`Music Man' tries to pull a fast one

Review: There are highlights, but the rare spunk and imagination should make audiences wary.

November 29, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Con artists are naturally theatrical characters. They turn people into suckers by selling them a song and a dance.

And yet, Meredith Willson's The Music Man always has seemed too squeaky clean an account of the flimflam trade. The touring production at the Mechanic Theatre won't convince you otherwise. In place of dramatic conflict and whiz-bang spectacle, it delivers a dose of Americana.

Of course, a dose of Americana is pretty welcome these days, but this one is a bit bland. If The Music Man is as American as apple pie, then this production is the off-the-shelf, Mrs. Smith's variety.

Not that there aren't some lovely touches. The choreography and direction in this rare, non-Equity Mechanic subscription offering are re-created from Susan Stroman's work in the current Broadway revival. (Touring credits go to Liam Burke and Ray Roderick.) And two of the big first-act numbers display Stroman's characteristic humor and creativity.

In "Seventy Six Trombones," when con artist Harold Hill convinces the townsfolk of River City, Iowa, that he can turn their boys into a marching band, the kids mime playing instruments. It's such a kick to hear those instruments magically produce sound out of thin air that the whole town begins dancing and marching, at one point creating a "Washington Crossing the Delaware" tableau.

And when Hill attempts to woo the local music teacher/librarian in "Marian the Librarian," he not only inspires the girls in the library to dance with books on their heads, he gets the rest of the library's patrons to dance on top of bookcases, the card catalog and a library ladder, until everyone collapses.

But scam artists need to make their game look effortless, and Gerritt Vandermeer's Harold Hill works too hard. A tall, handsome actor with a creditable voice, he lacks the slick edge of a con man. As his skeptical love interest, Marian, Carolann M. Sanita has an operatic voice that's a tad heavy on the vibrato, but she delivers soaring renditions of "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You." And the skepticism she displays toward Hill early on lends some weight to her eventual change of heart.

There also are admirable supporting performances, including Pam Feicht as Marian's big-hearted Irish mother, Ron Smith as the sneering salesman who tries to discredit Hill, and Corey Elias in the comic role of the awkward terpsichorean First Lady of River City.

Tom Reiter's costume designs are colorful - and quite clever in the case of Hill's first act suit jacket, which reverses to become a band jacket. But J. Branson's scenery is on the flimsy side; it's distracting to see a pair of rootless trees swaying during the crucial scene when Marian declares her love and Hill confesses the truth about himself.

The best indication of what this production might have been comes in the finale, when River City is transformed into a sort of rudimentary precursor of Blast! Suddenly the stage overflows with high spirits, showmanship and little star turns. But something is definitely out of whack when the post-show celebration features more pizzazz and ingenuity than just about everything that comes before it.

The Music Man

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tonight-Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $21.50-$69

Call: 410-752-1200

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