In staging a theater classic, one hopes to illuminate a new dimension in the work. This honorable intention explains why on occasion we must endure Hamlet swinging on a trapeze or Oedipus dressing in a three-piece suit and stabbing his eyes out with Sharpies.
Ten Thousand Things more often than not makes the exercise of reimagination worthwhile. Director Lear deBessonet has tested the elasticity of “The Music Man” and reveals an unexpectedly tender story about two lost souls who find redemption in each other. There isn’t a trombone (much less 76) or a slick marching band to be found in the small production that opened Friday at Open Book in Minneapolis. There is a con man (Luverne Seifert) who exhausts his appetite for dishonesty, and a too-earnest woman (Aimee Bryant) who discovers the power of belief and imagination. Rarely has this show seemed so generously poignant, so sentimentally honest.
Seifert’s Prof. Harold Hill blusters into a small town, slickers the rubes into thinking they have a crisis of wayward youth and proposes that he has the answer: put the kids into a band. His conscience gets the best of him as he stumbles into love with Bryant’s reserved and no-nonsense Marian Paroo, the town librarian.
Shaving down the musical element of a musical is risky business. DeBessonet’s staging of “My Fair Lady” for Ten Thousand Things in 2010 convinced me only of how desperately that show depends on Frederick Loewe’s score.
“The Music Man” is more a masterwork of lyrical dexterity and rhythm in form and Midwestern nostalgia in heart. In many ways, this is writer/composer Meredith Willson’s “Main Street” — an artist’s homage to his hometown.
However, Willson has none of Sinclair Lewis’s acrid contempt for its subjects. “Music Man” brims with affection for River City (population 2,212) and the stubborn, chip-on-their-shoulder arrogance of the townsfolk.
DeBessonet’s eight-person cast dots each character with quirky and gawky humor. Jim Lichtscheidl’s Mayor Shinn bumbles with Barney Fife officiousness. Ricardo Vazquez brings out the sweetest innocence of lisping Winthrop. They all retain their charm and odd integrity.
Key points illustrate how well DeBessonet has articulated Willson’s scenario. Seifert’s Hill introduces the dream of a marching band not with a bombastic song but whispering that “76 trombones led the big parade” — as if he’s a campfire storyteller. As the story grows, he slowly brings the gullible residents to their feet in full voice. When Hill promises Winthrop a trumpet and uniform, the boy lights up and in that moment, we see Bryant’s Marian transform as she realizes the power of myth on a troubled child.
Peter Vitale and Jake Endres juggle keyboard, accordion, drums and winds to find just the right musical accompaniment along the road this production travels. Willson wrote this story with great warmth and a belief in the capacity of humans to change themselves through their imaginations. DeBessonet has used that notion to sculpt a beautiful, small production.