When “The Music Man” marches into the Kennedy Center this week, it’s not only Broadway legend Norm Lewis as Professor Harold Hill who’s charming the audiences.
This limited-run musical about a traveling salesman trying to hoodwink a Midwestern town is an instant crowd-pleaser, with enthusiastic performances from the pint-sized young actors and the seasoned theater veterans—and everyone in between.
The performing arts center continues to bring out the big stars for its Broadway Center Stage series, now in its second year. Following up last fall’s “Little Shop of Horrors” with Josh Radnor and Megan Hilty, this semi-staged concert of the Tony-winning classic has also recruited Broadway darling Jessie Mueller of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” outspoken comedian and actress Rosie O’Donnell and Mark Linn-Baker—a real treat for us ’80s kids who grew up watching “Perfect Strangers.” And it’s enjoyable to see some familiar local faces in this lineup, like scene-stealer Veanne Cox from Shakespeare Theatre’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Owen Tabaka, the triple-threat tween from Signature’s “Billy Elliot.”
Seriously, with 28 performers and 20 musicians, there is so much talent being rolled out on the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower Theater stage in this production of Meredith Willson’s beloved musical. And having the orchestra, with conductor James Moore, out onstage in full view is a nice touch and fits in with Paul Tate dePoo III’s small-town America set design.
“The Music Man” immediately hooks audience with its simply staged opening "train" scene. The “Rock Island” musical number features a group of traveling salesmen—led by David Pittu’s swarmy anvil-selling Charlie Cowell—bickering and bopping up and down on their suitcases as they work their way through Willson’s rapid-fire rap lyrics. Yes, you read that right. For a show of its time, debuting in 1957, it’s impressive that something like this existed onstage.
Set in 1912, “The Music Man” follows a smooth-talking swindler, who also has a way with the ladies, looking to make a buck off the poor folks of River City, Iowa. Luckily for him, they all fall for his scheme of creating an all-boys band after playing on their fears that the town’s new pool table will encourage delinquent behavior. Not so easily convinced of the professor’s character are the verbally inept Mayor Shinn (Linn-Baker) and the independent librarian Marian (Mueller). However, she eventually falls for Harold’s charms after seeing how he has befriended her little brother Winthrop, who’s self-conscious about his lisp, and got him to say more than a few words and even sing! Plus Mama Paroo (O’Donnell in a wonderful and unrecognizable appearance) is rooting for the two.
Another example of Harold’s effect on people: He has turned the town’s school board, which has hated each other for 15 years, into a barbershop quartet. Failing spectacularly at getting Harold’s credentials for the mayor, this nonstop singing machine is delightfully portrayed by Todd Horman, Arlo Hill, Jimmy Smagula and Nicholas Ward. Harold’s also helped the mayor’s diva wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (hilariously played by Cox), channel her inner dancer. Just hearing her dryly say the word “Balzac” elicits laughs from the crowd.
With Lewis as the charismatic professor, it’s hard not to buy into what he’s selling. The Broadway star, who dazzled television audiences in last year’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live,” does the same here again starting with his first big number, the spirited fast-talking “Ya Got Trouble.” He follows this up with the exuberant “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Marian the Librarian,” which also highlight Chris Bailey’s sumptuous choreography.
Playing opposite Lewis, Mueller is perfectly cast as the thoughtful and no-nonsense librarian/piano teacher, and she has the most heavenly voice. It’s such a joy to hear her sing dreamy, romantic songs like “Till There Was You,” “Goodnight, My Someone” and “My White Knight,” which truly showcases the magnitude of her vocal talent.
“The Music Man” is filled with gorgeous melodies along with highly spirited musical numbers. Act I’s jaunty closer “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” a reminder of a time that didn’t have Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping, will have you smiling whether or not you were one of the many affected by yesterday’s Wells Fargo outage.
Directed by Marc Bruni, this polished-up musical treasure hits all the right notes and will leave you humming Willson’s bouncy tunes right out the door and full of hometown spirit.