The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957, layered between the destruction of WWII, the Korean War and The Vietnam War. It was a time when America craved the sugary distraction of song and dance. This classic musical is performed on Flat Rock Playhouse’s main stage through Saturday, July 9.
The story, by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, is set in River City, Iowa, during the summer of 1912. When a clever con artist known as Professor Harold Hill, played by Brian Robinson, steps off the train, he means business. Rather quickly, he fools the townspeople into believing their children can be transformed into musicians by forming a band. However, cynical librarian Marian Paroo, played by Erin Rubico, suspects trouble with a capital T.
The chemistry between Robinson and Rubico grows stronger as the musical carries on, appropriately peaking during a breathtaking starlit scene. Robinson feels typecast but certainly does a fine job in what is familiar territory. It is Rubico who resounds most with her gorgeous voice and commanding stage presence. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when she reaches through the bones of a piano as if grasping at the heart of illusion. More of these poetic moments would have carried the play’s message further.
Scenic designer Jason Sherwood brings the experimentation of illusion vs. reality to life with enormous effect. The locations are suggested with only a porch railing or some such. There were a few times when the blocking did get confusing, and a constant librarian’s desk became rather distracting, but less is certainly more with this set. A huge full moon flat against the ceiling gave a romantic-yet-surrealistic quality. Special mention should also be given to the monochromatic costume design by Ashli Arnold, which complimented the set.
Supporting actors who impressed were Monté J. Howell and Tauren Hagans as the untrusting Mayor Shinn and his lofty wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Both were memorable, as well as Kalyn West, who played their daughter, Zaneeta Shinn. West is a knockout beauty who we can only hope to see more of. Her love interest is sexy bad-boy Tommy Djilas, played by Christian Elán Ortiz. Ortiz also makes an impression, but more of a James Dean edge would’ve taken the play to the next level. Scott Cote, as Hill’s friend on-the-sly Marcellus Washburn, turns in a good performance. He helped the musical’s most annoying song, “Shipoopi,” to become an unexpected delight in this version.
The Music Man’s best scene is also its edgiest. The action heats up when Scott Treadway, as Charlie Cowell, enters from the darkness of the audience in search of Harold Hill. Marian’s sexual advances are meant to lure him away from Hill. When he catches on, Treadway blasts accusations over a blaring train. This is the sinister approach that this version needed, and Treadway makes the most of it with a small character.
The acting overall is very traditional with cheeky grins and over-exaggerated postures. While the style was mostly Broadway-ready, it wasn’t in-the-flesh and natural (aside from Treadway). That would have been a boldly refreshing choice. As extraordinary as this production is with its zippy choreography and speckles of imaginative elements by director Chase Brock, it simply needs more drama. This happy-go-lucky musical still yearns for a darker direction that reflects its wartime era. It was almost explored here. Still, audiences will no doubt leave uplifted with a spring in their step, singing these timeless tunes.
WHAT: The Music Man
WHERE: Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Hwy, Flat Rock, flatrockplayhouse.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, July 9. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. $15-$40.