Tracy Danoff, Contributing Critic - Washington D.C.
DC audiences have been treated to a respite from the every day drama of Washington politics. This welcome break comes in the form of the Broadway Center Stage production of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Now playing at The Kennedy Center through February 11th, The Music Man offers up a big dose of lightness and joy.
The story is a familiar one. A con man shows up in River City in the guise of a band leader named Professor Harold Hill. His goal is to profit off the townspeople. He does this by uniting them against a common enemy – in this case a pool table. Although this story has been told for decades, the idea of manipulating people against a common enemy feels sadly relevant for today.
Happily, The Music Man has a lighter tone. This show has a fun book and an infectious score that features familiar tunes such as “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Ya Got Trouble.” Also, we soon discover there is more to Harold Hill than first meets the eye. The “professor” is brought to life beautifully by Broadway’s own Norm Lewis. Mr. Lewis conveys so much in this one performance. He is charismatic, playful and surprisingly sensitive. Then there is that voice. That voice is simply stunning – especially during his duet of “Till There Was You” with Jessie Mueller’s Marian.
Tony Award winner, Jessie Mueller is excellent as the strong-willed librarian, Marian Paroo. Her portrayal is flawless and her chemistry with Mr. Lewis is off the charts by the end of the show. However, some of her most enjoyable moments are those shared with Rosie O’Donnell. They play off each other incredibly well and it is obvious that Ms. O’Donnell brought her A game to this role. She has grown as an actor and this is the finest performance this writer has seen Ms. O’Donnell give on a stage.
There are several other familiar Broadway names in this cast. John Cariani is an endearing Marcellus and Mark Lin Baker’s Mayor Shinn never fails to entertain. However, it is Veanne Cox as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn who really steals the show. Ms. Cox is simply hilarious as the mayor’s wife. She is always interesting to watch even during those moments when she is not featured.
Honorable mention must go to Jimmy Smagula, Arlo Hill, Todd Horman and Nicholas Ward as the members of the school board/barbershop quartet. Every time they sang together it was magic.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast was as successful. Damon J. Gillespie as Tommy Dijilas and Eloise Kropp as Zaneeta Shinn fell short. While they are both fine dancers, their lack of chemistry was obvious. Both exhibited a flatness in their performances and at times it was hard to hear Mr. Gillespie when he was speaking.
Audiences for this show are informed that Broadway Center Stage is a script-in-hand production. In the tradition of Encores! and Musicals in Mufti actors may perform with a script in their hands. It was good to see that this method was used sparingly. The direction by Marc Bruni worked well and he even offers up a terrific surprise. Chris Bailey’s choreography was energetic and fun and while Amy Clark’s costumes were skillfully designed, it was Marian’s second act dress that really hit it out of the park.
Overall this production is a breath of fresh air at a time when it is greatly needed. It would be fantastic if some enterprising New York producer would give it a New York run. Until then, catch it before it ends its limited run.