SR review: “The Music Man” at the Goodman Theatre

In Mary Zimmerman’s new revival, River City’s fine, but there’s trouble in that thar Hill

In Mary Zimmerman’s new revival, River City’s fine, but there’s trouble in that thar Hill

Theater review by Kris Vire

Harold Hill is a con man so skilled he even manages to pull one over on himself. The title character of Meredith Willson’s much-loved 1957 musical is a traveling salesman who peddles half-measures throughout the early 20th-century Midwest. His current grift of choice is to sell small towns on the need for a boys’ marching band, which “Professor” Hill will train and lead; once he’s gotten local parents to shell out for musical instruments, instruction books and uniforms, Hill skips town before anyone finds out he can’t carry a tune.

But in eccentric River City, Iowa—the fictional setting inspired by Willson’s hometown of Mason City—Hill fools even himself. He gets so attached to the locals, including one Marian the Librarian, that he fails to make his escape. The payoff, of course, is that while Hill may have misrepresented his musical training, he’s unleashed new rhythms in River City regardless; jolted from their “Iowa Stubborn” ruts, Marian and her neighbors embrace Harold in the end.

Despite the initial cynicism of Harold Hill’s whole project, the moods of Willson’s music are mostly rousing (“Seventy-Six Trombones”), wistful (“Goodnight My Someone”) or hopeful (“Till There Was You”). Frequently they fall into categories we might call novelty songs (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” “Gary, Indiana” or the a cappella opener, “Rock Island”), patter songs (“Ya Got Trouble”) or sheer nonsense (“Shipoopi,” whose gibberish lyrics are excused by the fact that it’s a terrific dance number).

In Mary Zimmerman’s new revival at the Goodman, Willson’s score gets thrilling treatment from musical director Jermaine Hill, leading a 12-piece orchestra, and a cast of strong singers. In big ensemble numbers like “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Shipoopi” and the library-whispering soft-shoe ballet “Marian the Librarian,” choreographer Denis Jones—a nominee at last month’s Tony Awards for Tootsie—produces some eye-popping routines.

Those large-cast dance numbers and some of Ana Kuzmanic’s brightly colored costumes can keep your internal metronome clacking at high tempo. Much of Zimmerman’s supporting cast seem to be having such a good time that it reverberates out into the house. The school-board barbershop quartet (Jonathan Schwart, Jeremy Peter Johnson, Christopher Kale Jones and James Konicek) is a delight, while the ladies’ dance committee—comprising Heidi Kettenring, Bri Sudia, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Lillian Castillo and Danielle Davis—serves up enough masterful physical comedy that I’d love to see it get a spinoff.

Elsewhere, though, Zimmerman’s production seems to equate Midwestern flatlands with aesthetic flattening. This is true of Daniel Ostling’s drab, muted set design, which feels aimed at reducing the town to anonymity even as Willson tried to people it with oddball personalities.

More damaging, though, is the tentative performance Zimmerman has elicited from Geoff Packard as Harold Hill. Packard, who also played the title role in Zimmerman’s reinvention of Candide at the Goodman nearly a decade ago, seems to be in over his head here. 

Hill needs to exude charisma and confidence, so that even as we know he’s flim-flamming River City, we can believe in its citizens buying his spiel. But Packard is unfortunately low on razzle-dazzle. Where Robert Preston barked and brayed in the original Broadway production and the 1962 movie, Packard’s milquetoast Hill is far too reserved, sometimes seeming as though he wants to want to shrink behind the mustache he’s grown for the show. Professor Harold Hill needs either charm or smarm (or both) to lead us to join his merry band; Packard doesn’t come up with either. Till there was… who?


The Music Man

Goodman Theatre (180 N Dearborn St). Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, from a story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey. Directed by Mary Zimmerman. Choreography by Denis Jones. Musical direction by Jermaine Hill.

Cast: Geoff Packard (Harold Hill), Monica West (Marian Paroo), Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Marcellus Washburn), Mary Ernster (Mrs. Paroo), Carter Graf (Winthrop Paroo), Ron E. Rains (Mayor Shinn), Heidi Kettenring (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn), Milla Liss (Gracie Shinn), Kelly Felthous (Zaneeta Shinn), Tommy Rivera-Vega (Tommy Djilas), Bri Sudia (Maud Dunlop), Nicole Michelle Haskins (Alma Hix), Lillian Castillo (Ethel Toffelmier), Danielle Davis (Mrs. Squires), Sophie Ackerman (Amaryllis Squires), Christopher Kale Jones (Jacey Squires), Jonathan Schwart (Ewart Dunlop), Jeremy Peter Johnson (Oliver Hix), James Konicek (Olin Britt), Matt Crowle (Charlie Cowell), George Andrew Wolff (Constable Locke), Cooper Carlisle, Matt Casey, Alejandro Fonseca, Anya Haverfield, Zach Porter, Laura Savage, Ayana Strutz, Adrienne Velasco-Storrs (Townspeople).

Designers: Daniel Ostling (scenic), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), T.J. Gerckens (lighting), Ray Nardelli (sound).

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes; one intermission. Through August 11. Tickets ($25–$142) at goodmantheatre.org.

Photographs by Liz Lauren.