Review: ‘The Music Man’ at the Kennedy Center

We’ve got trouble, right here in the Capital City.

That might be true – mind-numbingly true – but it’s not at the Kennedy Center where Jeffrey Finn has produced a charming, energetic production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man as a part of the Broadway Center Stage series.

Norm Lewis in The Music Man at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Norm Lewis in ‘The Music Man’ at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

It’s an old show, originally on Broadway in 1957 with a story set in 1912. I should disclose that I’m a “theatre person” who somehow never before encountered a production of The Music Man. I knew it was set in a bygone era in the United States. I secretly wondered if it had any relevance today. By Scene One I learned the story centers around a con man who invents a problem so he can provide a solution.

Yep, still relevant.

The semi-staged concert production is directed by Marc Bruni with choreography by Chris Bailey and music direction by James Moore. The cast of 28 is led by some of Broadway’s most sought after stars: Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis as Harold Hill, Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller as Marian Paroo, and Rosie O’Donnell as Mrs. Paroo. It’s stacked with character talent, notably Tony Award nominee John Cariani as Marcellus Washburn and Mark Linn-Baker as Mayor Shinn.

The Gumby-like physical comedy audiences enjoyed from Cariani in The Band’s Visit and Something Rotten! is delightfully present here. His “Shipoopi” with the assistance of a sparkling Hayley Podschun is a highlight. And Linn-Baker’s deadpan straight man is as pitch perfect as it was the first time we experienced it three decades ago on the sitcom Perfect Strangers.

The curtain rises on a dazzling 18-piece orchestra perched on what feels like a large Iowa front porch. Here’s a bit of advice: when you’re tasked with sitting through a long overture, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s The Music Man.

While the Broadway Center Stage series claims to be “semi-staged” and gives actors a free pass to hold scripts, it sure feels like a full production. The simplicity comes by way of detailed projections that have replaced mammoth set pieces. It feels like we’re getting a tour of River City by way of the moving images that glide along behind the orchestra from the Paroos’ front porch to the library and everywhere in between.

The show is off to the races with “Rock Island,” which Director Mark Bruni refers to as “a five-minute number about economic anxiety told entirely in rap.” He’s not wrong. The patter hooks the audience from the beginning and perfectly sets the tone and pacing for the next two hours and 40 minutes. It is so excellently executed by David Pittu (playing Charlie Cowell) and company that we know within about eight measures that we are in excellent hands for the evening.  

As for the leads, Norm Lewis, with his megawatt smile, almost works in the role of the smooth-talking Hill. Lewis’ vocal prowess is all but wasted in the role; it’s not his highest and best use. His confidence and ability to own a room serve him well for most of the show. He shines in “Ya Got Trouble.” Lewis’ weakest moments appear when he depends on the assistance of his script.

Meanwhile, Willson’s classic “Goodnight My Someone” and “My White Knight” get the royal treatment with Mueller’s soprano. Her vocal versatility is once in a generation. Together Mueller and Lewis are sweet, if not completely believable as a romantic pair. Lewis is commanding in the role but charming enough to validate Marian reneging on her values? No. While it’s possible there’s more that Lewis and Mueller could do, I blame the book for this head-scratching love story.

Old shows are tricky. And there’s a multitude of ways to look at them. You can leave them as untouched time capsules that shed light on the perspectives of an earlier era, you can attempt to update them (either through direction, tone, or a rewrite), you can look for the truth amidst the trouble, or you can shelve them completely.

The Music Man was written by a man some 60 years ago. While I’m reluctant to embrace the central love story (why is it always the women in these shows who compromise their values for a man?), the show does make a great point about the acute difference between what people want and what they say they want. Here’s what this reviewer wants: Jeffrey Finn and the Kennedy Center to continue to send New York’s best down to the Potomac to do short runs.  

Back to The Music Man. It’s filled with no less than a dozen classic songs artfully executed. Chris Bailey’s choreography is fresh and crisp. We even get Damon J. Gillespie doing a crazy parkour move. And without giving away the ending, this particular production includes a jaw-dropping add-on that is a must-see. The Music Man is not a perfect show, but this production gives the audience a near perfect evening.

Running Time: Two Hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Broadway Center Stage: The Music Man plays through Monday, February 11, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.

The cast also features Tony Award nominee Veanne Cox as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk winner David Pittu as Charlie Cowell, Damon J. Gillespie as Tommy Djilas, Eloise Kropp as Zaneeta Shinn, Sam Middleton as Winthrop Paroo, and Emmy Elizabeth Liu-Wang as Amaryllis. The cast also includes Tessa Grady, Arlo Hill, Todd Horman, Denis Lambert, Liz McCartney, Hayley Podschun, Katerina Papacostas, Blakely Slaybaugh, Jimmy Smagula, Ryan Steele, Daryl Tofa, Diana Vaden, and Nicholas Ward.

Projection Design by Paul dePoo, Costume Design by Amy Clark, Lighting Design by Cory Pattak, Sound Design by Kai Harada

1 COMMENT

  1. Norm Lewis is the unfortunate low point in an otherwise wonderful production. He’s over-weight and ham-footed, and several times he was actually holding the script (disguised as his order book) and reading off of it.

    Still a good show, but despite Norm Lewis’ participation, not because of it.

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