Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
All of this is on tap in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's new production of the classic musical, its fifth time up on the Chanhassen stage in the venue's seventy-two year history, tied with Fiddler on the Roof as their most frequently produced title. The talented team at Chanhassen has whipped all the familiar tunes, the corny jokes, the lovable stock characters, the slowly developing romance, and the happily anticipated plot twists into as sweet a froth as one is likely to find anywhere on earth. But what makes this Music Man excel is the attention to small moments that convey truth and a depth of feelings behind some of the whimsical and unlikely turns of the narrative.
The story is set in 1912 and takes place in a fictional small town called River City, by all accounts based on Willson's hometown, Mason City, Iowa. Like today, technology is bringing about change, some of it troubling. The Model T Ford has brought scattered farms and crossroad hamlets closer to county-seat commercial centers, and packaged manufactured products are replacing goods sold in bulk out of cracker barrels. A huddle of travelling salesmen bemoan these changes in a train car on the railroad line called the "Rock Island," one of the all-time great opening numbers. Their hard times are made worse by scoundrels like Harold Hill. He swindles entire towns by selling them instruments and uniforms to start a boys' band, then taking off with their money before a single horn is tooted. Any salesman to hit town after him pays the price for the bad blood Hill leaves behind.
Hill descends on River City and sets his trap, learning what's new in town (a pool table) and convincing the gullible citizens that it poses great moral danger to their youth, "Trouble" that can only be averted by diverting their attention to a boys' band. To make sure his tracks are covered, he also works on any trained musicians in town, lest they see through his gambit. The only trained musician in River City is Marian Paroo, who is also the town's librarian. Marian is a lovely young woman who maintains high standards in culture and in men. She lives with her widowed mother and much younger brother Winthrop, a boy with a humiliating speech defect and a strong need for a father figure.
Among the other River City residents are Hill's former accomplice Marcellus, who has settled down but isn't opposed to lending Hill a hand; the self-serving, hot-aired Mayor Shinn and his haughty wife Eulalie, and the gaggle of gossiping women who surround her; an inept quartet of school board members charged with checking on Hill's credentials; and a teenage boy branded as a "wild kid" who is secretly dating the mayor's daughter. Though the end point is predictable, the amusing route taken to get there, the colorful characters brought on board, and the charm with which Hill wins them over, make the journey an absolute delight.
Back to the small moments. The narrative can easily be faulted for having a male lead bent on deceiving a virtuous woman, at first blush stalking her on the street. At the same time, that woman can be considered flawed, based on the hard crust she has placed around herself which isolates her from her community. For us to believe these two can abandon their differences and find value in the otherto say nothing of lovethere must be some authentic-feeling moments in the book that stop these characters in their tracks and cause them to reconsider a person who they thought they had figured out. Willson has provided those moments, which puts The Music Man a cut above the majority of shows. However, it takes a sensitive and attentive director like Chanhassen's Michael Brandisi to draw sufficient focus to these moments. Then, there needs to be appealing actors who convey both the intelligence and inner light that would enable their characters to catch those fleeting moments and make sure we, the audience, catch them too. And Michael Gruber as Hill and Ann Michels as Marian are just perfect.
Gruber has a pleasing baritone, casting off his songs in far better voice than Robert Preston, who became a Broadway legend starring in the original Music Man and the film version that followed. Gruber can sell big numbers like "Trouble" and "Marian the Librarian" and has wit, charm, is an agile dancer, and importantly, makes us believe that all along, Harold Hill had a loving heart waiting to be tapped. Michels has a thrilling soprano that delivers such beautiful, heartfelt songs as "Goodnight, My Someone," "My White Knight," and "Till There Was You" in all their glory. She too has the acting chops to create a whole character, and we are fully convinced of Marian's crust, some (but not all) of it intended to protect Winthrop, and her steely determination, while also assuring us that the right person, at the right time, who does the right thing, could become her "white knight."
Gruber and Michels are surrounded by a talented cast who make every character a highlight; a show with so many highlights can't help but be dazzling. Veteran actor Peggy O'Connell is a complete joy as Mrs. Paroo, exaggerating the character's sentimentality and practical view on life to delightful effect. Tony Vierling is the perfect wing man as Marcellus and joins with Gruber in a delightfully winning tap-dance to accentuate "The Sadder but Wiser Girl." Keith Rice inflates Mayor Shinn with just the right amount of puffery, while Michelle Barber imbues Eulalie Shinn with hilarious snootiness, vanity and faux sophistication. She and her entourage of ladies make "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" a marvelous parody of empty gossip.
Smaller roles are similarly well cast, with Jay Albright especially making a mark as a frustrated anvil salesman (imagine having to carry around that sample bag) and Tinia Moulder is comically gawky as Ethel Toffelmier, Marcellus' girlfriend. Winthrop is played by two young actors at alternate performances: Hugo Mullaney conveys the boy's sense of loss and the pain of not fitting in, then lighting up the stage with his delight at receiving a shiny cornet and his utter lack of self-consciousness in singing the praises of "Gary, Indiana." Aleks Knezevich, Shad Olsen, Evan Tyler Willson, and John-Michael Zuerlein play the River City school board members, who become mesmerized when Hill cues them as a barbershop quartet, gloriously harmonizing on "Sincere," "It's You" and "Lida Rose." The entire company sounds fantastic raising voices together in their deadpan welcome to the Hawkeye state, "Iowa Stubborn," "Trouble," and especially as they welcome the "Wells Fargo Wagon."
Tamara Kangas Erickson has bestowed lively choreography upon the production, creating an excitement that embellishes both the music and the plot points at hand. The band sounds appropriately brassy, as called for, conducted by music director Andy Kust. Scenic designer Nayna Ramey has done a fine job of suggesting the small town atmosphere of Iowa a century ago, with minimal set pieces, greatly aided by Sue Ellen Berger's lighting, which creates the intimacy of a moon-lit foot bridge. Rich Hamson's costumes seem to leap off the pages of a storybook account of River City, though one wonders if women in a 1912 Midwestern rural town would be quite as stylishly dressed as those on stage.
The Music Man opens with one of the smartest numbers in musical theater and concludes with a catastrophic performance of Beethoven's Minuet in G, which manages to bring tears of joy to everyone, characters on stage and audience alike. How is that possible? It is both uproariously funny and achingly moving, and we come to realize that, in the end, no one is swindled and everyone wins. With a sunny disposition like that, it's no wonder that, despite its age, The Music Man continues to be a warm and wonderful crowd-pleasing entertainment that lifts our spirits so high, we just might be able to catch a glimpse of River City ourselves.
The Music Man runs through, September 5, 2020, at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $68.00- $93.00. Show-only tickets: $53.00 - $73.00. Check website for senior and student discounts. For tickets call 952-934-1525, toll-free 1-800-362-3515, or go to www.chanhassendt.com.
Book, music and lyrics: Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacy; Director: Michael Brindisi; Choreographer: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Music Director: Andy Kust; Set Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Design: Russ Haynes; Wig and Make-up Design: Paul Bigot; Production Stage Managers: Dan Foss and Chris A. Code.
Cast: Jay Albright (Charles Cowell), Michelle Barber (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn), Liam Beck-O'Sullivan * (Winthrop Paroo), Tommy Benson (Salesman/ensemble), Serena Brook (Alma Hix), Ella Freeburg * (Amaryllis), Michael Gruber (Harold Hill), Delaney Hunter (Zaneeta Shinn), Mark King (Salesman/ensemble), Aleks Knezevich (Ewart Dunlop), Evan K. Latta (ensemble), Silas Leer *(Barney), Ann Michels (Marian Paroo), Andrea Mislan (ensemble), Tinia Moulder (Ethel Toffelmier), (Hugo Mullaney * (Winthrop Paroo), Emma Grace Nelson * (Gracie Shinn), Peggy O'Connell (Mrs. Paroo), Shad Olsen (Oliver Hix), Dena Olstad-Rice (Mrs. Squires), Liam O'Mara * (Barney), Tod Peterson (Salesman/ensemble), (Keith Rice (Mayor George Shinn), Laura Rudolph (ensemble), Dylan Rugh (ensemble), Brian Saice (ensemble), Sofia Salmela * (Amaryllis), Thomas Schumacher (Salesman/ ensemble), Andre Shoals (Constable Lock), Kate Spence (ensemble), Jon Michael Stiff (Tommy Djilas), Janet Hayes Trow (Maud Dunlop), John Trow (ensemble), Tony Vierling (Marcellus Washburn), Mazzy Jean Wagner * (Gracie Shinn), Lucas Wells (ensemble), Evan Tyler Willson (Jacey Squires), John-Michael Zuerlein (Salesman).
*appearing at alternating performances