Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Just One Off-Note: Sheer Delight of Goodman's 'The Music Man' Lessened by Central Casting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Music Man
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 18

It’s somewhat astonishing to note that West Side Story—clearly one of the greatest musicals ever created—didn’t win the Tony Award for Best New Musical when it was eligible in 1958.

Personally, I consider WSS my third favorite stage musical of all-time, behind The Producers and Les Misérables, both of which came decades later.

But my fourth favorite musical is the one that beat West Side Story for that 1958 Tony:

The Music Man

As with WSS, and my likely #5, My Fair LadyCabaret, Hamilton and Sunday in the Park with George are also in the mix—I was first indoctrinated to The Music Man as a movie, starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and Buddy Hackett and released in 1962 (long before I saw it).

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Thanks to Preston, Jones, Hackett and composer/lyricist Meredith Willson, I have relished many of The Music Man’s infectious songs since before I was a teen:

“Rock Island,” “Iowa Stubborn,” “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “Goodnight, My Someone,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little),” “Marian the Librarian,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Shipoopi,” “Lida Rose,” “Gary, Indiana” and “Till There Was You,” the last of which was actually covered by the Beatles on their famed first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Strictly as a collection of catchy show tunes, I don’t know that any musical tops The Music Man.

Though going back to a high school production when I was a student, I have seen the show onstage five other times, unlike terrific Broadway, touring and renditions of West Side Story--and most other great musicals--I'd never experienced a truly astonishing live version of The Music Man.

Until now.


Under the direction of the rightfully esteemed Mary Zimmerman, Goodman Theatre's current staging is predominantly terrific and I had a smile plastered to my face most of Monday night.

As proven yet again with Lookingglass' The Steadfast Tin Soldier last Christmas, Zimmerman is a master when it comes to whimsy, and her take on this classic musical included some inspired physical humor.

I refrained from singing out loud but demonstrably enjoyed each of Willson's mirthful melodies and lyrics as they danced into my ears, courtesy of stellar performers such as Monica West (Marian), Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Heidi Kettenring (Eulalie MackecknieShinn).

To have Zimmerman cast Geoff Packard as "the music man," Harold Hill, after he had been in her Goodman musical productions of The Jungle Book and Candide, also bespeaks his considerable talent.

But without wanting to be too harsh given Packards's estimable effort, I didn't care much for his take, which seemed bland, too softly sung and devoid of any (crucial to the show) chemistry with West's Marian.

Initially, when his tonality on “(Ya Got) Trouble” was considerably different than Preston's, the variance was no big deal. And to be clear, Packard is a professional performer and quality singer.

But more so than his being the centerpiece, this Music Man was most joyful on the ensemble numbers--“Iowa Stubborn,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” a wonderfully choreographed (by Denis Jones) “Shipoopi,” led by Butler-Duplessis.

Ideally, West might've made for a tad more distinctive Marian, but her vocals were exquisite on “Goodnight, My Someone,” “My White Knight” and “Till There Was You.”

With impressive--but at times oddly minimalist--scenery by Daniel Ostling and costuming by Ana Kuzmanic the show was a visual delight, and the 12-piece orchestra under the direction of Jermaine Hill sounded fantastic.

So in many key ways, this was the caliber of Music Man I've long wanted to see and those not nearly as critical may well deem Zimmerman's production to be magnificent. (I know I haven't really described the plot, but for the uninitiated, a shady salesman comes to an Iowa town intent on selling band instruments and uniforms, and winds up unduly smitten with the town librarian and piano teacher. And there's a bunch of great songs.)

@@@@1/2 out of 5 means I really, really enjoyed the show, but that I found it just shy of perfect.

So this is effusively far more of a recommendation than not, and I'm glad to note that the Goodman's run has already been extended to August 18.

But having recently read that Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster will star in The Music Man on Broadway beginning in Sept. 2020, I'm now even more hopeful I might be able to see that production.

Or, at least sometime, a rendition that--even more than Goodman's largely exquisite one--fully matches my love for The Music Man.

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