Editor Note: This review was written pre-COVID 19 closures. It was finished then but, as so often happens with cobblers, my articles sometimes have no shoes… In this case, I definitely thought I had published it, but had not. While I highly doubt that this production will come back in the same form, it feels right to put this review out into the world. I am publishing it now without cluttering it with knowledge of what was to come. Somehow, this feels right to me -- like so many productions, this show will probably not get the run it deserved nor will people get to enjoy it in the way this cast wanted. I cannot wait until we can all gather together again.
Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man is an American classic for a reason. We all know the songs, the story, and the Americana ideal encapsulated in River City, Iowa. The Music Man is a love letter of sorts to a time and place that now exists only in cultural nostalgia. I’ll cut right to the chase -- the Chanhassen Dinner Theater delivers on everything promised in this musical: the songs are well-sung, the pit is in fine form, and the dancing is sure to be a crowd pleaser. CDT’s The Music Man is sure to delight your grandmother, make your mother smile, and (at the very least) hold the attention of your youngsters.
The story is precisely as you remember -- smooth talking boys’ band super salesman Harold Hill (Michael Gruber) comes to River City, Iowa, bent on making money off the townsfolk and snuggling up to the beautiful but severe librarian Marian Paroo (Ann Michels). Encouraged by her mother, Mrs. Paroo (Peggy O’Connell), Marian begins to let her defenses down, eventually keeping Hill’s secret because she is so pleased with the changes she sees in the townsfolk. Along the way we meet a string of one note but often funny taxpayers (note: Google suggested taxpayer as a synonym for “townsfolk” and I cannot unsee this). In this production, Mayor George Shinn (Keith Rice) and his wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Michelle Barber), really steal the secondary role thunder along with the hammy Serena Brook (playing Alma Hix), who is almost impossible to stop watching.
Michael Gruber as Harold Hill and Ann Michels as Marian Paroo are exquisitely cast. If it has been awhile since you have seen the movie with Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, you may be (pleasantly) surprised to find the characters just a touch older, a hair sadder, and good deal wiser in CDT’s version. It’s a great casting choice, both for the believability of the characters/choices and their chemistry. Gruber is a charming rogue, but he feels a bit less Preston and a bit more Saul Goodman; slightly harder, a pinch less smooth, and often believing the beauty of his own con, Gruber soft shoes, taps, and oils his way around the stage. Michels’ Marian oscillates (mostly) believably between simpering and bold (the moments she feels inauthentic are due mostly to the fact that Meredith Wilson didn’t seem to have a very clear picture of Marian as a person). Michels’ mannerism and voice are lovely in this part. Not only can you feel her melting into love with Hill, but the connection she has to her mother (the very funny Peggy O'Connell) and brother, Winthrop (Hugo Mullaney the night I attended) feels familial in the best way.
After a rather heavy-handed Mama Mia! last season, Nayna Ramey's set is less cluttered; it is charming and very practical for the group dancing sequences. Small, A-line lattice roofs give the impression of the town without too much visual or spatial bulk. The backdrop of rolling hills is covered with a fine white, lace pattern, which put me in mind of looking out onto farmland from my grandmother’s sitting room.
CDT’s take on The Music Man is almost completely faithful to the source material. Smack in between the scenes and songs you know and love, the scene where Marian Paroo and Charlie Cowell (an anvil salesman) reinforces a dark truth.
Charlie: Now wait a minute. Fine director? Have you heard one note a’ music from any band?
Marian: No, but--
Charlie: But nothin’, girly-girl! He never formed a band in his life! And he never will!
Marian: If you’ll just listen to me for a minute --
Charlie: I’d like to -- I’d like to do more than that, if I had the time. I sure got the inclination. But I got to get back on that train and I got to leave this dynamite [..]
Marian distracts and ultimately kisses him, causing him to miss his train.
Charlie: Why you double-dealing little -- Who do you think you’re protecting? That guy’s got a girl in every county in Illinois, and he’s taken it away from every one of ‘em! And that’s 102 counties! Not counting the piano teachers like you he cozies up to, to keep their mouths shut!
There’s just so much in this scene, it’s almost hard to know where to start. But I will say this: seeing a competent woman (and her town) defend a Charlton who claims that there are troubles only he can fix, and to go through the trouble of kissing an honest but horrible and misogynistic salesman who wants to feel her up, team, seeing this merely a day after the planful and non-sleazy Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race was almost too much for me. The symbolism (Trump as a malicious Harold Hill and creepy, touchy Uncle Joe as Charlie the anvil salesman, Marian as the disillusioned American voter, caught between two men who both won’t treat her right…), it was all almost too much for me.
There are small nods to what is going on nationally (during “Terrible” the letters T and P are massive cut outs, which feels like a very clear nod to Trump and Pence), but overall the production is politically polite and does not want to ruffle any feathers. This is the 5th time Chanhassen has done The Music Man and it is easy to see why -- MN loves to trash talk IA and the whole family loves the music. Like all great salespeople, they have sold themselves on their product before they try to sell you, and this cast delivers spades.