Review: 'Music Man' at Walnut Street Theatre

Jeffrey Coon is shifty Professor Hill, full of cornfed magnetism.
Jeffrey Coon is shifty Professor Hill, full of cornfed magnetism. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: November 16, 2012

The Music Man, the classic Broadway musical that opened Wednesday at the Walnut Street Theatre (and runs through Jan. 6), is a shameless, brassy happiness machine and earns that status honestly.

In contrast to less substantial portraits in provincialness such as Hairspray, The Music Man has engagingly quirky characters backed up by the sociological truths of post-Victorian heartland America. The espoused moral value of playing in marching bands arises from author Meredith Willson's having played piccolo under John Philip Sousa. He also had the composing chops to write two symphonies (both serious, and not bad), plus a personality that made him a 1940s radio comic.

The Walnut Street production may not be the best you'll ever see, and may reflect some economic strain: The cast is barely large enough to suggest a cross section of River City, Iowa, the sets for the town square lack any power of suggestion, and though the orchestra pit is crowded, the sound is surprisingly puny. The often witty choreography has odd balletic interludes.

But the production's heart and budget are in the right places: Every single actor, all first class, adeptly walks the path between caricature and humanity, thanks to director Marc Robin, and they have a smashing series of costumes. And, oh yes, a handsome live horse pulls the Wells Fargo wagon. Mostly, though, the show itself sweeps everybody up in its march rhythms, remarkably ageless songs, and clever interweaving of music and speech that's still unlike anything else in Broadway.

As the shifty Professor Hill, who cons an entire town into starting a marching band to keep its kids out of trouble (giving him big profits from selling instruments and uniforms before skipping town), Jeffrey Coon had appropriately cornfed magnetism, even if his character's cynicism was more implied than felt. As Marian the Librarian, Jennifer Hope Wills never fell into frigid princess cliches, but had the dignified sorrow of someone whose perceptual intelligence of the town's folly makes her an outsider.

The two were a strong axis for the rest of a cast that notably included the wonderfully eccentric physical comedy of Alene Robertson, playing the mayor's pretentious wife. Marian's usually homey Irish-accented mom, as portrayed by Mary Martello, had an ever-present drink in hand. And the verbally florid mayor, as played by Bill Van Horn, had the red nose of the heavy drinker.

So this less-idealized vision of River City was all the more interesting for unfolding in front of the idyllic scenery of Robert Andrew Kovach. And in some self-referential humor that you can take or leave, the town's benefactor (seen only in paintings and statues) resembles Walnut Street's producing artistic director Bernard Havard.

A special word on Vincent Crocilla, the 7-year-old who plays the alternately withdrawn and exuberant Winthrop: Seldom do you see somebody that small tearing up the stage with a trumpetlike voice and unfiltered attitude that says, "Watch me nail this one!"

Theatergoers left saying, "He's the next Ron Howard." Nah. This kid's talent is more like Ethel Merman's.


The Music Man

Through Jan. 6 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10-$175. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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