productions of “The Music Man” over the years, including the last Broadway revival, I knew what to expect and when the lights went down, I got so excited! I quickly realized that this was to be a production that wanted to go down in history as reinventing the classic. Classics are classics for a reason and some wheels should not be reinvented. Especially, when the author specifically explains why not to change it in the script! Meredith Willson basically wrote a how-to for people who think they know better than the author and yet some still try. There were several glaring problems with this show, for people who like classics because they are classics, all were directorial choices. To “update” the time period from 1912 to whenever, with costumes and not much else, was a bad choice. Initially, I thought that the drab, sepia tone costumes were clever to show that it was a mundane, little town and then Harold Hill would come in with all of his color and charm and turn it all around, but that wasn’t the concept. Instead, Harold Hill was in the same tones! The cast did gradually get brighter, but way too gradually and the materials for costumes and styles were all over the place, so I was really baffled by the end. In one scene, the teen girls were wearing crochet caps and fedoras? There were lots of pairs of jeans and use of denim on a lot of people? I can’t decide if the worst costume choice was the modern rubber boots with pull-up handles that Winthrop has to wear OR Marian wearing pants! I’m going with the pants! I would blame the costume department, but the director has final say of the vision. The only two exceptions were the choice for the “Grecian Urns”, those were stunning costumes and made exquisitely and the band uniforms. I can only imagine that they will be the only costumes displayed from the show in the theatre’s gallery.
The set: I always say that the more elaborate the sets, set dressing, and props, the more complete the vision for the audience. We are not talking about a community theatre that doesn’t have a big budget and I think a bit more would have been preferable to me. But the minimalism didn’t completely detract from the overall show. Considering that it’s a theatre in the round (or square, if you will) a set of any kind is going to be difficult, if you care about obstructing anyones view. There was only one scene that I really had a problem with and that was at the footbridge in Act II. A beautiful piece (one of few set pieces) it was very cleverly lit with a “stream” running under it, but just before “Til There Was You” the teen dance couples danced through the “water”, instead of staying on opposite sides. It was more of a staging issue and the only hiccup in the choreography. Speaking of, and this is where we will really get into it…Parker Esse’s choreography is joyous and despite the dreary costumes, really brightens up the show. His use of different styles is genius. Will Burton playing Tommy Djilas is an excellent representation of the imagination of Parker’s brilliance. Will is an effervescent dancer and Parker showcased his honed talent and skill perfectly. A Gaelic style clog dance was infused into a solo for Burton during “76 Trombones”, with an underlying Irish trill from the orchestra. It was a magical moment. All of the dancers were expertly chosen and the highlight of the show. Besides the four teen couples who danced wonderfully, the other highlight of the show was the barbershop quartet. They were exquisitely in sync and produced amazing harmonies, with the correct comic timing. The cast, especially the women and Mayor Shinn (John Lescault) were reaching for the punch lines, instead of letting them just happen naturally. The women were very aware to play up that they were being stubborn, so they lost the joke that Meredith Willson so carefully crafted. They got laughs instead by making fun of their characters or saying the lines modernly sarcastic. The only stand out as the dry, stubborn Iowan was Donna Migliaccio as Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother, although her Irish accent needs a lot of work. It loses the joke that Harold Hill knows that they are Irish, because it’s not there. In the same vane, Sasha Olinick as Charlie Cowell was good, but they had him drop his anvil suitcase, but it didn’t make a big thud, like it had an anvil in it and then later in the scene he opens it to reveal that it was empty. The problem with the production is follow through. Jokes were rushed, costumes were off, and acting was too aggressive by the women.The cast on the whole is talented, but overall lacking any standouts in overall performance.
On to our leads….I want to start by saying that this again was obvious directorial influence. Since I have seen Burke Moses triumph at performing charming leads in several Broadway productions (“Guys and Dolls”, “Kiss Me Kate”, and the aforementioned “Beauty and the Beast”) I know he is completely capable, so I will chalk it up to another bad directing choice of Molly Smith (Resident Artistic Director at Arena). He was muted and toned down as a big character. His Gaston-esque command of the stage was not there, but it did, in comparison make Kate Baldwin’s Marian Paroo stand out as a stronger character and woman. Which I think has taken us to the core of the problem with the entire show. Everyone, including Molly Smith maybe in love with Kate Baldwin, but to change a classic, dominant male lead show, into Marian ruling the show, doesn’t work. Marian is supposed to stop Harold in his tracks and make him fall in love with her almost against his will, just with effortless sweetness and strong moral character. There is a difference between dominating and strong and they didn’t go the right way. While Kate Baldwin is a terrific vocalist, she was way too dominating and modern in her portrayal as “Marian”. She got laughs, but not in the right context, as did all of the women in the cast. This is like the modern, feminist version of “The Music Man” and Burke Moses wasn’t able to do “Harold Hill” properly. His singing is top-notch and his diction is amazing! Every word of “Trouble” is clear and well-defined. I just wish he had been able to take the stage with the passion I know he has in him. The chemistry between Marian and Harold is non-existent. Contributing to the non-existent chemistry is the lack of kissing. For trying to make a show modern, they sure took out all of the fire. As the music builds at the end of “Til There Was You” basically the moment they fall in love, there should be a kiss and usually there is, but this production (Dir. Molly Smith) chose to have them just have a firm embrace. Having performed this lead before, it is almost impossible, if you’re acting and in the moment not to kiss Harold. It was very odd and was so weird, especially when again they didn’t kiss at the end of the show, that I figured that it must be written into someones contract!? The kisses should be sweet, for the time period, but still letting the audience know that it’s time for Harold to rethink his ways. There is nothing that would make him fall for her and give up his traveling salesman life. Kate is a good looking woman, but that isn’t enough. Her rendition of “My White Knight” lets you know why she was picked for the part, but the lack of sweetness and innocence in her portrayal left me agog, simply agog! It was as if the whole shows identity was changed to make Baldwin the star. Even giving her equal bow to Burke Moses.
I personally didn’t like the direction taken and some audience members felt the same, but some were just in love with the glorious singing and forgave everything else. It is understandable because of the level of the vocal talent of the leads and the entire cast.
My overall grade: B-, with the bulk of the grade based solely on the vocal talent and execution of Parker Esse’s choreography. I didn’t care for the feminist angle or the majority of costume choices or a lot of the underwhelming acting.
The Music Man plays through July 22, 2012, in the Fichlander Theatre at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or order them at www.arenastage.org.
Photos provided by Joan Marcus – Music Man artwork provided by Doug Fraser