Review of The Music Man at Geva Theatre Center
by Debra Ross
In the same way that I didn't know that I was a Northerner until I lived in the South for a time, I didn't know that I was a Music Man Purist until I saw Geva Theatre Center's current production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man.
This doesn't mean that my 10-year-old daughter Ella and I didn't enjoy the show—Oh, no, far from it! We had a marvelous time.
Set in 1912, The Music Man is a story about con artist "Professor" Harold Hill (played by Rochester native John Bolton). Hill arrives in River City, Iowa, a small town in the country's heartland. He promises to teach the town's children how to play in a magnificent marching band—after the residents pay for instruments, supplies, and uniforms. It's all part of a big swindle he has done many times before, but Hill hasn't betted on falling in love with the town librarian and piano teacher, Marian Paroo (Analisa Leaming, a 2007 graduate of the Eastman School of Music).
The role of Harold Hill was originally popularized by Robert Preston, who appeared both on Broadway and in the 1962 film (with Shirley Jones, a.k.a. Shirley Partridge, in the role of Marian). Our family has watched the film many times. We know the songs; in fact, David's and my wedding song was "'Till There Was You," the Beatles version. We even realized, all on our own, that the song "Goodnight, My Someone" is actually the exact same song as "Seventy-Six Trombones," just slowed down a whole lot. Ella especially loves listening to the Broadway soundtrack in the car, so I was eager to take her to Geva, to experience it performed professionally, in person, for the first time.
I'm glad my daughter's first live theater experience with The Music Man was Geva's stunning professional production. The Music Man is a very common show for young musical theater enthusiasts to perform, and so you'll have the chance to bring your kids to it around here a half-dozen times before they grow up. (And do! If you want your kids to have any level of musical theater literacy, you'll want to make sure they see The Music Man.) But seeing it performed on the Geva Stage is like nothing you'll experience elsewhere.
First, and foremost, the choreography (thanks to Peggy Hickey) was absolutely stunning, and it is what will make me remember this production for a long time to come. Even Ella remarked on it. To me, The Music Man is more of a big-theater show, and I was concerned about Geva's ability to represent it on their relatively small stage. Could they possibly meet the same high standards as their other performances? I needn't have worried. Although there are 46 cast members (the largest cast they have worked with), it didn't feel cramped at all.
John Bolton was perfectly engaging as Harold Hill (though Robert Preston has my heart and always will), and Analisa Leaming's gorgeous soprano far trumped Shirley Jones's. Adriana Scalice was adorable as Amaryllis and Kyle Mueller was a perfectly believable Winthrop who didn't have a note out of place in his "Gary, Indiana" solo. But for me, the best character performances were by Cass Morgan as Mrs. Paroo and Jennifer Smith as Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn, the mayor's wife.
Now, here's my complaint: Director Mark Cuddy moved the time period of the show from 1912 to 1954. And try as I have been to make that work for me, I can't. Apparently his decision was based on a desire to have the play set in a time period contemporary audiences can relate to better—that we have the same relationship to the setting as audiences back in the 1950s did to 1912. Well, I'm not buying it.
To me, shifting the time forward 40 years brings much of the plot out of the realm of the believable: Salesmen traveling by train through the Midwest were plausible in 1912, when they were anxious about the Model T Ford starting to make them obsolete. And the whole town getting excited about the Wells Fargo Wagon coming down the street gives you a sense of what life was like, rather isolated on the Prairie, around the turn of the century. But by 1954, life had shifted considerably, and so Willson's details that are so illustrative of life in the traditional version of the show instead had me feeling uncomfortable.
Here is the best thing about shifting the setting to the 1950s: the costuming. Pamela Scofield's costumes are scrumptious—my daughter said that they looked like candy and said she wanted ALL of Marian Paroo's dresses.
One aspect of the show that is particularly clever is that for most of the performances, Geva has invited local high school and community bands to perform the final number, "Seventy-Six Trombones." There is a different one each night, so if you have a favorite band, call them directly to find out if and when they are performing. It certainly made the evening extra-special for us to see the Brockport High School band members strut their stuff at the end of the show.
So, even though it turns out I'm a Music Man purist, there is a whole lot I found to like about Geva's production of The Music Man. Ella certainly didn't even notice the little anachronisms that kept starting arguments in my head, and your kids probably won't, either. Unless they're like me, in which case you'll have a LOT to talk about on the ride home.
Geva Theatre Center is located at 75 Woodbury Blvd. in Rochester. The Music Man is on their Mainstage through June 5, 2011. Tickets are $28 to $65, although children's tickets are half-price (some restrictions apply; please call the box office). For more information, call (585) 232-4382 or visit www.gevatheatre.org.
© 2011, Debra Ross