The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s classic 1957 musical, was never just about Harold Hill, the con man who sets out to convince the citizens of River City, Iowa, that what they need, more than anything, is a boys’ band, complete with pricey instruments, uniforms, and instruction books. No, this slice of Americana was also about something larger and more universal. It was about the town of River City’s desperately needing to believe in Harold Hill. So much so, in fact, that in Olney Theatre Center’s unexpectedly powerful and moving production, performed in both spoken English and American Sign Language (with supertitles), the townsfolk fall for a man who not only can’t play a note of music; he can’t hear a note of music either.
Producing a musical with a cast of both hearing and deaf actors is not a new concept. Deaf West Theatre in California made a splash on Broadway with their revival of Big River in 2003. Their revival of Spring Awakening in 2017 remains one of the best productions of any show I have ever seen. (Sandra Mae Frank, who co-directs here with Michael Baron, starred in that production.)
I did have my reservations about whether The Music Man, with its peculiarities of language — like Winthrop Paroo’s lisp, Zaneeta Shinn’s trademark “Ye, Gods!” and Mayor Shinn’s bumbling turns of phrase — would work with such a treatment. And the answer? Yes. It works. It mostly works. It’s certainly a more cerebral take on the material, and I often found myself trying to wrap my head around the “rules,” as it were, of this particular River City. But if this production is more challenging than what one might expect from this material, it is also more emotional and charming and intoxicating.
As Harold Hill, James Caverly, all boyish good looks and “aw shucks” attitude, is simply enchanting. He casts his spell from the moment we see him in the opening number, “Rock Island,” which is led by Florrie Bagel, a chameleon in a variety of smaller roles. When Hill finally lets his façade down before his love interest, Marian Paroo, you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful moment on stage in our area than when he signs
There were bells, on the hill
But I never heard them ringing
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you
in one of the show’s most famous songs. I’ll admit that it left me in tears.
Adelina Mitchell’s Marian, buttoned up and pinched, is the perfect complement to Caverly’s bravado and showmanship. And she possesses a gorgeous, rich voice that shines, especially in “My White Knight” and “Goodnight My Someone.”
So why do I say that this production “mostly works”? Well, there were a few missteps. Ethan Sinnott’s set has an evocative small-town feel, but the choice to populate the stage during the “Shipoopi” number with hanging signs that looked like they came directly off of someone’s lawn in 2022 was just bizarre. I wish that Karma Camp’s energetic choreography was able to merge the signing and movement into a more unified whole. At times, it seemed that the two elements were fighting against each other instead of existing in harmony, a missed opportunity. Lastly, while I realize a project of this size is a tremendous expense, the choice not to use children in the cast — and I have to assume it was a choice, as there are several children’s roles — was really a shame. Having a grown man play both a member of the barbershop quartet and a 10-year-old boy, once in the same scene, was really odd.
Nevertheless, this production demands our attention and should be seen. Olney made a bold move in essentially reinventing a show we all love and one we thought we all knew. This Music Man is innovative and daring, and during these sweltering days of July, it is the sweetest of summer treats to see it and hear it anew.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
The Music Man plays through July 24, 2022, at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. Showtimes are Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets ($42–$85) can be purchased online or by calling 301-924-3400. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students.
Cast and creative credits are here.
COVID Safety: Masks must be worn in all performance spaces, but are optional in lobby spaces. The Olney Theatre COVID safety policy is here.
Olney Theatre’s bilingual production of The Music Man is performed in American Sign Language with English supertitles. The songs are performed in English with ASL and English supertitles. The dialogue is performed in ASL with English supertitles. The ability to read the supertitles, either projected or via the GalaPro app, is an essential part of the experience for hearing audiences.