Almost from the moment Craig Bierko swaggers onstage in the title role of "The Music Man," you realize this isn't going to be a radical reworking of Meredith Willson's 1957 musical classic.
In his Broadway debut, Bierko faces the daunting task of taking on a role Robert Preston made his own - both on Broadway and in the 1962 movie. Bierko's response is doubly surprising: The only thing more eerie than how like Preston he manages to become is how well the resemblance works.
You might expect a performance and a production that stick so closely to the familiar original as to be rather lifeless. Instead, Susan Stroman's revival is charming, funny and hugely entertaining.
Stroman's success is rooted in a simple insight: This show doesn't need a patronizing makeover. But this isn't quite as obvious as it seems, for "The Music Man" comes wrapped in a double layer of nostalgia.
We look back at it across a gulf of 43 years. And when he wrote it, Willson himself was looking back over a similar distance, to the small-town Iowa of his own childhood.
When Bierko's slick con man Harold Hill walks into River City on a July morning in 1912, he's taking us back into a simpler time. He knows that the innocent hicks will fall for his favorite scam. He will set up a town band, sell them expensive instruments and uniforms and be long gone before they discover his musical expertise is a fraud.
But of course, he will fall for the charm of the spinster librarian he sets out to con. How could this not be too sweet and sentimental for our cynical times?
There are two answers: the music and the story. Willson's songs look back to the popular forms of the early 20th century: marching bands ("Seventy-Six Trombones"), barbershop quartets ("Lida Rose"), local anthems ("Gary, Indiana") and music-hall ballads ("Till There Was You"). But because he wrote from the inside, with all the effervescence of someone who grew up in that musical culture, the songs retain their freshness.
And the story also has an insider's lack of sentimentality. In fact, "The Music Man" has a real satiric bite.
Willson lays bare all the snobbery and pomposity, the vicious gossip and the barely suppressed hysteria of small minds in a small town. So while Hill's charm is laced with cynicism, the town's innocence is tempered with mockery. "The Music Man," in other words, ain't broke - and Stroman doesn't try to fix it.
What we get in the performances, in Thomas Lynch's sets and in Stroman's own playful choreography, is the infectious enthusiasm of a company that actually likes the show it is presenting.
Which is not to say that, with a running time of well over two and a half hours, the show doesn't have its dreary passages. For parts of the second act, the story goes nowhere fast. But the production is robust enough to survive these doldrums.
Bierko's resurrection of Preston is suave and confident. Opposite him, Rebecca Luker as Marian the librarian has exactly the right air of intelligent wistfulness and handles her ballads superbly.
Paul Benedict and Ruth Williamson wring every drop of comedy from Willson's glorious caricatures of the ludicrous mayor and his hoity-toity wife.
Such exuberance makes "The Music Man" as high-spirited and appealing as a marching band in a sunlit parade.
“The Music Man" is a hymn of triumph. Meredith Willson's 1957 musical is being revived, resuscitated, reborn in a get-with-it, joyful new production by director-choreographer Susan Stroman at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Stroman brings to "The Music Man" the sense of a community asleep, needing to be awakened and invigorated by the magic of music and movement.
The plot, beloved of the 1950s, is virtually the same as that of "The Rainmaker," revived earlier this season - a compelling man arrives selling something attractive and life-giving. He's a phony but gets caught up in the needs of one girl, and of others around him, and manages to deliver.
Fortunately, in "The Music Man," it's music that is on sale. Con man Harold Hill is selling (or pretending to sell) instruments and uniforms to the town of River City, Iowa.
We see Hill denounced by his fellow traveling salesmen even before we land in town. He gets off the train and learns the lay of the land, thanks to a chance meeting with ex-crook Marcellus (a spirited Max Casella).
The town proceeds to display its lack of musical instruments (and lack of spirit) in the inventive, playful, "Seventy-Six Trombones."
But Hill orchestrates the town into a symphony, all smiles as they climb pianos and harmonize: The previously threatening school board turns into a barbershop quartet; the righteous women become a dancing ensemble. The place is getting the spirit.
Harold Hill is played by Craig Bierko, and he is ideally suited to this role: smooth, edged with salesman's smarts, but with the sheer joy of the music winning out over all.
What will be the making of him is the Paroo family. He'll fall for Marian, the town librarian, and restore her shattered little brother's self-esteem.
Marian is the likable Rebecca Luker (of "The Sound of Music"), prim but prepared to belt her powerful tunes, like "Goodnight, My Someone." She's just right for this sort of material.
A highlight of Hill's courtship is "Marian the Librarian," which transforms the library from a dull, dead place into an explosive riot of harmony.
On the way to winning Marian over, Hill begins to incorporate her into his sexy rhythm. By the time we hear "The Wells Fargo Wagon," the whole place is feeling the beat: The wives are dancing under the leadership of the hilarious Ruth Williamson, the school board is harmonizing, and Marian's brother, little Winthrop, is bursting his shell.
Another irresistible moment of madness is "Shipoopi," led by Casella, where Hill dances with Marian and the entire town, and giddy dancers cavort atop a gazebo.
Wicked anti-music forces threaten doom, as the mayor (Paul Benedict) and a traveling salesman (Ralph Byers) expose Hill as the fraud he is, and the town hunts him down.
Hill and Marian then have a beautiful moment of transfiguring love before he's apprehended. He is about to be tarred and feathered when a raggedy band of children saves the day.
Then, actually after the final curtain, the entire cast appears in full uniform and delivers a rousing, happy, harmonized reprise of "Seventy-Six Trombones." Hill leads the band through an increasingly swinging version of the song.
Music has put down all the forces of negativity. It is Stroman in an idealizing, beatific mood. It is her version of Balanchine's "Star and Stripes."
"The Music Man" has the simple elegance and sunny joy of a fable. It's a magnificent comedy of communal motion.
A stranger steps off a train into an unsuspecting little town. He looks too slick to be trusted, but what's dangerous about him isn't inside that big suitcase he's clutching. He's carrying a virus so contagious that it will sweep through the whole town, making people behave as they never have before. Harold Hill's got it, all right; Harold Hill's got rhythm.
Thus might Jim Thompson, or some other novelist of the all-American underbelly, describe the plot of a show that is traditionally regarded as one of the sunniest musicals ever. But as the bright but spotty new revival at the Neil Simon Theater makes clear, ''The Music Man,'' Meredith Willson's Eisenhower-era celebration of the rhythms of life in small-town America, has always had its devious side.
The show's intent, like that of its con artist-hero, is to make you start thinking all cockeyed, to sense a beat in the most ordinary, melody-free activities, a beat that might suddenly turn them into song. This is also, it would seem, the creed of Susan Stroman. She is the director and choreographer of the production that opened last night, with the movie actor Craig Bierko making a studiously polished Broadway debut as Harold Hill, the role that made Robert Preston a star.
Ms. Stroman's ''Music Man'' is not the dream show you might have hoped for. It makes you feel ridiculously happy one instant and seriously sleepy the next. It certainly doesn't provide the kind of fluid, all-encompassing rejuvenation found in Trevor Nunn's London revival of ''Oklahoma!,'' which Ms. Stroman also choreographed.
Here, her transforming imagination stops when the music stops. Neither she nor her estimable production team has been able to make the show's setting -- the proudly plain and stubborn River City, Iowa -- seem like more than a restoration park, a historic cardboard world in ice-cream parlor pastels. The production has two perfectly agreeable stars in Mr. Bierko and Rebecca Luker, who plays Marian Paroo, the frosty librarian who learns to melt.
But you get the impression that most of the people onstage are just pretending to live in a land of corn-fed propriety and corny jokes, marking time until a production number comes along to let them show their stuff. Accordingly, when the show is singing or especially dancing, it often seems to have winged feet; when it's just talking or clowning around, those feet are decidedly flat.
What Ms. Stroman gets right, she gets wonderfully right, and that goes back to the idea of what the Gershwins called ''fascinatin' rhythm.'' It's the same principle that governs Ms. Stroman's other current Broadway production, the blissful ''Contact,'' which features a vignette in which a stiff, suicidal ad man (played by Boyd Gaines) finds deliverance in the rubber-limbed animation of swing dancing.
Harold becomes, without even intending to, the bearer of salvation to a group of overstarched, judgmental and generally joyless citizens. A notorious flimflammer among traveling salesmen, he presents himself as a professor of musicology, organizing brass bands wherever he goes, but he doesn't have a clue about playing, much less reading, music.
The show's central, felicitous joke is that Harold is a natural musician, something that's evident in every breath of his cadenced sales spiels, and by the evening's end he has converted not only the townspeople but also himself. In doing so, he provides a lesson in the art of seduction that is the essence of American musicals. It's the same lesson that is taught by another revival, ''Chicago,'' which offers a very different but equally persuasive take on the idea of the musical as con game.
''The Music Man'' was Willson's first musical, staged when he was in his mid-50's, and it was the product of years of scrupulous revisions. The result was a doozy of a debut, a show that swept the Tonys and the critics' awards in 1957, beating out a grittier, darker slice of American life called ''West Side Story.'' While finger-wagging hindsight tends to make ''West Side Story'' the breakthrough upstart, with ''The Music Man'' as a comforting throwback, that contrast oversimplifies what Willson achieved.
Willson, who wrote the book and lyrics as well as the score for the show, wasn't merely hewing to the already threadbare rules of the organic book musical. He was also refining them with sly sophistication, creating one of the most spontaneous-seeming organic musicals of all time.
His trick throughout was to take a familiar sound -- the click-clack of a train's wheels, the plodding rise and fall of a student's piano scales -- as a taking-off point for the show's songs. The implicit message is that music is everywhere if you know how to look for it, an idea expressed most sweetly in the show's famous love ballad, ''Till There Was You.''
In this sense, Ms. Stroman is clearly Willson's soulmate. She ingeniously begins her ''Music Man'' by putting a real band, members of the orchestra, onstage for the overture in the railroad car where the show's first scene takes place. (Doug Besterman's orchestrations nicely polish the score's silvery romance as well as the dominant brass.)
When the musicians are replaced by the traveling salesmen who sing the show's first number, ''Rock Island,'' which brilliantly sets manic conversation to the rhythms of the train, it feels seamless, the substitution of one group of music-makers for another.
You can feel the men who perform the patter song getting high on those rhythms, and it's an infectious feeling. Unfortunately, Ms. Stroman hasn't found a way to keep that sensation percolating when the train stops.
The show has a winning if overly artificial human metronome in the tireless Mr. Bierko. Things definitely perk up when he's around, and the show soars anew when Harold is conjuring an orchestra from the air or shattering the quiet of a library. But there is a flatness in the overall mise-en-scene.
The impression extends to Thomas Lynch's sets, which juxtapose the idyllic construct of River City itself (here it looks a lot like Main Street, U.S.A., at Disneyland) with lots of painted green flats and foliage frames. These are presumably meant to create a sort of ''Midsummer Night's Dream'' land of verdure, but the effect is oddly claustrophobic.
Dressed in William Ivey Long's too-pretty period costumes, townspeople in the ensemble are a genial, easy-going lot, which is not at all what the show asks for. You don't get the sense of diverse idiosyncratic figures chafing against one another, which still comes across in the 1962 film version.
There's a looseness to the key supporting performers, who include Paul Benedict and Ruth Williamson as the blustery mayor and his bossy wife, that creates a distracting diffuseness. Ms. Williamson, for example, provides a sharply drawn, amusing caricature, but she seems to belong to another show. And Max Casella, who has the plum part of Marcellus, Harold's wily accomplice, has rakish charms that are never brought into sharp relief here. Like so many of the others, he gets lost in the crowd.
The same cannot be said of Mr. Bierko, who steps into Preston's long shadow with remarkable assurance. At times he seems to be patterning his gestures and inflections too closely on his famous predecessor. But he has a gleaming impishness of his own, never so evident as when he is hoodwinking a group of officious councilmen by turning them into a mellifluous barbershop quartet (charmingly embodied by Michael-Leon Wooley, Jack Doyle, John Sloman and Blake Hammond).
Preston's anchoring, reassuring humanity, which always hinted at the latent good guy beneath the scam artist, doesn't come as naturally to Mr. Bierko, who sometimes registers as so glisteningly smooth that you wonder if there's anyone home beneath the veneer. Yet in the show's last scenes, in which Harold realizes his love for Marian, something substantial, a mix of sensuality and shame, suddenly shines through. A little more of that throughout, and Mr. Bierko will have a first-class performance.
Similarly, Ms. Luker, who is in exquisite voice, could use a shade more sex appeal in her early scenes. Her Marian initially registers as pinched and forbidding, a closed bud with no promise of opening. It is a delight, however, when the bud unfolds; you can even see the color coming into her pallid cheeks.
Marian, for the record, is a part Ms. Luker could play with her eyes closed. (She also did the virginal heroines of the recent revivals of ''Showboat'' and ''The Sound of Music.'') It would be nice to see her tap some of the glamour quotient evident in her appearance in the Encores! concert of ''The Boys From Syracuse.''
Ms. Luker becomes a stand-in of sorts for the audience in the evening's high point. That's the delicious ''Marian the Librarian'' number in which Harold tries to thaw Marian in her library. The sign on the wall says ''Quiet Please,'' and the pleasure of the song has always been in seeing that silence violated.
What Ms. Stroman realizes here, though, is something subtler. It's not raucousness so much that follows; it's a gliding fantasy that shows off the corps de ballet at its best. Heavy tomes become as light and manipulable as straw hats and canes, and earthbound adolescents soar skyward.
The effect is of one of those dreams about flying in which you suddenly find your heels leaving the ground. At that moment, you don't doubt the magical powers of Mr. Bierko's Harold or of Ms. Stroman as master conjurer. This ''Music Man'' may be disappointingly earthbound for at least half of its nearly three hours, but it still has more helium than any of the other self-described family entertainments on Broadway.
Norman Rockwell is finally getting some respect in the arts pages, so the time is perhaps ripe for a Broadway revival of Meredith Willson's 1957 smash "The Music Man," a theatrical slice of cherry pie that both sends up and pays tribute to the old-fashioned manners and mores of small-town America. The author couldn't ask for a more respectful production than the one lovingly directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. This happy, hummable, picture-book-pretty show brings the musical-theater season to a close on a sugar high, and should be a hit with summer tourists and family audiences. Adults of a sophisticated bent are not encouraged to attend without kiddie escorts, however, and cynics will need to have their blood-sugar levels checked at regular intervals.
This is indubitably not a high-concept revival that attempts to uncover new subtleties or mine contemporary nuances in a classic show. Indeed, Stroman & Co. are so wary of taking risks with this beloved material that the show's appealing young star, Craig Bierko, often seems to be channeling Robert Preston, whose performance in the original is the stuff of Broadway legend. But the conservative approach is understandable: Under the whipped-cream surface delights of "The Music Man" lies only more whipped cream, and there's little sense in pretending otherwise.
The sweet-talking, bad-boy hero of "The Music Man" is Harold Hill, as most of America surely knows. He's the traveling salesman who rides into River City, Iowa, and proceeds to hornswoggle the gullible townsfolk into buying a wagonfull of horns in order to keep the kids out of trouble. Making trouble for Harold is the suspicious spinster librarian, Marian Paroo (Rebecca Luker), who knows Harold's a charlatan but nevertheless gradually melts under his vigorous charms as he whips the stiff, slumbering town into a musical frenzy. The show is a sepia-toned tribute to the power of make-believe, and make-believe puts everything right in the end.
"Trouble," of course, is the first big number in Willson's infectious choo-choo train of a score. The composer's musical gifts were of a modest if appealing kind --- he wrote great ditties, above all --- but his lyrics are wonderfully bubbly and inventive (rhyming "Marian" and "librarian" with "carrion ," of all things). Voices in "The Music Man" act as an entire orchestra: drums, horns, strings and piano, and not just in the bouncy "Seventy Six Trombones," in which Hill sets all the kids booming, bellowing and blowing on imaginary instruments. Elsewhere singers mimic the rhythms of a chugging train and the pecking of hens, and some of Willson's snap-crackle-pop vocal arrangements may almost be seen as Broadway precursors of rap. Who'd have thought it?
The score is well served by the show's stars. (Heavy amplification, the bane of the Broadway theater, is a considerable blight on this production, but it's more the dialogue than the songs that suffer, thankfully.) Bierko, a Harold Hill firmly in the familiar mold, has a handsome and expressive face, with big blue eyes and leaping eyebrows that disappear regularly under the brim of his straw boater. His vocal style and physical manner are facsimiles of Preston's --- if you can't beat him, be him, the thinking seems to be. Bierko does, however, have a supple singing voice, and his performance, whatever its provenance, is in the end a thoroughly charming and even affecting one.
Luker's singing is simply sublime. She has one of the prettiest and most polished soprano voices to be heard on a Broadway stage right now, and ample opportunity to display it here, since Marian is more often than not to be found leaning against a post on the porch, with Peter Kaczorowski's elegantly dappled moonlight swimming around her, singing one of Willson's tender ballads. (The finest of these, "My White Knight," may have been ghostwritten by Frank Loesser, Willson's mentor, who encouraged him to turn his autobiography into a musical.) Marian, the archetypal good girl, who gives piano lessons when she's not at the library and has never been to the town's local dallying spot, is not an easy role to pull off, but Luker infuses it with real, honest feeling, neither pumping up nor patronizing the role's old-fashioned primness.
Indeed, the marvel of Stroman's production is that none of the sugar in the show turns to saccharine, none of the characters turn to cardboard, none of the creamed-corn jokes land with too resonant a thud. The book's simple plot is at least watertight, and thus holds up better than most of its era, and while none of the gags will challenge the sensibilities of a moderately hip 10-year-old, they raise a few real smiles.
The supporting cast of comic characters are well-played, with Ruth Williamson particularly florid as the mayor's wife, the memorably monikered Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. Katherine McGrath, a wonderful actress often seen as San Diego's Old Globe Theater, is dry and funny --- and oh so Irish --- as Marian's mother.
The production is certainly easy on the eyes. William Ivey Long's costumes are an eye-catching parade in themselves, from Harold's snazzy vanilla ice-cream suits to the fantastically feathered chapeaux of the "Pickalittle" ladies. Thomas Lynch's pastel-pretty sets make subtle allusions to American art from Rockwell to Andrew Wyeth to Jackson Pollock.
And Stroman's choreography is, of course, a delectable asset to the production. The three major production numbers --- "Seventy Six Trombones," "Marian the Librarian" and "Shipoopi" --- all have their own particular flavor, and Stroman can array dancers on a stage with incomparable, airy finesse. But her work here isn't as inspired as in "Contact" or the London production of "Oklahoma!" It's pretty and even intoxicating at times, but it's all frosting. This is probably because the material isn't as rich --- how much dramatic texture and feeling, after all, can you get into a song called "Shipoopi"? Still , a freer hand (and some minor cutting) might have resulted in a fresher-feeling , zippier and more imaginative show.
Tellingly, all of those qualities are in evidence in Stroman's finale, the evening's most inspired moment, which arrives after the curtain has gone down on the show's happy ending. The details of this number --- a kissing cousin of George Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes" --- are too delicious to spoil, but it's marked by the kind of freewheeling, spirited novelty that marks her best work. That spirit is largely held in check for the duration of the show proper --- clearly Stroman reveres "The Music Man" too much to take serious liberties with it.
With Stroman's staging including gags referring to "American Gothic" and the famous oil of Washington crossing the Delaware, a case is subtly being made for "Music Man" as a classic piece of American art. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But the result is more a perfect reproduction than a classic reinvented. This is a reverent, impeccably staged revival, which would be satisfying if it didn't come from a woman who might be capable of creating a truly inspired and inspiring one.