By Barry Reszel
Acclaimed Director Mary Zimmerman swaps out the River City makeout location—footbridge for water tower.
Hey, it makes for a cooler set piece.
She also realizes, unlike most of her predecessors, that some people of color live in the rural Midwest.
But because Lincoln Center’s current Oklahoma! revival is making hay on being dark, dangerous and different…and because Zimmerman is no stranger to taking great directorial risk…the anticipation of an avant-garde Goodman Theatre revival of 1958’s Best Musical Tony winner, Meredith Willson‘s The Music Man, was positively pregnant.
The expectations were for fresh, not fresh-faced; risky, if not risque; Marc Chagall supplanting Grant Wood. In a word: Grandiose. But the expectant ones didn’t know the territory that Zimmerman bothered to learn. Never mind that Texas wants to appropriate the phrase for itself—Ye Gawds! Don’t mess with Iowa!
And so, Music Man purists, fear not. The only pool on the Goodman stage this summer is of the six-pocketed, trouble-making table variety. Zimmerman puts her trust in a who’s-who of Chicagoland musical theatre stars teaming with a detasseling cadre of nationally- and regionally-credited triple threats to present one of the the best singing/dancing stage ensembles of the year. Simply said, you’ve got to give this Iowa a try. If you don’t, it’s your loss.
This well-known tale is of con man Harold Hill who sells himself as a Midwestern boys’ band leader in 1912. He goes from town to town selling hope to naive townspeople in the form of instruments and uniforms, promising to form them into a proud band. With the intent to follow his typical routine by skipping town without delivering on his promises, Hill gets stuck in River City, Iowa, when he becomes smitten by Marian Paroo, the local librarian.
The show became a hit on Broadway, winning five 1958 Tony Awards and running for 1,375 performances. Its magnificent songbook is well-known entry in the musical theatre hall of fame, featuring a smorgasbord of hits (“Ya Got Trouble,” Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Goodnight My Someone,” “Gary, Indiana,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” Shipoopi,” and “Till There Was You,” to name but a few). In fact, the cast album won the first Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and spent 245 weeks on the Billboard charts. Success led to revivals, including a popular 1962 film adaptation, a long 2000 Broadway run and a 2003 television adaptation. A full synopsis and production history of this audience-favorite may be read here.
The Goodman staging’s first kudos after those to the truly stellar ensemble performances, go to Music Director Jermaine Hill, who conducts his 12-person orchestra to near perfection. Denis Jones‘ choreography is fun and upbeat; Daniel Ostling‘s set design shows off the vast, lovely Iowa plains, lit extraordinarily by T. J. Gerckens. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes are spot-on, as is Ray Nardelli‘s sound design.
Back onstage, highlights abound. None is greater than the acting master class put on by Heidi Kettenring as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife. Dominant and hysterical in every scene she appears, Kettenring shows off her supremacy of her craft. Shinn’s gossiping ladies “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” are wonderfully portrayed by Bri Sudia (quickly becoming a Chicagoland star), Nicole Michelle Haskins, the always hilarious Lillian Castillo, and Danielle Davis. So, too, Kelly Felthous as Shinn daughter Zaneeta and Mary Ernster as Marian’s Irish mother are standouts.
Among the men, Ron E. Rains as Mayor Shinn is a comic delight. And Christopher Kale Jones, James Konicek, Jeremy Peter Johnson and Jonathan Schwart make up the terrific, tight-harmonizing male quartet. Anvil salesman Charlie Cowell, Harold Hill’s hysterical nemesis, is played by the best comic actor on Chicagoland’s stages, Matt Crowle. Marion’s young, troubled brother is lovingly performed by Carter Graf, whose “Gary, Indiana” is excellent. And the persona of Harold’s sidekick, Marcellus, is subsumed by the ever-joyful Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, whose “Shipoopi” is second to none.
As Marian the Librarian, lovely Monica West tiptoes the perfect tightrope between schoolmarm and hopeless romantic. Her “My White Knight” solo and “Till There Was You” duet are both truly lovely. West’s duet partner, Geoff Packard as Professor Harold Hill, gives a more nuanced take on this character than is typical. What that means is that he’s a tender baritone, not a Robert Preston-esque belter. But make no mistake, Packard’s vocals are wonderful. The truth is, patrons might find they appreciate his rather unassuming performance more on the day after seeing the show. They’ll realize, too, it’s his more subtle demeanor that makes the whole story that much more believable.
Because Zimmerman’s Iowa is respected—with townspeople neither dismissed as ignorant nor lambasted as caricature. Perhaps that’s her gift to this book, one of the greatest in the musical theatre canon, and her gift to Chicago, in the summer of 2019—she chose not to mess with Iowa. Ye Gawds! Buy some tickets!
Goodman Theatre presents “The Music Man” through August 18 in the Albert Theatre at 170 North Dearborn, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.