Meredith Wilson’s "The Music Man," currently playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre through March 10, is rightly considered one of the Great American Musicals. But it’s sometimes forgotten that it’s also a musical with bite. River City, Iowa, the small, turn of the 20th town where the story is set, looks idyllic on the surface, but it’s also a town that’s replete with gossip, hypocrisy, and petty minded morality — behavior that’s cleverly sent up in songs like “Iowa Stubborn” and “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” The opening number, “Rock Island,” is an amazing spoken word number rattled off by traveling salesmen in a railroad car; probably the earliest use of rap in a musical. And then there’s the gleeful eulogy of loose women by the show's lead character, Harold Hill, in “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” which manages to work in a literary reference (Nathanial Hawthorn’s “The Scarlet Letter”?) while praising that moment when “the gal with a touch of sin walks in.”
These are the moments that add spice to what’s otherwise a story of redemption; a con artist who eventually overcomes the error of his ways due to the love and support of a good woman. The con artist is the charming rogue Harold Hill, who passes himself off as a professor of music as he sells folks instruments and uniforms for a band he has no intentions of leading. His adversary is Marian, the town librarian, who’s in danger of becoming what they used to call an “old maid,” because there’s no man in town that’s even half as smart as she is.
The 5th Avenue’s production proved to be a crowd pleaser from the very start, with the audience bursting into applause as the curtain rose (impressed with the railroad car setting, perhaps). Noah Racey (a grad of Seattle’s Roosevelt High School), is light on his feet as Harold Hill (especially in the “Marian the Librarian” number), though perhaps a bit too loose-limbed, missing some of the character’s gravitas. It’s something that could be said of the production on the whole; the performances are fine on the surface, but lack the kind of depth that would make the show fully engaging. The acting and singing is all pleasant, but there’s little that’s truly outstanding (though Joshua Feinsilber comes close to stealing the show as the young Winthrop, when he busts out with “Gary, Indiana,” and the dance number "Shipoopi" was another hit with the audience).
One can still appreciate how carefully the show has been crafted. “Piano Lesson” leads into a spirited conversation between Marian and her mother; the quarreling school board members, fashioned by Hill into a barbershop quartet, find the most unlikely situations in which to start singing; and in what the 5th Avenue’s executive producer and artistic director David Armstrong calls the show’s “brilliant musical secret,” Harold’s rousing “Seventy Six Trombones” and Marian’s wishful love song “Goodnight My Someone,” are actually sung to the same melody. Listen carefully, and you’ll see that it’s true.