Friday, May 30, 2008

Globe Giddy Over Music Man

The Music Man receives a perfect review (4 stars) from J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail:

"Well, I'm sold! Sure, I fancy myself a sophistimacated fella from the big city, immune to cotton-headed sentimental fluffery. But I gotta tell you folks that you'd be missing out big time if you didn't head on down to the Stratford Festival of Shakespearean Splendours and catch their light-as-a-feather, family-friendly revival of The Music Man.

"It's pure candy floss for the soul, I tell you, guaranteed to rotate any frown by 180 degrees and put more spring in your step than a Swiss watchsmith maker turned shoe maker.

"Ye gods. What has happened to me? 'Professor' Harold Hill's rhythmic salesman patter is positively infectious in Susan H. Schulman's fantastic production of Meredith Willson's 1957 musical.

"Hill (Jonathan Goad), of course, is a fast-talkin' con man who swindles small-town Americans into buying band instruments, uniforms and instruction manuals for their kids, before hightailing it out on the last train without teaching them a note.

"On his latest stop, in River City, Iowa, in the year of 1912, however, Hill finds a worthy adversary in the form of local librarian and music teacher Marian Paroo (Leah Oster), an 'old maid'" of 26 who quickly grows wise to his ways.

"The British have a pretentious habit of taking classic musicals like this one and trying to find the dark, inner meaning that doesn't exist in them. The Trevor Nunn revival of My Fair Lady that recently passed through Toronto was a prime example, including as it did a moment where Eliza ended up marching in a protest for women's rights.

"Schulman, thankfully, has no such highfalutin ideas about The Music Man; there are no signs of the world war about to break out two years later across the ocean or specious links between Hill's confidence tricks and those that led America to invade Iraq. No, Schulman knows her territory and has unleashed a non-stop barrage of joyful music and dancing on Patrick Clark's whimsical, translucent set, on which print advertisements are projected.

"Michael Lichtefeld's clever choreography is unrelenting in its energy, a mix of ballet and pumped-up folk dance executed by a uniformly graceful ensemble. Even a number like Marian the Librarian gets turned into a blowout extravaganza with library patrons riding roughshod over the reading room, juggling books and enacting a dumb-show version of Romeo and Juliet (currently playing in its original version over at Stratford's Festival Theatre).

"Willson's score - full of gems like Till There Was You, the only song from a musical ever covered by the Beatles - is given its full due by Berthold Carrière's tight orchestra, which features a suitably Souza-esque brass section that really wails. (The realization that Marian's theme Goodnight My Someone is simply a slower version of Harold Hill's Seventy-Six Trombones is a joy to rediscover.) As for the romantic leads, Goad and Oster's performances rarely dip too far below the surface, but somehow their simple approach sneaks up on you and plucks at your heartstrings. Goad handles Hill's verbal gymnastics with finesse and sports a winning grin. One could complain about Oster's slightly stilted delivery in the dialogue, but her soaring voice more than makes up for it.

"Among the supporting cast of Iowans, Lee MacDougall is funny as the malapropism-prone Mayor Shinn, but Fiona Reid pickpockets every scene as his upright wife, giving 'Balzac' a pronunciation that just verges on the obscene. The quartet of quarrelling school board officials who continually break into barbershop is pitch-perfect.

"As writer and lyricist, Willson has a trunk full of cheap tricks to win over even the most cynical of audience members, the cheapest being having a number of roles designated to be played by young children.

"Aveleigh Keller is adorable as little Amryllis, while Christopher Van Hagen's performance as Marian's lisping little brother Withrop needs to be videotaped and put up on right away.

"Given all this, the program notes for The Music Man are strangely defensive. 'Simple? Simple-minded? Hardly,' writes Robert Harris, host of CBC Radio's I Hear Music. 'A nostalgic bit of hokey Americana? Hardly.'

"Whoa, whoa, hold your horses! No hard sell necessary. Why, it's as clear as a buttonhook in the well water that you've gotta hop in your Model T and head on down catch this shipoopi of a show."

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