Consider the Walnut Street Theatre’s splendiferous production of the award-winning classic The Music Man an early holiday gift to lovers of Philadelphia stage.
Penned by Meredith Willson from a story by Willson and Frank Lacey, the musical tale is set in the quaint hamlet of River City, Iowa, in 1912, the kind of place celebrated by Mitt Romney and the Republican establishment. It’s a nostalgic, almost utopian image of small-town America that never existed. It’s incredibly old-fashioned, and, like Susan Stroman’s remarkable Broadway revival in 2000, Walnut Street director Marc Robin makes no attempt to contemporize the original story or Willson’s creaky libretto. River City is all white, the sky is pure blue and the trees leafy green, there is no trash or crime, and the biggest source of excitement is the billiard parlor’s new pool table. It’s the sort of place that’s easy pickings for veteran con man Professor Harold Hill, played by Jeff Coon, who concocts a plan to rob the townsfolk of their hard-earned wages by promising to form an all-boys marching band. The exact details of his scheme are so implausible as to defy description. The naïve townsfolk fall for the deception, with the exception of local librarian/piano teacher Marian Paroo (the exquisite Jennifer Hope Wills). A single lady who lives with her mother (the delightful Mary Martello) and little brother, Marian plans to reveal Hill’s trickery. However, instead of turning Hill in, Marian falls in love with the smooth-talking grifter. He, of course, feels the same, and all ends happily when he abandons his wicked ways for the kind, virtuous woman.
The Music Man fails or succeeds depending on the skill of the actor portraying Hill, and Coon, in the performance of a lifetime, proves that he is up to the challenge. One of Philadelphia’s most talented and vocally gifted musical performers, Coon seems to relish every moment on stage. His unabashed enthusiasm is infectious, and, like Marian, we too are attracted to the quick wit and winning personality displayed by Coon’s Hill. His is easily one of the year’s most charismatic performances, and though he receives a great deal of support from the first-rate cast, it is Coon as Hill that drives the production. In fact, his desire to play the role was a main factor in the decision by Bernard Havard, Walnut Street’s producing artistic director, to revive The Music Man, which was last performed at the Walnut 28 years earlier.
Robin keeps the action humming along, and despite the huge cast—which includes a live horse—the production runs like clockwork. Robin, also in charge of the show’s choreography, creates a host of well-conceived, blockbuster numbers, including a wonderfully executed free-for-all in the town library, and also changes the pace with a surprising amount of ballet-inspired dance. It’s not the usual Music Man choreography, but it adds to its dreaminess, aided by scenic designer’s Robert Andrew Kovach’s picturesque painted backdrops and Paul Black’s lush lighting design. The dream-like quality suits the unlikely romance between Hill and Marian, consummated on a moonlit footbridge as they sing the heavenly “Till There Was You,” and Marian embraces Hill, con man and all.
While the pair’s romance is the main interest, there is no shortage of amusement in Robin’s staging. Laugh-out-loud humor is provided by Alene Robertson, who is an absolute scene-stealer as Eulalie, the mayor’s opinionated wife. At Hill’s urging, she and the town’s other middle-aged ladies develop a hilariously bad dance number for the town’s ice cream social, and their rendition of the bizarre ditty “Pickalittle” features the gals running about the stage clucking like demented chickens.
Funny moments and love story aside, the real reason to see the Walnut’s Music Man is to hear the songs, all of which are robustly played by an excellent orchestra led by musical director Douglass Lutz. No male performer in Philly boasts a bigger voice than Coon, and his full-throated rendition of the musical’s signature tune “76 Trombones” is appropriately rousing. Other highlights include Coon’s fiery “Ya Got Trouble” and the classic “Gary, Indiana,” which, on opening night, was energetically performed by youngster Vincent Crocilla as Marian’s adorable little brother, Winthrop.
It won’t challenge your intellect or inspire a philosophical debate about the nature of humankind. But if you are looking for pure escapist entertainment, The Music Man is a spectacular diversion from the stress and strain of the holiday season.
Through Jan. 6. $10-$95. Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. 215.574.3550. walnutstreettheatre.org