The instant the overture began at Artistry’s opening night production of “The Music Man,” I just started beaming and I don’t think I stopped until well after curtain call. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, witty word-play, and a spectrum of broad characters, so “The Music Man” caters to me very well. But I was already familiar with the show and knew all of this going in, so the only question I had was if Artistry was going to deliver a show as wholesome as apple pie and idyllic as a picket fence.
The answer was a trumpeted “Yes!” Artistry delivers a production like ice cream on a hot summer night: one of sincere joy, comfort, and homecoming. Ye Gods, people, just go see this show!
Opening in 1957 on Broadway, “The Music Man” (with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson) is revered as a classic, but one that doesn’t seem to be done too often. The average person may be able to tell you that it has something to do with trombones, but it is so much more than that.
“The Music Man” follows con-man salesman Professor Harold Hill into River City, Iowa where some of the most straight-laced and strict citizens of America reside. Professor Hill is able to wriggle into their hearts, however, under the ruse that in order to save their children from billiard-hall corruption, a boys band must be formed. And Professor Hill is just the one to provide the instruments, instruction books, and uniforms.
Seeking endorsement to back up his non-existent credentials, Professor Hill pursues and woos the town music teacher (and librarian) Marian Paroo, who will have none of it. None of it until she observes how Harold Hill’s (although misplaced) kindness and attention provides her younger brother, Winthrop, with self-confidence. Marian allows herself to fall for Professor Hill, who in turn, finds himself genuinely falling for her. And in between and around all of this romance, is an acapella train ride, Grecian urns, a chase sequence, the Shipoopi, a barbershop quartet, the Wells Fargo Wagon, and, yes, seventy-six trombones.
“The Music Man” is just an incredibly well-crafted piece of storytelling. Meredith Willson’s books and lyrics are a master class on the art of music and song emerging from dialogue. The show is also largely based on Willson’s own life and experiences growing up in Mason City, Iowa, so the citizens of River City are real people; broad characters, certainly, but honest ones. Artistry’s cast does a remarkable job doing Willson’s characters a service, but also making them their own.
Wendy Short-Hays as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn was a hoot and a half and she, along with the other Pick-a-Little ladies (Corey de Danann, Lauren Drasler, Deidre Cochran, and Becca Hart) gave some of the best line-readings of the night. As Amaryllis, Catie Bair was the definition of charming. Played opening night by Liam Beck-O’Sullivan, Winthrop’s lisping solos were joyous and probably had Conductor Anita Ruth wiping spittle from her forehead. And Christian B. Labissoniere, Joe McLaughlin, Andrew Newman, and C. Ryan Shipley as the barbershop quartet were a complete treat to watch and hear.
A knock-out performance was given by the crystalline-voiced Jennifer Eckes as Marian Paroo. During intermission, I overheard several people gushing about her gorgeous “My White Night”. One lady didn’t have words and just sort-of rolled her eyes up into her head, smiled, and let out a huge sigh.
And Michael Gruber is Professor Harold Hill. He just is. Meredith Willson does not shy away from words, and Mr. Gruber gets to wrap his mouth around most of them during “Ya Got Trouble;” a feat that, alone, deserved the standing ovation at curtain call. Mr. Gruber’s energy is palpable and infectious and is the driving force of the evening.
Mr. Gruber also serves double-duty as choreographer and I was enraptured by “Marian the Librarian” and “Shipoopi.” Both numbers had some incredible compositions on stage and it is obvious that the cast is having a ball. Conductor Anita Ruth’s sixteen piece orchestra (that’s right, sixteen piece) is a character in itself. I got giddy when the band started up for “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Who doesn’t love a good march!?
The rest of the creative team behind the show did an outstanding job as well. Ed Gleeman’s colorful and textured costumes popped well against Joel Sass’ rustic postcard-of-America set. And I really appreciated Director Angela Timberman’s embrace of the material and ability to build a community of diverse characters on stage.
Watching “The Music Man,” it is difficult to distinguish what Meredith Willson is doing well against what Artistry is doing well. In the end, I don’t particularly care and it doesn’t matter, but you need to go watch this show. Go see it for the incredible performances by Jennifer Eckes and Michael Gruber. Go see it for the barbershop quartet. Go see it for the Pick-a-Little ladies’ hats. For the Wells Fargo Wagon silhouette that comes rolling over the hills of Iowa. For ‘library’ pronounced ‘libary.’ For Marian arriving late at the footbridge 10 years too late.
Go see it to celebrate care-free innocence free of cynicism. Go see it to witness small-town community pride alive and well. Go see it to remind yourself of the America we all hold in our hearts. Just go see it.