Norman Rockwell is finally getting some respect in the arts pages, so the time is perhaps ripe for a Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s 1957 smash “The Music Man,” a theatrical slice of cherry pie that both sends up and pays tribute to the old-fashioned manners and mores of small-town America. The author couldn’t ask for a more respectful production than the one lovingly directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. This happy, hummable, picture-book-pretty show brings the musical-theater season to a close on a sugar high, and should be a hit with summer tourists and family audiences. Adults of a sophisticated bent are not encouraged to attend without kiddie escorts, however, and cynics will need to have their blood-sugar levels checked at regular intervals.
This is indubitably not a high-concept revival that attempts to uncover new subtleties or mine contemporary nuances in a classic show. Indeed, Stroman & Co. are so wary of taking risks with this beloved material that the show’s appealing young star, Craig Bierko, often seems to be channeling Robert Preston, whose performance in the original is the stuff of Broadway legend. But the conservative approach is understandable: Under the whipped-cream surface delights of “The Music Man” lies only more whipped cream, and there’s little sense in pretending otherwise.
The sweet-talking, bad-boy hero of “The Music Man” is Harold Hill, as most of America surely knows. He’s the traveling salesman who rides into River City, Iowa, and proceeds to hornswoggle the gullible townsfolk into buying a wagonfull of horns in order to keep the kids out of trouble. Making trouble for Harold is the suspicious spinster librarian, Marian Paroo (Rebecca Luker), who knows Harold’s a charlatan but nevertheless gradually melts under his vigorous charms as he whips the stiff, slumbering town into a musical frenzy. The show is a sepia-toned tribute to the power of make-believe, and make-believe puts everything right in the end.
“Trouble,” of course, is the first big number in Willson’s infectious choo-choo train of a score. The composer’s musical gifts were of a modest if appealing kind — he wrote great ditties, above all — but his lyrics are wonderfully bubbly and inventive (rhyming “Marian” and “librarian” with “carrion,” of all things). Voices in “The Music Man” act as an entire orchestra: drums, horns, strings and piano, and not just in the bouncy “Seventy Six Trombones,” in which Hill sets all the kids booming, bellowing and blowing on imaginary instruments. Elsewhere singers mimic the rhythms of a chugging train and the pecking of hens, and some of Willson’s snap-crackle-pop vocal arrangements may almost be seen as Broadway precursors of rap. Who’d have thought it?
The score is well served by the show’s stars. (Heavy amplification, the bane of the Broadway theater, is a considerable blight on this production, but it’s more the dialogue than the songs that suffer, thankfully.) Bierko, a Harold Hill firmly in the familiar mold, has a handsome and expressive face, with big blue eyes and leaping eyebrows that disappear regularly under the brim of his straw boater. His vocal style and physical manner are facsimiles of Preston’s — if you can’t beat him, be him, the thinking seems to be. Bierko does, however, have a supple singing voice, and his performance, whatever its provenance, is in the end a thoroughly charming and even affecting one.
Luker’s singing is simply sublime. She has one of the prettiest and most polished soprano voices to be heard on a Broadway stage right now, and ample opportunity to display it here, since Marian is more often than not to be found leaning against a post on the porch, with Peter Kaczorowski’s elegantly dappled moonlight swimming around her, singing one of Willson’s tender ballads. (The finest of these, “My White Knight,” may have been ghostwritten by Frank Loesser, Willson’s mentor, who encouraged him to turn his autobiography into a musical.) Marian, the archetypal good girl, who gives piano lessons when she’s not at the library and has never been to the town’s local dallying spot, is not an easy role to pull off, but Luker infuses it with real, honest feeling, neither pumping up nor patronizing the role’s old-fashioned primness.
Indeed, the marvel of Stroman’s production is that none of the sugar in the show turns to saccharine, none of the characters turn to cardboard, none of the creamed-corn jokes land with too resonant a thud. The book’s simple plot is at least watertight, and thus holds up better than most of its era, and while none of the gags will challenge the sensibilities of a moderately hip 10-year-old, they raise a few real smiles.
The supporting cast of comic characters are well-played, with Ruth Williamson particularly florid as the mayor’s wife, the memorably monikered Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Katherine McGrath, a wonderful actress often seen as San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, is dry and funny — and oh so Irish — as Marian’s mother.
The production is certainly easy on the eyes. William Ivey Long’s costumes are an eye-catching parade in themselves, from Harold’s snazzy vanilla ice-cream suits to the fantastically feathered chapeaux of the “Pickalittle” ladies. Thomas Lynch’s pastel-pretty sets make subtle allusions to American art from Rockwell to Andrew Wyeth to Jackson Pollock.
And Stroman’s choreography is, of course, a delectable asset to the production. The three major production numbers — “Seventy Six Trombones,” “Marian the Librarian” and “Shipoopi” — all have their own particular flavor, and Stroman can array dancers on a stage with incomparable, airy finesse. But her work here isn’t as inspired as in “Contact” or the London production of “Oklahoma!” It’s pretty and even intoxicating at times, but it’s all frosting. This is probably because the material isn’t as rich — how much dramatic texture and feeling, after all, can you get into a song called “Shipoopi”? Still, a freer hand (and some minor cutting) might have resulted in a fresher-feeling, zippier and more imaginative show.
Tellingly, all of those qualities are in evidence in Stroman’s finale, the evening’s most inspired moment, which arrives after the curtain has gone down on the show’s happy ending. The details of this number — a kissing cousin of George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” — are too delicious to spoil, but it’s marked by the kind of freewheeling, spirited novelty that marks her best work. That spirit is largely held in check for the duration of the show proper — clearly Stroman reveres “The Music Man” too much to take serious liberties with it.
With Stroman’s staging including gags referring to “American Gothic” and the famous oil of Washington crossing the Delaware, a case is subtly being made for “Music Man” as a classic piece of American art. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But the result is more a perfect reproduction than a classic reinvented. This is a reverent, impeccably staged revival, which would be satisfying if it didn’t come from a woman who might be capable of creating a truly inspired and inspiring one.