The cold, calculating con man has a heart after all.
Toward the end of “The Music Man,” which had its polished, pizzazz-y opening Friday at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, breezy swindler Harold Hill (Michael Gruber) has a palpable moment of sincerity. The townspeople he’s hoodwinked in River City are coming after him. But he’s slow to move as librarian Marian Paroo (Ann Michels) tells him of the unintended positive impact he’s had on her special needs brother, Winthrop (Hugo Mullaney and Liam Beck-O’Sullivan alternate in the role), on the town and on her. Harold turns his back to her, his eyes becoming wet as he’s overcome with emotion.
This authentic moment gives Chanhassen’s “Music Man” heart. It also helps make Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical a story of hope. A craven con man who floods a town with lies can change. And the community that he’s tricked can have new growth, and a shared sense of purpose, despite his scammy intentions.
Tony winners Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster are slated to headline “The Music Man” on Broadway in the fall. But you don’t have to wait until then to see a smashing production of the classic. Director Michael Brindisi’s revival captivates from the hypnotic opening number, “Rock Island,” through the finale in the town square. The staging, which has Tamara Kangas Erickson’s stylish choreography, Paul Bigot’s period-evocative wigs and Nayna Ramey’s minimalist but effective set pieces, boasts pitch-perfect performances by its village-sized cast.
Gruber plays Harold with a light touch and very little cynicism. His glib, ready-to-flatter Harold is more an artist than a criminal. What River Citians see as flaws in themselves, he sees as assets. Again, he’s blowing smoke, but they are willing to believe, and that faith inspires them. Gruber is a strong vehicle for such inspiration.
Michels brings smarts, steadiness and her gorgeous soprano to Marian, a character who willingly relents to Harold’s con because she has a hunger to believe. Her Marian knows his secrets, and that he is likely to love her and leave her like all the rest. But she sees the unintended effect Harold has had on her community, and that is enough for her.
Kudos also to Jay Albright as incensed anvil salesman Charlie Cowell and Peggy O’Connell as prayerful Mrs. Paroo. They both show comic hunger and desperation.
Tony Vierling, who plays Harold’s longtime friend Marcellus Washburn, stands out on “Shipoopi,” delivering with such joy and relish, you want to forget what it’s saying: “Well, a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy. And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out is anything but fussy.”
Brindisi and his team have made a number of small but smart tweaks to tone down many outdated aspects of the show, including in the area of gender politics.
For example, in a duet between Harold and Marian, he used to say: “My dear little librarian, pile up enough tomorrows and you’ll find you’ve collected nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.” But they changed “little” to “lovely,” taking away the condescension and adding heart.
From P.T. Barnum to fake preachers and corrupt politicians, the con man is a constant figure in our culture. But “Music Man” shows that it’s not a one-way street. The conned are not necessarily gullible dupes. They are people hungry for something bigger in their lives.
When Mayor Shinn’s wife Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Michelle Barber, excellent as always) is having trouble with her foot, she thinks it’s because of her bunions. But Harold Hill sees something else, telling her “Oh what grace! What natural flow of rhythm! What expression of line and movement!” He puts her in charge of the ladies auxiliary for the classic dance.
He similarly converts the members of the school board into a barbershop quartet, and some proper women into the Pick-a-Little Ladies, his lies bringing sweet harmonies, and a lot of joy, to River City.