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Review: ‘The Music Man’ with all African-American cast in concert next at NJPAC

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Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney (papermoon4@aol.com) 3/15/14 at 8pm at Two River Theater, Red Bank NJ

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"In a first time collaboration between the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and Red Bank's Two River Theater, the groups have chosen to re-imagine Meredith Willson's 1957 Tony Award-winning classic “The Music Man” through an all African-American cast. The concept is not as quite as novel as you might think. Broadway has staged many African-American versions of best-loved shows, from the traditional “Hello, Dolly!” (1975) and “Guys and Dolls” (1976) to the more radically reinterpreted “Timbuktu” (1978), an adaptation of “Kismet.” Even more recently, a revival of the play “A Trip To Bountiful” won a 2013 Tony Award for its star Cicely Tyson. This visit to 1912 River City, Iowa, retains all the nostalgic charm of the original, but asks us to experience it in a slightly different context.

The program notes for this concert style “Music Man” remind us that although the fictional River City has previously been populated primarily by white characters, in reality there were many all African-American communities across the country during the turn of the last century. They were mostly formed by freed slaves looking to begin new lives in the heartland after the Civil War. Visually, the entire concert is set in a railroad car with the sign “Colored Passengers Only” prominently visible throughout. But that's where the re-imagining ends. The rest is more interpretation – both from audience and actors.

The musical has been strategically streamlined for a cast of 11 and an onstage musical ensemble of seven. Zaneeta Shinn and Tommy Djilas appear to have left town (ye gods!), but otherwise the talented cast easily handle doubling as the many 'River Citizens' (to quote Mayor Shinn) that the script demands.

isaih johnsonFast-talking salesman Harold Hill is played with a slick charm by Isaiah Johnson, his scarlet vest and bow tie setting him apart as a rabble rousing Troublemaker. (That's Troublemaker with a capital 'T'.) Marian, the prim but spunky librarian who falls under his spell, is portrayed by Stephanie Umoh. Her warm, dulcet tones more than do justice to the show's classic songs.

If nothing else, this concert staging allows Willson's grand and glorious score to take center stage – musically and literally. Given the concert's context, we can be forgiven for suddenly realizing that the á cappella opening number “Rock Island” may indeed be Broadway's first rap song! Listening with new eyes we also sense the Act One finale “The Wells Fargo Wagon” (an anthem to rural delivery) rise to something akin to revival meeting fervor. One can't help but hope that director Robert O'Hara and his creative staff are allowed to take this visceral re-imagining to the next level: a full production – here in New Jersey, of course! In the meantime, performances continue through March 23rd at NJPAC in Newark."

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney (papermoon4@aol.com)

Performances in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater take place Friday, March 21 at 8 pm; Saturday, March 22 at 3 pm and 8 pm; Sunday, March 23 at 3 pm. Tickets, on sale now, are $59.50 and $69.50 and can be purchased at www.njpac.org, by calling 1-888-GO-NJPAC or by visiting the box office at One Center Street in Downtown Newark.

Performances in Two River’s Rechnitz Theater were Thursday, March 13 at 8pm; Friday, March 14 at 8pm; Saturday, March 15 at 3pm and 8pm; and Sunday, March 16 at 3pm and 7pm.

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