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Is there a Great American Musical, a show that embodies the historic values of our country and our culture while simultaneously acknowledging their myriad contradictions? Indeed there is—and it’s not the one that you’re expecting, either. Instead of “Oklahoma!” or “West Side Story,” or even “Hamilton,” my pick for the prize is “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s 1957 fairy tale about a small town that is turned inside out by the coming of a charismatic traveling salesman who proposes to stem the rising tide of adolescent discontent in River City, Iowa, by putting together a boys’ band.
Unselfconsciously nostalgic to the point of corniness yet at the same time emotionally complex, “The Music Man” is a masterpiece not generally recognized as such, and Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals has given it a production that makes the most of its old-fashioned charms. Jenn Thompson’s unpretentiously imaginative staging, in which Edward Watts and Ellie Fishman play to perfection the lead roles that were created on Broadway by Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, vacuums the choking cobwebs of convention off a too-familiar warhorse….
What most revivals of “The Music Man” overlook are the hints of loneliness and despair that make it far more than just an affectionate exercise in small-town charm. For all its Edenic innocence, River City in 1912 is also a community full of censorious busybodies who can and do make life tough for those who refuse to toe the line of convention. As a result, the bookish, Balzac-loving Marian (Ms. Fishman) and Winthrop (Alexander O’Brien), her shy brother, are both constrictingly inhibited and agonizingly unhappy, while Harold Hill (Mr. Watts), the uninhibited con man who introduces them and the rest of River City to a more abundant life, comes within half a hair’s breadth of being tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail for his troubles….
Ms. Thompson is fully alive to these nuances. Here as in all of her work, she penetrates to the inner truth of “The Music Man,” but does so without resorting to the over-obvious point-making that blights Daniel Fish’s “woke” Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” Rather than bang you over the head with the show’s deeper meanings, she pays you the compliment of letting you uncover them for yourself. Nothing is exaggerated, not even Winthrop’s blush-making lisp…
Mr. Watts wisely makes a point of not basing his performance on that of Preston, whose delectably fraudulent Harold Hill was preserved for all time in Morton DaCosta’s film version of “The Music Man.” Instead of running off a Xerox copy of Preston, as Craig Bierko did in Susan Stroman’s 2000 Broadway revival, Mr. Watts is engaging and affable, hiding his bad intentions as opposed to letting them ooze out of every pore….
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A video montage of scenes from Goodspeed Musicals’ revival of The Music Man:
The opening scene from Morton DaCosta’s film version of The Music Man, starring Robert Preston. DaCosta also staged the show’s original Broadway production: