Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man has a reputation as for sweetness, but there’s more than a little sour mixed in. River City, Iowa—the small turn-of-the-century town that gets taken in by the musical’s antihero, Professor Harold Hill—is a crabbed little burg inhabited by cranks and fools, and much of Wilson’s top-notch score is written in the surprising rhythms of pattering salesmen and gossiping hens. In Mary Zimmerman’s revival for the Goodman Theatre, it’s these notes that come through most strongly, leaving a pleasantly astringent aftertaste.
As is usually the case with Zimmernan, the show is visually stunning: Designer Dan Ostling’s set presents River City as a Whistler landscape in clapboard, with lofty prosceniums framing an endless horizon. (Grant Wood’s American Gothic gets an explicit shout-out.) But the show’s characters can get lost within the sheer amount of space that Zimmerman’s staging conjures— none more so that Geoff Packard’s oddly retiring Hill. Even as the man brazenly swindles an entire town into starting a boy’s band—with instruments, sheet music and uniforms that he himself will supply—Packard’s voice hardly rises above a murmur. It’s a performance full of shy glances and shrugging shoulders, and this curious lack of con-man swagger spills over into his persistent wooing the town’s skeptical librarian, Marian Paroo (Monica West).
The rest of Zimmernan’s cast, however, seems to be having a ball. Ron E. Rains and Heidi Kettenring are fabulously over the top as River City’s blustery mayor and his narcissistic wife, as is Matt Crowle as Hill’s wild-eyed rival. Mary Ernster gives a more measured but no less delightful turn as Marion’s no-nonsense mother, and the entire company shines in Denis Jones’s wittily elaborate dance sequences, especially Hill’s slyly seductive “Marian the Librarian.” But although the production as a whole overflows with exuberance, there’s something missing at its center: Harold Hill is upstaged by River City. The love story that Wilson traces between Hill and Marian might be refreshingly cynical, but it’s still meant to be romantic. Here, it fades into rows of corn.
Goodman Theatre. Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson. Directed by Mary Zimmerman. With Geoff Packard, Monica West. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.