Traditional 'Music Man' revival marches into Goodman
"The Music Man" -- ★ ★ ★
The Goodman Theatre's big and brassy revival of "The Music Man" can wash over you as escapist entertainment. Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman takes a largely traditional approach to Meredith Willson's 1957 Broadway smash hit, allowing the affectionate 1912 portraits of small-town Midwesterners to vividly shine through.
But think too hard and "The Music Man" becomes problematic. For one thing, it's far too forgiving of Professor Harold Hill (a boyish Geoff Packard), a charismatic huckster out to bilk the residents of fictional River City by talking them into buying expensive musical instruments, marching band uniforms and phony "Think System" lessons. Plus, his romance with skeptical music teacher and librarian Marian Paroo (Monica West) -- torn between exposing and abetting the manipulative con man -- never quite convinces.
What the musical does well, however, is to emphasize how the arts can transform a community and enrich lives. And Packard plays Hill with such warmth that his transformation from anti-hero to good guy is mostly earned.
Overall, Goodman's production impresses, matching Willson's intricate lyrical wordplay. It's also a visual marvel that is reminiscent of painters Edward Hopper and Grant Wood -- particularly in the expansively flat-vista sets of designer Daniel Ostling that are so starkly illuminated by lighting designer T.J. Gerckens.
Broadway choreographer Denis Jones creates plenty of ingenious dance routines that show off the skills of the limber ensemble, while music director Jermaine Hill keeps everyone moving to an exuberant beat.
Zimmerman has wisely stocked her cast with Chicago musical comedy stalwarts, who mine big laughs from even the smallest of ensemble roles. Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic's colorful and sometimes wacky period outfits are also a great help.
Heidi Kettenring is a constant hoot as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the haughty wife to Ron E. Rains' hilariously blustery and malipropism-prone Mayor Shinn. Mary Ernster charms as Marian's matchmaking-minded Irish mother, while Carter Graf plays up the severe lisp of Marian's younger brother, Winthrop.
Matt Crowle's rubbery physical skills, meanwhile, are delightfully deployed as both an Amish farmer and rival salesman Charlie Cowell.
With the casting of the fine Latino actor Tommy Rivera-Vega as the day-laborer's son Tommy Djilas, Zimmerman does allow some contemporary American politics to seep into the show. Whenever Mayor Shinn viciously denigrates Tommy in public, it's hard not to think of a certain celebrity who launched a presidential campaign by attacking the people of Mexico.
But this and other colorblind casting is the main extent of Zimmerman's contemporary tinkering with "The Music Man." That's a bit surprising given how Zimmerman's previous two 1950s Broadway musicals for the Goodman featured a whole new script for "Candide" back in 2010 and an era shift from the 1930s to the 1950s for "Wonderful Town" in 2016.
Musical theater traditionalists may be relieved that Zimmerman opted to stick to the script, and her approach entertains. But it would have been fun to see the acclaimed director experiment with "The Music Man" as she has with so many past Goodman productions.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (also Tuesday, July 16, 30 and Aug. 6), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday (no matinee Aug. 1 or 8; no evening show July 21 or Aug. 4), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; through Aug. 18
Running time: About 2 hours 35 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For general audiences