Back in 1957, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man made a star out of Robert Preston; the current revival should do the same for Rebecca Luker. As she has steadily demonstrated, she is blessed with the voice, the looks, and the acting talent of a musical-comedy diva, and only typecasting, lack of opportunity, and some sort of universal blindness and deafness have kept her from the deserved pedestal. As Marian Paroo, the librarian of River City, Iowa, who goes from tight-lipped spinster to glowing inamorata in this happy show, Miss Luker gives a performance as detailed, nuanced, and cherishable as ever turned a performer into a legend.
Susan Stroman’s production has other assets as well, but let’s take care first of its chief liability. The role of Professor Harold Hill, the sales- and con man who sells the dismal little Iowa town brass instruments and uniforms and promises to turn its youth into a marching band under his leadership – though he can’t tell one note from another – was created immortally by Robert Preston. He had an infectious way of making a charlatan believable, a Lothario’s wooing credible, a swindler’s eventual revelation of a heart behind his billfold totally convincing.
Craig Bierko, an obscure movie actor, the incumbent Hill, gives an impersonation rather than a performance. He sounds, deliberately or not, uncannily like Preston, and has mastered a good many histrionic Prestonisms. This may not bother those who never experienced Preston – although the movie version with him is easily available – but is to the rest of us like a hostess’s proudly displaying her flagrant copy of a Vermeer. Add – or subtract – that Bierko has a faintly batrachian aspect, underlined by his profuse sweating, and you wonder why the townspeople, to say nothing of the starchy librarian, would so willingly take him to their flinty bosoms.
Miss Stroman has amply proved her talent as a choreographer, and most of her dances here are on target, even if her bravura library frolic to “Marian the Librarian” is less able to balance chaos with focus than Onna White’s for the premiere production and the movie. She is also as yet less apt as a director of nonmusical passages, and does not quite establish the basic gruffness of River City’s denizens, the various subplots and their interrelation, or the stages by which sundry transformations take place. But she does keep things moving, often inventively.
As the pompous mayor and his pretentious wife, Paul Benedict and Ruth Williamson (especially she) may lean a little too steeply into caricature; as Marian’s troubled little brother, Michael Phelan may have less charisma than previous kids in the role. But these are minor problems, and the members of the Harold Hill-induced barbershop quartet, like the remainder of the spirited supporting cast, do handsomely enough. Willson’s score is consistently endearing and, for its time, innovative. Thus, the opening train number – which Miss Stroman prefaces with the overture featuring the pit orchestra as a traveling band – comes off as the granddaddy of all rap music. So, too, the melodic identity of Hill’s rousing “76 Trombones” and Marian’s wistful “Goodnight, My Someone” presages their singers’ eventual compatibility. And much more to keep an audience elated.
Less felicitous are Thomas Lynch’s serviceable but underimagined sets and William Ivey Long’s funny but overfancy costumes. Still, salient about this revival is how far it outshines today’s crop of musicals and how uncloyingly it dispenses well-earned cheer. The Stroman-invented postlude, wherein the kids and adults join in an apotheosis of marching-band music- cum-good citizenship, may run somewhat counter to logic, but as a coup de théâtre it fully earns its keep.