The Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical this year went to Daniel Fish’s stripped-down, timely interpretation of Oklahoma!, a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that first opened on Broadway in 1943. In the current iteration, the musical’s deep themes of classism, patriarchy and tolerance are front and center; without changing a word of the book or a note of the accompanying songs, the show’s impact nevertheless hits like a gut punch. It’s an accomplishment by any definition, breathing new life into a familiar production, and Fish’s realized vision proves that solid content is timeless.
A little over a year from now, a new revival of another classic, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, arrives on Broadway (with Hugh Jackman as Harold Hill and Sutton Foster as Marian, no less). Set to be directed by Jerry Zaks, there’s no indication just yet that the production will be anything but traditional. Sure, there are plenty of ways to “woke-ify” this show in ways similar to how Fish evolved Oklahoma!, but sometimes a classic is a classic and simply re-staging the thing is exactly what the audience craves.
Right here in Chicago, the Goodman Theatre’s got a jump on such things with their energetic, entertaining new production of the feel-good story of a traveling salesman and the small Iowa town he dupes with his brass instruments and marching band uniforms. Already extended through August 18, Mary Zimmerman (herself a Tony Award winner) directs a charmingly nostalgic take that treats audiences to everything we love most about The Music Man: a wholesome take on family, community and love, with a deep roster of familiar melodies and laughs to spare.
Geoff Packard stars as Hill, playing him for a cad about town whose latest scheme is a sure thing in a town he didn’t plan to con; Monica West is Marian, the mild-mannered librarian (with a killer soprano) who falls for him despite her better inclinations; and Carter Graf leans hard into Winthrop’s lisp, giving Ron Howard (who famously played the part in the 1962 film adaptation) a run for his money. The cast is rounded out by Mary Ernster as Mrs. Paroo (Marian and Winthrop’s mother), a well-meaning if overbearing Irish matriarch; Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Marcellus, Hill’s one-time co-conspirator who’s gone straight in River City; and Ron E. Rains and Heidi Kettenring as Mayor and Eulalie Shinn, the town busy-bodies and status-bearers whose huffing and puffing prove folly to Hill’s charms. (Oh, and Matt Crowle makes a small turn as fellow salesman Charlie Cowell; his performance alone [as usual] is worth the price of admission.)
This more-than-capable cast shines thanks in no small part to the gorgeous orchestrations by Jermaine Hill and the sumptuous, meticulous choreography by Denis Jones. Between the overture and entre-act alone, you’ll easily get lost in the melodies; settle in before both acts, as it’s a joy to indulge in this theater-going mainstay. The musicality throughout isn’t half bad either, in a show chockful of songs that are recognizable beyond their place in the narrative, from the Sousa-like “76 Trombones” to ballads including “Till There Was You.” Jones’s choreography is an absolute delight to behold, perfectly attuned to the show’s early 20th century setting; there’s an energy in every spin, leap and waltz that’s as impressive as it is reminiscent of other equally crowd-pleasing shows (Newsies comes to mind straightaway).
It can be tempting, particularly in the current political and social climate, to attempt to measure the value of every work of art, every new creation or offering against its own self-awareness (and if it doesn’t measure up, to adapt it until it does…or cancel it entirely). The Goodman’s diverse casting (though all the main roles are white) certainly helps make this 60-year-old show easier on modern eyes, but there isn’t much objectionable overall in Wilson’s story to begin with. Sure, it’s still the “Boys Band” and no, Mayor Shinn isn’t exactly a feminist. Everything that a modern audience might find offensive about this G-rated show could be updated, but Zimmerman’s production proves that it doesn’t need to be.
What worked for Oklahoma! works for Oklahoma!, and we’re the better theatergoers for it. We’re just as lucky to have a production as traditional—and stellar—as the Goodman’s The Music Man. And blessedly, the two things can be true at the same time.
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