Arena Stage struck gold with its decision to re-open Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater with a perfect production of Rodger and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! which was wisely brought back in the summer of 2011 for an extended run. Artistic Director Molly Smith wins again with a charming production of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man wisely choosing to program the show in the late spring and summer where it can have a deserved lengthy run. Like Oklahoma, The Music Man has become a staple of community theater with its large cast featuring several small roles that allow everyone their moment to shine upon the stage. The Music Man has the additional challenge in that without the right charming con man at the center of the show the drama falls flat.
There is no worry about that here. Burke Moses gives a just right larger than life performance as Professor Harold Hill. Gregarious and charasmatic, Mr. Moses ropes in his audience from the first lines of "Ya Got Trouble" to the rousing strains of "Seventy-Six Trombones." You will all want to sign up to join the band and learn the think system. Mr. Moses is equally matched by Kate Baldwin as Marian Paroo. Ms. Baldwin has a soaring soprano and she brings depth and longing to Marian's story of the outcast librarian who reluctantly finds love with the con man who brings her shy brother out of his shell.
The supporting cast is equally strong in creating the community of River City, Iowa. We have John Lescault as the blustery Mayor Shinn well matched by Barbara Tirrell as the ever important Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Donna Migliaccio is all Irish charm as Marian's meddling mother Mrs. Paroo. Ian Berlin and Heidi Kaplan are sweet as young Winthrop Paroo and his pining Amaryllis. Michael Brian Dunn, Justin Lee Miller, Joe Peck and Lawrence Redmond provide swooning harmonies as the barbershop quartet school board. Will Burton and Juliane Godfrey are strong dancers and have nice chemistry as the teenage lovers Tommy Djilas and Zaneeta Shinn.
For the true standout amongst the supporting cast look no further than the welcome return to Arena Stage of Nehal Joshi as Harold Hill's former partner in crime Marcellus Washburn. Mr. Joshi was outstanding in Oklahoma as the put upon peddler Ali Hakim. Here he exudes comic charm and a great deal of fun whether as the embodiment of "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl" or leading the teenagers in the rousing "Shipoopi." Let's hope Mr. Joshi continues to grace many DC stages.
The only problems with this production are minor. Meredith Wilson originally set The Music Man in 1912. For some reason there has been a decision to move the story a few decades forward. By the hair and costume designs (wig designer Anne Nesmith, costume designer Judith Bowden) it appears to be in the 1930's or even the 1940's. This is a mistake as several period references in the script make no sense. For example, in the song "Ya Got Trouble" there is a reference to being outraged by a jockey boy sitting on Dan Patch referring to wholesome harness racing versus traditional thoroughbred racing. By the 1930's, the era of Seabiscuit, this would not be uncommon. The other glaring reference is to Harold Hill's education at the Gary Indiana Conservatory of Music Class of '05. Do the math and by the 1930's Harold Hill would be in his late 40's not the suave leading man of our tale. The other minor issue is a decision by director Molly Smith to have the Pick-a-Little ladies be a bit heavy-handed with their objections to the books in the town library. While their apology to Marian creates a well-deserved laugh, the action that causes that apology just seems a bit over the top for this show.
While community theater can create a much larger town of River City you will not be steered wrong by taking a trip to the DC waterfront to see how a professional theater company produces a high quality evening of family theater at much less than Broadway prices. Arena Stage strikes gold again. Why not join in the fun?
Meredith Wilson's The Music Man is being performed in the Fichandler Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through July 22, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.