"The Music Man" is the workhorse of musical theatre -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a stage that hasn't had "76 Trombones" on it. For community theatres, it's bread and butter. Big cast, great songs, many roles for kids that don't require them to get sold, kidnapped, orphaned, or shot, and aside from the protagonist being a con man, the material is pretty unobjectionable -- the show has everything! Romance, redemption, humor, joy, sorrow, trickery, a great message about how reading makes you awesome, and a barbershop quartet. Also, it beat "West Side Story" for Best Musical at the Tonys, so there.
Because of this, pretty much everyone has either seen "The Music Man" or been in it. (You know Bruce Willis sang "Shipoopi" in high school.) However, even if you've watched 300 versions of this show, The 5th Avenue Theatre's current production, running now through March 10, breaks the "seen one 'Music Man,' seen them all" pattern. Definitely go see it, if only to remind yourself that there is just something magical about the classics done right. As an added bonus, this production solves those two weird moments in the show that rely, in this reporter's opinion, perhaps a little heavily on the suspension of disbelief.
Hats off to Director Bill Berry, who brings nuance into the show and, ye gods, it really pops. Choreographer Bob Richard cuts no corners (no jazz squares here) and uses the large peppy cast to its fullest potential. "Marion the Librarian," already a fun number, is an exacting, book-throwing, table-tapping extravaganza. "Shapoopie" becomes more than just a song title that makes seven-year-olds giggle, it is actually mesmerizing with flips and turns and high kicks. Taylor Niemeyer as "Zaneeta Shinn" and Gabriel Corey as "Tommy Djilas" get special shout-outs for some truly excellent dancing. Coupled with the big ensemble numbers ("Iowa Stubbornness," "Trouble," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," "76 Trombones"), it's hard not to let your jaw drop at the vibrant colors and musical force of a very talented 45 member cast giving it all they got. All the boxes for "Things Necessary for an Amazing Production of 'The Music Man'" are checked.
The 5th even took a walk on the wild side and cast a real hoofer, the handsome and charming Noah Racey, as Harold Hill. Historically, "ability to dance" is not high on the list of qualifications for Hill, but when you see Racey slick his way across the stage, it makes a lot of sense. A Broadway veteran and Seattle native, Racey choreographed The 5th's production of "Guys and Dolls." He is lovely as the sly professor, bringing out the more debonaire and boyish quality in the character, instead of the weathered, practiced con man. Racey's Hill enjoys every single trick as if it were his first.
Laura Griffith, another Broadway vet, plays Marion and is not only a superb singer, but a wonderful actress. If you're one of those people who usually checks out during "My White Knight" -- and who can blame you -- then just wait until you feel her sing it. Every note from this woman's mouth is an emotive gift. As an actress, Griffith finally gives Marion her due. Here comes that first Suspension of Disbelief: the whiplash from Marion's switch from loathing to loving Hill. It's surprising how much of a difference it makes when Marion is portrayed as a sharp and brave woman struggling with her (perhaps too strong?) ideas of morality, instead of just calling in as the prickly spinster who decides "Eh, he makes my brother happy so I guess this total stranger is cool." Griffith builds to her change of heart with grace and intelligence. It wouldn't be out of this world to suggest that Griffith's Marion may, in fact, outshine the titular character. Also, she looks stunning in every costume.
Joshua Feinsilber as Winthrop, Marion's troubled younger brother, is adorable. He is so darn cute, you can't stand it. The cowlick is ingenious. More children should have cowlicks. There is no "Music Man" without Eulalie Shinn, the formidable mayor's wife, and fortunately we have Laura Kenny, recently seen playing Yente at Village Theatre's lauded "Fiddler on the Roof." Kenny's comic timing perfect and she is without a doubt the funniest fountain you've ever seen. Also, she gets infinite points for being a baritone.
Eric Polani Jensen, Aaron Shanks, Greg Stone, and Hugh Hastings as the members of the school board-turned-barbershop quartet are everything you could want; vocally crisp and all adept at throwing an adult tantrum, a skill pivotal to the roles. Their coordinated hat-tipping could be a little cleaner, but it's hard to nitpick, especially when their "Lida Rose" counterpoint to Marion's "Sweet and Low" is so exquisite.
Gregory A. Poplyk's costumes are wonderful, especially the glorious hats and the colorful swishy skirts on the ladies. Presumably to make room for the large cast, the pastel sets by Martin Christoffel are simple building outlines lowered and raised depending on the scene. The cyc is an endless blue sky with wispy clouds. Though sparse, the set is very pretty and decorative, lending a Ye Olde Soda Shoppe flavor to River City.
If there is something to complain about (and there's not much), it's that a few of the actors garble their lines in their understandable excitement of being A Character, so you miss a couple comedic moments. Fortunately there plenty to go around and the wait isn't long for the next zinger.
And here's the second Suspension of Disbelief thing: the button ending. If you don't want a spoiler, then skip the rest of the review and just go buy your tickets.
For the rest of you, here's the thing. The certainty of Hill and Marion's romance at the end is kind of weird and dissatisfying. True, he doesn't go to jail, but does he really win the day? Even with Marion's love, how can this great con man be happy in River City? What would he even do?
However, there's a subtle question mark at the end of The 5th's production -- don't freak out everyone, it's not like Harold turns and winks at the audience before escaping out a window. As the curtain closes, the triumph is that Marion helps clear Harold Hill of the charges. But what then? Instead of hammering home Love Conquers All, Racey and Griffith do an excellent job of showing the beginning of a potential courtship rather than the beginning of a marriage. It's almost a "Gone with the Wind" ending -- somehow, the mystery is far more satisfying than leaving the theater knowing one way or the other.
The final amazing thing about this production. Did you ever notice how many sexual innuendos there are in "The Music Man"? You will now.
"The Music Man" plays now through March 10th
The 5th Avenue Theatre (1308 5th Avenue, Seattle)
Single tickets start at $31
For information, please visit www.5thavenue.org or call the Box Office at (206) 625-1900. Tickets may also be purchased at (888) 5TH-4TIX.