My how times have changed. When the original Broadway production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" opened in 1957, his nostalgic depiction of life in a small Iowa town circa 1912 resonated with audiences wearied by nearly two decades of wars both hot and cold, and the vague, but ever present shadow of nuclear annihilation. So it's somewhat ironic that Willson's paean to his Midwestern roots is now viewed through a double-glazed filter, as today, we tend to look back on the '50's with a similar sense of sentimental detachment, yearning perhaps like that audience before for an idyllic state of being that for the most part never existed. Village Theatre Artistic Director Steve Tomkins seems to understand this point, and while this production plays up the schmaltz factor, pushing it nearly to its most absurd heights, it is made increasingly clear through the course of the show that Willson's material has become woefully out of sync with our modern, cynical sensibilities, in the end coming across much like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber, frozen forever in a pristine state of suspended animation.
Producing a show like "The Music Man" inevitably leaves one trapped by a lose-lose proposition: the piece is so indelibly etched into the minds of theatregoers that subjecting its rather simplistic themes and stereotyped characters to any sort of contemporary deconstruction borders on the sacrilegious. Yet, it is precisely because of its naÔve sentimentality, dated depiction of class and gender roles, and bromidic tributes to the virtues of what today might be called "Red State Values" that "The Music Man" seems to cry out for just this sort of critical re-engagement. Unfortunately, the tendency is to treat American Musical Theatre with the same sort of reverence once reserved for the works of Shakespeare, resulting in museum-quality recreations, which while technically polished and precisely executed, are completely devoid of any relevance to a modern audience.
Which is precisely what we get here. Tomkins and his production team (Scenic Designer Bill Forrester, Lighting Designer Greg Sullivan, Costumer Melanie Burgess, and Sound Designer Don Littrell) provide us with a River City, Iowa as near to a picture-perfect rendition of early 20th Century small town Americana as one could expect outside Disneyland, replete with quaint storefronts, gazeboes, frilly frocks, straw boaters and ice cream suits, all lit in bright pastel colors that eliminate any need for donning rose-colored glasses. Sentiment is the order of the day in this snow globe of a world where the biggest event in the lives of the citizens is the weekly arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon, and the direst threat to civic order is the instillation of a billiard table. Pretty tame stuff by any stretch, yet certainly in keeping with Willson's own glossy, overly romanticized recollections of his childhood home of Mason City, Iowa.
And herein lies the show's biggest problem: with the arrival of the charismatic scoundrel Harold Hill (Eric Englund), the quiet, ordered lives of the citizens of River City are upset, not by the threat of economic hardship, nor war, nor natural catastrophe, nor by any other event of consequence, but rather by the corrupting influence of a single pool table on their youth. In an age where children are regularly confronted with the harsh realities of violence, drug abuse, sexual predation, and a myriad of other social, political and economic problems, the audience is left bereft of any way to genuinely identify with the situation of these characters. Simply put, their problems are so infinitesimally inconsequential that it becomes easy to laugh at their child-like simplicity, rather than become emotionally engaged with their plight. "Our Town" this isn't, although both plays share a similar affinity for sentiment, but clearly Willson lacks Thornton Wilder's genius for extracting themes of universal import from the mundane lives of his characters, something that ensures the latter's work remains dramatically vibrant, while ìThe Music Manî, having nothing to say to us aside from a few obvious blandishments borders on irrelevance.
With the stakes set so low, the cast is stuck with the challenge of turning this molehill into some sort of a mountain, which they do with varying degrees of success. The central romance between Hill and River City's resident librarian, Marian Paroo (Beth DeVries) encapsulates everything that works, and everything that doesn't about this production. Both are adept singers, and generally strong actors. But Englund, while certainly possessing charm in spades, also seems somewhat stiff and mechanical both in his scheming to bilk the townfolk of their hard-earned cash, as well as in his wooing. The sparkling grin comes easily enough when warranted, but there's a deadness in his eyes that belies his charm, like the expression of a rattlesnake before it strikes. DeVries for her part plays Marian with a strong backbone; sheís an intelligent, cultured, independent woman who, while certainly not out of place in today's world, feels somewhat anachronistic in the world of 1912. As a result, not only is it difficult to accept that she could ever be duped by a charlatan of Hill's ilk, but the idea of her falling in love with him seems downright ludicrous. Still, if you've bought into the conceit thus far, the two make an attractive pairing, and both give otherwise solid renditions of their solo and duet numbers, Englund starting off with the rousing patter song "Trouble", and with DeVries showing good form on "Goodnight My Someone". Oddly, they don't get a duet until late in the play with the Eleven O'Clock number, "Till There Was You", which while a pleasant enough rendition, clearly shows DeVries with the technical advantage.
For the most part, the rest of the cast valiantly, tries to overcome Willson's penchant for wallowing in rampant stereotype and cloying affectation. John X. Devany, as Mayor Shinn is never given much to do but bluster about in impotent frustration, while Laura Kenny, as his overbearing wife Eulalie is reduced to executing a series of obvious, and somewhat demeaning physical gags. The foursome of local society women (Ellen McLain, Kathleen Stoll, Bobbi Kotula, and Julie Thornton) have between them about a century's worth of comic expertise, but with little more to do than the brief feature piece "Pickalittle", and its even briefer Act II reprise, most of their considerable talent never gets a chance to shine. Their male counterparts (Hugh Hastings, Aaron Shanks, Brian Higham, and Buddy Mahoney) fare far better with their melodious barbershop harmonies on "Goodnight Ladies", "Sincere" and "Lida Rose". Greg Michael Allen, another Village stalwart also gives a good showing in the role of Marcellus, especially on the Act II ensemble number "Shipoopie", and in addition, Tomkins has assembled a young, vibrant chorus, all of whom execute with aplomb in the aforementioned number, and particularly so in the dance break for "Marian The Librarian".
In reality, this production of "The Music Man" will probably not disappoint the average theatergoer; the technical elements are stylish and well executed, and the performances while not particularly inspired, are nevertheless equally polished. One wishes, however, that the piece itself had something a little more important to say than "wasn't life grand, way back then?" or that Tomkins and his company were compelled to balance its saccharine sentimentality with more substantial food for thought.