Presented by North Shore Music Theatre
Book by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Music by Meredith Willson
Direction by Bob Richard
Music direction by Milton Granger
Choreography by Diane Laurenson
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Beverly, MA) Sometimes, a play gets to an awkward age where it needs to be taken out of circulation for a while so it can age properly and can come back as a nostalgic piece. The Music Man, which was performed recently at the North Shore Music Theatre, is one of those plays. In the age of Trump, this play’s racist and rape-culture overtones hit too close to home to be enjoyable.
The play, which in many ways parodies the insular qualities of a white Iowa community in the early 20th century, early on becomes a minefield for progressive-minded audience members. The trouble begins, quite literally, with the tune, “Ya Got Trouble,” when the main protagonist, a traveling salesman named Harold Hill (Matt Loehr), tries to stir up the townspeople’s fears that their children will be led to ruin because of idle hands. He begins by pointing to the evils of a pool table, but he seals the deal at the height of the song by suggesting that the white children will be corrupted by black culture: “And Rag-time, shameless music that’ll grab your son and your daughter with the arms of a jungle animal instinct!”
The lyrics may have been easily overlooked by theatergoers except that director Bob Richard and choreographer Diane Laurenson chose this moment to have the good white folks do a perfect imitation of ritualistic culturally black dancing. Also, while many North Shore Music Theatre productions elect for somewhat color-blind casting for the ensembles, this play features nary a person of visible color in the cast. Therefore, we are left with this unsettling moment on the stage when all the Iowans clutch their breasts at the thought of the fear of a black planet.
This is not a good set-up to enjoy the sustained courtship between Harold Hill and Marian Paroo (Siri Howard), an earnest librarian who has the power to expose Harold for a huckster. Like many romantic comedies of yesteryear, there is a thin line between aggressive courtship and sexual harassment; Harold follows Marian home despite her clear protestations that she is not romantically interested in him, and this feels much more like the latter in this traditional. Yes, we know Harold grows up a bit, and that Marian eventually gives in to the love a REAL WOMAN MUST INEVITABLY FEEL TOWARDS A CLEVER AND CHARMING MAN, but the contrivance feels queasily preordained after the action on stage, as if Marian is just worn down by societal expectations.
None of this play’s shortcomings is the fault of the actors. Loehr and Howard each succeed in bringing the most life possible out of the confined characters; he provides the perfect amount of zip and verve so as to be captivating instead of manic, and she brings a sweet melancholy from her very first note on stage. Also, Brad Bellamy steals every scene with his off-the-cuff delivery as a befuddled small-town mayor trying to keep constituent factions from coming to blows. Unfortunately, their efforts were just not enough to rise above the source material.
The thing is, The Music Man was the first musical I ever saw in 1987, back when I was a 7th grader in rural Ohio. The play felt antiquated then, but as a young white male in a culture and time that seemed to celebrate white maleness without much pushback, the plot did not stand out as wince-worthy. Times, and geography, have changed, and this play feels like it would be better confined to the archives for a few decades. Troubling plays can be resurrected and done with dignity; in 2011, the American Repertory Theatre hosted a workshop of a reshaped Porgy and Bess that went on to be nominated for a Tony Award, for example; but to stage such a production takes some distance in the rear-view mirror. Now, in the midst of a resurgence of overt white nationalism, is not the time to stage a straight production of The Music Man.
We elected a thin-skinned bigot to the office of the President dead set on turning our “democracy” into a fascist, totalitarian oligarchy dominated by the 1%. Trump is a monster. His policies, when he names them, are destructive. His narcissistic behavior is more so.
Congressional “negotiators” released a spending bill that saves the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for Humanities, and National Public Radio until September at which time, the President and his impotent cronies may still cut arts funding. It is ever important to remain vigilant. And, for the love of all that’s sacred, keep creating. If you need help, ask for it. Our existence is our resistance. May the force be with you. – KD
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