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July 17, 2009

TT: Really up to date in River City

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I report on my recent visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and most of my review is devoted to Bill Rauch's revival of The Music Man. Here's an excerpt.

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Robert Preston was the best thing--and the worst--that ever happened to "The Music Man." His 1957 Broadway performance as Harold Hill, the smooth-talking con man who breezes into a hick town to defraud its residents and ends up losing his heart to the local librarian, was so exuberantly charismatic that it made him a star overnight. Five years later, Preston appeared in the film version of "The Music Man," one of a handful of Hollywood musicals to clearly suggest the theatrical impact of the stage show on which it was based. Since then, every director who takes on "The Music Man" has labored in the long shadow of the 1962 film version. Not even Susan Stroman, who staged the 2000 Broadway revival, managed to break free from its now-stifling example, while Craig Bierko, who played Harold Hill for Stroman, did little more than mimic Preston's indelible performance.

musicman_2_jg_6073_gallery.jpgAll this points to the reason why the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Music Man" is making so positive an impression on its audiences. Bill Rauch, the company's artistic director, has done what I thought impossible: He's turned his back on tradition and given us a high-concept "Music Man" in which every detail has been rethought and refurbished. Yet Mr. Rauch's innovations never obstruct our front-row view of Meredith Willson's sweet salute to turn-of-the-century American life. It's as though a faded painting had been scrupulously restored and hung in a brand-new gallery. Yes, it's still the same old show, but you'll see things in it that you didn't know were there.

The surprises start when a lone musician strolls onto Rachel Hauck's penny-plain clapboard unit set, pulls a harmonica out of his pocket and plays a medley of tunes from the show instead of the usual slam-bang knock-'em-dead overture. The stage fills with actors dressed in black, white and gray. This is River City, a town full of upright folk who lead ultra-proper lives (We're so by-God stubborn we can stand touchin' noses/For a week at a time and never see eye to eye). Then a too-friendly gent in a gaudy red waistcoat dances into town and tells everyone he meets that what they need is a brass band. One by one, the locals succumb to the in-your-face charm of the unscrupulous "Professor" Hill (Michael Elich) and sign on the dotted line--and as they do so, they start to sport flashy-looking socks, handkerchiefs and other accessories. By intermission, the stage is as colorful as a double rainbow....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted July 17, 2009 12:00 AM

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