Every decision The Music Man's director/choreographer Susan Stroman makes is in the service of that audience reaction. This is a show designed to please and delight, and no effort is spared in that endeavor. Rather than reinvent the original, Stroman strives to recreate its magic, complete with a lead performance by Craig Bierko as Professor Harold Hill that is an uncanny echo of the indelible Robert Preston's. In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Stroman has taken one of the musical theater's great vehicles and given it new tires, a tune-up, and a wash and wax, but doesn't otherwise mess with its mechanics. And when it rolls out on stage that old classic gives the audience the ride they paid for.
The Music Man won Best Musical Tony Award for the 1957-58 season, defeating (believe it or not) West Side Story. In fact, it swept most of the musical awards that year, winning a total of five. The show had a run of 1,375 performances. The revival might have the legs to equal that because it's such a high-gloss family entertainment. Colorful and vibrant, The Music Man leaps from one great song to the next. In addition to tunes that are inextricably linked to the show ("Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones"), the score features such classics as "Till There Was You," "Goodnight Ladies," and "Lida Rose." And it sure doesn't hurt that the hit film, based on the show and starring Robert Preston, remains in the memory of a good many theatergoers.
The show starts smartly: at the end of the overture, a baton hurtles up out of the orchestra pit, twirls meaningfully above the stage, then is caught by a drum majorette in full regalia. Only audience members down front can see into the pit to appreciate the extra effort of dressing up someone who is otherwise unseen just so she can catch a baton, but that attention to detail is the cornerstone of this production. And the flying baton razzmatazz is the tone-setter for the show that follows.
Of course, you know the story. A con man calling himself Professor Harold Hill (Craig Bierko) comes to a small town in Iowa circa 1912, and sells the locals on the idea of a boy's band. He makes a tidy sum on his orders for instruments, instruction booklets, and uniforms, all bought with the understanding that he'll teach and lead the band. He intends, however, to sneak out of town at the last minute with his ill-gotten gains. In a bit of turnabout, the cynical con artist gets sold on love instead, and that brings us to the finale.
The success or failure of The Music Man depends largely on the performance of whoever plays Harold Hill. The role is so associated with Robert Preston that anyone attempting to play the part will automatically find himself in a lopsided comparison contest. That's quite an obstacle. Craig Bierko doesn't try to find a new interpretation of the part; instead, he fully embraces the original--even to the point of sounding like Preston. And it works.
On the downside, though Rebecca Luker as Marian has a lovely voice, her acting skills are about as varied as the lyrics of "Gary, Indiana." Just as she was a bland Maria in the recent revival of The Sound of Music, she is an emotional no-show in this production. Happily, the role is such that an opaque Marian doesn't doom this otherwise audience-pleasing revival. Max Cassella disappoints in his supporting role as Marcellus Washburn; he doesn't score as he should with the winsome "Shipoopi" number. Another distracting problem in the production is the performance of Clyde Alves as the local bad boy Tommy. An exciting dancer, Alves performs with his mouth hanging wide open virtually the entire time he's on stage. The only other minor complaint concerns the cheap-looking, flimsy set design by Thomas Lynch.
The rest is pure joy. Ruth Williamson gives one of her patented comic supporting performances as the Mayor's wife. No one makes entrances or exits like Williamson; she consistently makes gold out of straw. Michael Phalen as Winthrop (Marian's kid brother with the lisp) gives a genuinely credible performance, and the rest of the supporting cast, including Paul Benedict as Mayor Shinn, give the book and its music full play. In particular, the quartet of town fathers--Jack Doyle, Blake Hammon, John Sloman and Michael-Leon Wooley--have a sweet sound together, and act well, too. William Ivey Long's costume design is worth special note because it isn't just showy beautiful it's also subtle and delicate. In fact, the costumes Long dresses Luker in say far more about her character than she expresses herself.
Susan Stroman's choreography has sweep and energy; she uses the whole stage and takes advantage of most every prop, from books to typewriters, to give the dance numbers an organic syncopation. Her direction is not as entirely successful as her choreography--for instance, she could direct Bierko to suggest a more vulnerable side before his inevitable turn to love. Right now, his personality change is rather abrupt. On the other hand, Stroman gives this long, old-fashioned show plenty of pace. And most importantly, she gives the audience a big, rousing finish that sends them out on to 52nd Street on a bright, white cloud of rekindled innocence.