The Music Man
Neil Simon Theatre - NYC - July 2000
Reviewed by John Kenrick
Fear not, musical theatre lovers! For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For this day in the city of New York there runs a musical comedy -- and its name shall be called wonderful, glorious, The Music Man!
Please pardon me if that sounds a bit blasphemous, but how else is one to react in the presence of a miracle? At a time when the Broadway musical is in disarray, here is an honest to goodness classic done with such fresh energy and downright magic that it lifts your soul and renews your faith in the theatre. In a lifetime of theatre going that includes more than 300 Broadway shows, this is one of the best I have ever seen or ever will see -- a rip-roaring joy! (And if you think I sound wildly enthusiastic, please know that I waited several days to write this review so I could cool down!)
You say you've seen The Music Man before? Well, so have I -- everywhere from Dick Van Dyke's ill-fated Broadway revival to high schools and community theatres. Like most musical buffs, I have long delighted in the film version with Shirley Jones and the unforgettable Robert Preston. So I am not kidding when I tell you that this new Music Man is sensational.
Susan Stroman has outdone herself, confirming that she is the most important director-choreographer in the business today. She sticks to both the letter and spirit of Meredith Willson's material, all the while infusing it with more energy and giddy fun than any other show in New York.
You know you are in for something special the moment the overture starts with no musicians in the pit. They are on stage -- or more precisely, on the Rock Island Line, speeding through Iowa as they provide a mini-show of their own. By the time they are replaced by salesmen spieling in time to the chugging of the train, the seduction has already begun. An hour later, when the entire company sets the stage in motion with a stupendous "Seventy Six Trombones," you'll be cheering along with everyone around you.
The story of a 1912 con man swindling an Iowa town with promises of a boys band remains a masterful examination of the subversive effect music has in a drab world. The most proper businessmen burst into four part harmony at the drop of a hat, prim housewives shamelessly throw themselves into interpretive dance, and children find that music can make even the dullest life exciting. Best of all, music can help a spinster librarian to rediscover dreams of love she had long since abandoned, and help a scoundrel stumble across the creative soul he never knew he had.
Craig Bierko makes that scoundrel irresistible in a debut performance that theatre buffs will talk about for decades to come. Tall, trim, with striking good looks (ie -- he's gorgeous) and a mellifluous voice, he explodes across the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre with enough charisma to charm the coyotes out of the hills. His intentional echoes of Robert Preston's style and stance are an appropriate tribute to this show's past -- but his triumph as Harold Hill is a key to this show's rejuvenated present. Please heaven, let's find more roles to bring this talented charmer back to Broadway in the future!
What a treat is is to see Rebecca Luker give the best performance of her career as Marian Paroo. With Luker's ravishing looks and soaring soprano voice, you would think she was a time traveler from Broadway's golden age, come to remind us all what it takes to make a real musical glitter. She makes Marion's transition from old maid to passionate woman believable and thoroughly satisfying. Her rendition of "My White Night" set the place cheering, and her chemistry with Bierko rocked the house during "Till There Was You." No wonder I love this lady -- what a gift she is!
The supporting cast brings the Hawkeye Iowans of River City to life with genuine affection and panache, finding the great humor in these characters without ever ridiculing them. Max Casella plays Hill's sidekick Marcellus with endearing Brooklynese flair, Paul Benedict is a hoot as stuffy Mayor Shinn, and Clyde Alves dazzles his way through Tommy's spitfire dance routines. The much-acclaimed Ruth Williamson was out the night I attended, but understudy Leslie Hendrix was hilarious as Mrs. Shinn.
Special kudos to Jack Doyle, Blake Hammond, John Sloman and Michael-Leon Wooley, four veteran musical comedians who play the barbershop quartet with so much wit and musical dexterity that they come perilously close to stealing the show. You go, guys!
I have not seen a theater audience carry on like this in decades -- and I mean that literally! People were openly shedding tears of joy -- myself included. I also wound up hoarse for days afterward. Of all the productions currently running on Broadway, this is my personal favorite. It's the genuine article folks -- everything a truly great musical is meant to be! If you like musicals, do whatever you legally have to and see this production immediately. And don't be surprised if I'm in the theatre with you -- I intend to catch this one as often as I possibly can in the months and years to come. Don't miss this fantabulous Music Man!!!!!
PS - Since I have always believed that people who leave a show before the curtain calls deserve their own special place in hell (like two minutes makes any real difference in their sad lives?), it is a pleasure to note that Susan Stroman has saved the most inspired number in the show for a post-curtain call finale. I dare you not to stand and cheer!