The Music Man opened at the Guthrie Theater this weekend under the direction of John Miller-Stephany and delivers pure, pleasurable summer entertainment at its best.
Meredith Willson wrote the book, music, and lyrics for The Music Man based on his own childhood in Mason City, Iowa in the early 1900s. The Music Man tells the story of Harold Hill, a schemer who comes to the small town of River City, Iowa to convince them that they need a boys’ band to make their town wholesome and happy—and divert the youth of the town from the trouble (with a capital T) presented by the new pool table that has just arrived in town. He promises to help them form a band, though he isn’t able to play a note of music himself. Thus begins the scheme.
The story opens on a high note with the song “Rock Island” performed by an ensemble of actors portraying traveling salesmen on a train moving to their next stop. The actors sway and bump to create the rhythm of the train and it matches the rhythm and lyrics of the song perfectly. The song laments the trials of being traveling salesmen made more difficult by the schemer Hill who is giving their profession a bad name. The surprise comes at the end when Harold Hill himself jumps out of the crowd and off the train as it pulls into River City.
The entire production is top-quality, from the set to the costumes to the choreography to the acting and the singing. Danny Binstock, as Harold Hill, certainly is the top of the excellent cast. He has the looks of the schemer and the charm of the salesman, while at the same time convincingly evoking the vulnerability of love by the end of the show.
Before the show starts Andrew Cooke, the conductor and music director, walks on stage. He steps down into a small opening on stage and is then safely tucked in by a stage assistant. From this perch, with his shoulders and head above stage he becomes part of the show—first reminding us of the importance of the music to the show, but then blending in to the set. It’s not a distraction, but an interesting creative choice.
Set designer Todd Rosenthal takes full advantage of the capabilities of the Wurtele Thrust Stage to bring an amazing assortment of large sets to center stage—starting with the train bringing Harold to River City and moving on to the town park with statuary, the school gymnasium stage, and the bridge outside of town, to name a few. Mathew LeFebvre’s costumes are stunning with their use of color, detail, and attention to period. At one point in the show Harold transforms himself from a person in the crowd to a bandleader simply by turning his coat and popping his hat.
In the end, Harry delivers on his promise with the show-stopping appearance of an honest-to-goodness marching band performing one of the best-known songs in musical theater: “Seventy-Six Trombones.” I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity to see musical theater at its best.