Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Music Man
Goodman Theatre
by John Olson


The Cast of The Music Man
Photo by Liz Lauren
Director-playwright Mary Zimmerman has been a national figure since her 2002 Tony Award win for directing Metamorphosis, but she is especially revered in Chicago. Here's she's known for her adaptations of classics like The Arabian Nights, Argonautika, The Odyssey and Treasure Island. Her ability to conjure visuals taking us into exotic locales is legendary—often via signature devices like waving banners and puppets or cutout figures. So, when it was announced that Zimmerman would be directing a new production of The Music Man (book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson) for Goodman Theatre, it was a big deal to see such a lauded director take on this accessible and popular piece. The announcement was met in some corners with a touch of trepidation as well. Zimmerman had directed musicals before. She wrote and directed a new adaptation of The Jungle Book for a co-production between Disney and the Goodman, directed and contributed a new book for Candide, and directed a Wonderful Town for the Goodman. The first two offered ample opportunity for directorial vision—the third, not so much, but she did some anyway (like giant cut-out cockroaches inhabiting New York City). But is The Music Man open to any sort of reinterpretation?

The good news is that Zimmerman has delivered a respectful production that doesn't try to reinvent musical. Her visual skills, in partnership with set designer Daniel Ostling, add some whimsy to suggesting rural and small-town Iowa of the 1910s, starting with a charming and bumpy train car for the opening "Rock Island" scene, and opening up to the town square of River City with cornfields on the horizon. Later, she uses cutouts of the Wells Fargo wagon that range from tiny when it's first spotted off in the distance up to full size when it finally arrives. Beyond those scenic touches, she gives us a faithful and respectful interpretation that honors the piece known to so many through the 1962 film version and countless stock and school productions.

Zimmerman and the Goodman have brought in Broadway's Denis Jones (Tootsie, Honeymoon in Vegas) to do the choreography and he delivers the goods. There are clever book-carrying steps for the extended "Marian the Librarian" dance and a rousing production number for "Shipoopi." The ensemble of mostly Chicago-based performers execute the dances beautifully, are vocally impeccable and genuine in their many bit roles. With an ensemble of just eight members, though, the huge proscenium stage at the Goodman feels a bit bare—especially with the sets that emphasize the open spaces of the Midwest farmlands over small-town architecture.

For those who really love this show, the film version is indelible and comparisons to it inevitable. It may be a thankless task for any actor to take on the iconic role of Harold Hill, the con man immortalized by Robert Preston on stage and in the film (though the likes of Van Johnson, Forrest Tucker, and even Bert Parks seemed to get by in stock and touring productions). Zimmerman's Hill, Geoff Packard, seems to initially go for a different take on the character—initially playing up his sleazier side—but Packard's unable to find the charisma that would allow him to sell hundreds of dollars' worth of band instruments and uniforms to the gullible townspeople and the charm to win over the spinster Marian the librarian. He can't convincingly communicate a character arc that would show us the transformation and redemption the script details. Packard's co-star Monica West, as Marian, has a lovely soprano that doesn't disappoint but she doesn't deliver the nuances that make Marian an appealing heroine. Marian is smart and strong in a society that doesn't want that of women, and romantic yet clear-eyed and practical. So if Packard has a rough road through comparisons to Preston, West's is not much easier competing with the memories of America's one-time sweetheart, Shirley Jones.

Supporting players by and large have better luck in comparisons to the film, which boasted one of the greatest collections of movie character actors ever in its ranks. Mary Ernster is a perfect Mrs. Paroo and Heidi Kettenring is a younger, but sweetly flustered mayor's wife. Matt Crowle is a hoot, as always, as the anvil salesman who seeks to do in Harold Hill.

Meredith Willson's 1957 musical is perhaps as insightful about Americans as are many of the straight dramatic classics that have lived on the Goodman stage. With The Music Man, he slyly took on issues of prejudice, class divisions and groupthink by showing it among rural people of an era 40 years earlier than the decade in which it premiered. We were able to recognize those flaws without having to confront them in our present-day selves. His messages—of the importance of visualizing something better that we don't yet have; and the uplifting power of art—are themes we always can benefit from by being reminded of them. As a longtime lover of The Music Man, I appreciate the status it's given by receiving a production by one of the nation's leading regional theaters. Knowing that commercial theaters can (and in Chicago recently have) do this show as well as it's done here, one still has to wonder if we needed the likes of the Goodman to produce it.

The Music Man, through August 18, 2019, at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For further information and tickets, visit www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


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