Meredith Willson’s one-man-band valentine to his native town of Mason City, Iowa fairly drips nostalgia. Not quite disguising the small town of his upbringing as “River City,” Willson’s book and lyrics mine the characters and circumstances of his early twentieth-century youth. Willson’s prodigious Renaissance man status as author, playwright, band leader and musical arranger was burnished by his turns as a flute and piccolo player in John Philip Sousa’s Band and Arturo Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic. A composer of both classical music and popular songs, he was twice nominated for an Academy Award for his film scores. No wonder his skills are in such evidence in “The Music Man,” where the songs range from patter to post-parlor ballads and barbershop.
With a story of a con-artist salesman convincing the town to purchase band instruments, uniforms and instruction books with plans to grab the cash and hightail it before the residents can discover that he knows nothing of written music and is therefore incapable of teaching their children to use the instruments of his ruse, this beloved chestnut gives the audience the opportunity to experience the thrill of privately cheering a charming, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century James Bond-type while revisiting moral lessons that are as resonant today as during the show’s 1957 splash on The Great White Way.
Director Mary Zimmerman, known for paring and reexamining Golden Age musicals, along with choreographer Denis Jones, leave the skeleton of the story intact while focusing on character rather than overblown spectacle. Geoff Packard gives a contemporary twist to the spoken patter delivered by the inimitable Robert Preston in both the Broadway production and the revered film, while popping thrilling high notes at the end of his numbers that show him as the vocalist that Preston was not. While his seemingly deliberate alterations of rhythms gave his introduction number “(Ya Got) Trouble” a fresh resonance, an opportunity was lost to set up a slickness spelled out by Willson’s carefully plotted punctuations, which were used to great effect by Preston. Nevertheless, the grinning sweetness of Packard’s portrayal stands him in good stead in a backbreaking role that carries the show.
As the town librarian and music teacher who has the goods to upset the thief’s calculations, Monica West creates a very accessible leading lady on a journey to herself. West has a sweet voice, which she uses in a crooning fashion that would have been quite the thing when Willson was selling tunes to be sung at the piano in the family sitting room. She is up against a challenge in the soaring voice of Barbara Cook, who created the role, and Shirley Jones, in the subsequent film, her warm, lyric soprano still ringing in the public ear. In a couple of instances, West’s stylings prevent her from comfortably reaching the score’s insistence. However, watching the shell behind which her damaged character hides be slowly chipped away until she shines with a self-gifted freedom helps to level the playing field.
Pirouetting onto the Goodman stage directly from her leading lady role in “Dames at Sea” at Theatre at the Center, Kelly Felthous effortlessly slips into the ingenue character of the Mayor’s daughter, dancing with joyous precision while supplying effortless high notes to make the final chord of every choral number shimmer. Many of Chicago’s finest singer-actors fill out the town’s vocally gifted citizenry and following the performance track of any one of them would be cheap at the price. No matter that the librarian’s mother is a supporting role: Mary Ernster makes it a star turn. It is impossible for the eye not to flash to Heidi Kettenring’s mayor’s wife at her every entrance. Some actors are said to be watchable while reading the phone book aloud. Kettenring could read it silently to herself and sell out the house.
At this time of great political and social unrest, attending the ice cream social that is “The Music Man” at Goodman Theatre is one of the finest ideas of the summer. (Aaron Hunt)
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$142. Now through August 18.