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THEATER The Music Man
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Author: Meredith Wilson ( book, music & lyrics )

At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: 312-443-3800;; $25-$142. Runs through: Aug. 18

Director Mary Zimmerman won a Tony Award and a MacArthur Fellowship for her imaginative adaptations of classical literature such as The Arabian Nights and Ovid's Metamorphoses. But she's always wanted ( she told me over 10 years ago ) to direct a classic Broadway musical comedy. Previously she's staged Candide and Wonderful Town, both with brilliant scores by Leonard Bernstein, but both with fragmented plots she couldn't overcome. Now, with The Music Man, Zimmerman has staged a strongly-written musical comedy with a memorably tuneful score and an all-American story … and it's a resounding success!

Of course, it's easy to triumph with songs such as "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Til There Was You," "Ya Got Trouble" and all that great barbershop quartet stuff. All you need is a terrific tight marching band orchestra, four guys who actually can sing notoriously-difficult barbershop harmony, a warm-hearted Marian the Librarian and a Prof. Harold Hill who's slickly charming but not too cynical. The rest is a piece of cake, right? The costumes, choreography, scenery, supporting players and the ambience of a kinder, gentler, early 20th century America.

Well, Zimmerman and her fellow artists really do make it seem like a charming piece of cake. Geoff Packard is rakish but likeable as con man Harold Hill, selling musical instruments to the rubes, and he's a master of Meredith Wilson's rapid patter, both sung and spoken. Marian the Librarian—suitably red headed as befits her Irish heritage—is sweet voiced Monica West, whose songs betray her dreamy side so well. The 29-person troupe features top Chicago musical theater veterans, among them ( but not limited to ) Matt Crowle, Heidi Kettenring, Ron E. Rains, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Bri Sudia and Mary Ernster.

The brass-rich, 12-piece orchestra sparkles under musical director Jermaine Hill, earning a well-deserved ovation, although the lone violin gets lost in the mix. Denis Jones's choreography works really well, even with the non-dancers in the ensemble, with Act II's Shipoopi as the delightful highlight. Ana Kusmanic's costumes are fresh, summery and period-accurate down to the shoes. Daniel Ostling's set ( nicely lit by T. J. Gerckens ) is simple but effective with its hedgerow of corn, Midwestern main street and miniature Wells Fargo wagon.

Zimmerman doesn't conceptualize this iconic work but wisely allows it to tell its own story just as written. She understands that The Music Man is an idealized—if gently satirical—version of America, similar to Ah, Wildlerness!, Eugene O'Neill's bucolic comedy also set in an early 20th century summer. Both works offer characters that are inherently good and optimistic. This makes The Music Man pertinent for our time when, regrettably, we are governed by people who are inherently greedy and self-serving ( I won't declare them inherently bad, although some may be ). We have a better nature, as this family friendly musical sings loud and clear.

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