‘The Music Man’ at Arena Stage by Tiffany Draut

She’s done it again! Molly Smith has brought another slice of Americana to The Fichandler, filled with exciting dancing, stunning vocals and performances, and oozing with optimism! From the moment the lights dimmed and a train car rose out of the middle of the stage, there was a buzz in the audience and we knew we were in for a special evening of theatre – and we weren’t disappointed. Arena Stage’s production of The Music Man is inventive and funny, and filled with sincerity. Molly Smith’s direction draws the audience in and makes us believe, all over again, that this smarmy con man can indeed be redeemed by the love of this fiercely independent librarian (Kate Baldwin).

Kate Baldwin (Marian Paroo) and Burke Moses (Harold Hill). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man follows the adventures of slick salesman Harold Hill (Burke Moses). For Hill, there’s a sucker born every minute. Sooner or later, this smooth-talking “Professor” has everyone eating out of the palm of his hand – and the citizens of River City, Iowa are his latest mark. When local librarian Marian Paroo tries to expose him as a swindler, Hill sets out to win her heart and save his hide. Will the town get wise to Hill before he steals their savings, or will Marian make an honest man out of him?

Burke Moses is superb as smooth charmer Harold Hill.  It’s so easy to portray him as a smarmy con man, but Moses allows us to see Hill’s depth of character. Burke is a delight in “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones,” when making the townspeople excited about this band, and he feels sincere joy when he sees a little boy get excited about his new cornet. It’s in these moments that Moses makes Hill more likeable, and you believe that he is truly falling in love with Marian, not just simply using her. You feel their love and true affection for each other when Burke and Baldwin reprise ‘Till There Was You” in the second act.

Similarly, Kate Baldwin’s Marian is more than an equal partner for Moses’ Hill.  Baldwin really shows Marian’s growth, from a reserved spinster – only dreaming of love – to a fulfilled woman willing to give her heart while expecting nothing in return. Seeing Baldwin develop Marian was truly a joy and the audience rooted for her.

The cast of 'The Music Man.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

And what an angelic voice Baldwin has! Her rendition of “My White Knight” is simply divine, as is her duet “Goodnight My Someone” with the young and spunky Heidi Kaplan (Amaryllis). Likewise, Baldwin’s shows excellent comic timing and drew many laughs from the audience.

Ian Berlin (Winthrop Paroo), with Heidi Kaplan (Amaryllis), and Kate Baldwin (Marian Paroo). Photo by Joan Marcus.

The real star of the show, however, is Parker Esse’s excellent and energetic choreography. From the athleticism of “Shipoopi,” to the inventiveness of “Marian the Librarian,” to the sheer exuberance of “76 Trombones,” the audience cheered the exciting choreography that effectively utilizes not only the small stage space – but the entire theater. Esse uses a number of different styles – including an interesting tap solo by the extremely talented Will Burton (Tommy Djilas) in the middle of “76 Trombones” – that prevents the choreography from being repetitive. Similarly, the choreography for “Rock Island” truly makes you feel as if the actors are on a bumpy train ride, despite knowing that the stage isn’t moving. Especially funny is “The Sadder but Wiser Girl”, with the hilarious Nehal Joshi (Marcellus Washburn) dancing as the “sadder but wiser girl” to Moses’ Hill. Everyone in this talented and energetic cast is more than up to the challenge of the  imaginative choreography, and there is not a weak dancer in the bunch.

Heidi Kaplan (Amaryllis) and Ian Berlin (Winthrop) are especially endearing. Berlin’s heart-tugging “Gary Indiana” drew the loudest applause of the evening. The over-the-top performances of Barbara Tirrell (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn) and John Lescault (Mayor Shinn) drew a lot of laughs. Donna Migliaccio is wonderfully motherly as Marian’s mother.

The cast of 'The Music Man.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

Performed in-the-round, The Music Man requires both Lighting Designer Dawn Chiang and Set Designer Eugene Lee to be very creative in creating this small town in Iowa, a challenge they rise to admirably. For example, the lighting is ingeniously used to show the river running beneath the footbridge and to suggest that barrier, or to suggest a starry night during the song “Goodnight My Someone.” The mobility of the sets, rather than drawing attention to the fact that the show is being performed in-the-round or limiting the production, is used to great effect: Hill standing on a twirling pool table during “Ya Got Trouble,” or the breaking apart of library tables and moving of library shelves during “Marian the Librarian” – all drew the audience in to the show and helped to illustrate the moods and feelings of the characters. The colorful costumes are superbly designed by Judith Bowden.

And a special mention to Musical Director Lawrence Goldberg and his band of fine musicians who play Meredith Wilson’s popular score so beautifully. It’s brassy heaven! And the sound by Timothy M. Thompson is perfection.

As the show ended, the audience rose to give the cast and orchestra a well-deserved standing ovation. Those who only know the show from the movie will find themselves as enchanted with Arena Stage’s production as the town of River City was with Professor Harold Hill.

Illustration by Doug Fraser.

Arena Stage’s heart-warming, funny, and colorful production of will leave you smiling. You may even want to pull out that dusty coronet and start using that ‘Think System.” What a glorious time in the theatre!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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 online.

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