REVIEW: The Music Man (Marriott Theatre)

         
        

Iowa Splendid

 

 

Bernie Yvon and Danny Coonley in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre

    
Marriott Theatre presents
   
The Music Man
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Directed by
Gary Griffin
at
Marriott Theatre, Linconshire (map)
through Jan 9  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

For reasons we can only guess at, Marriott Theatre has picked it for their holiday offering. But if ever a show spelled out summer, it’s Meredith Willson‘s 1957 masterpiece The Music Man. Throughout the rollicking story the title character exudes sunny optimism, a flimflam that "Professor" Harold Hill wants to believe as much as the suckers who take it in. His buoyant drive fits the season like a picnic. You’ll forget about the winter completely over the next 150 minutes.

Johanna McKenzie Miller and Bernie Yvon in The Music Man - Marriott TheatreOf course Hill is a 1912 confidence man who hornswaggles a ragtag band into playing music, a shy boy into speaking, a town into believing in itself and a librarian into love. The sturdy story is perfectly embedded in a very particular time capsule, with Willson meticulously employing with glorious abandon assorted slang, celebrities and colorful metaphors from the era and the state.

Helping this miracle worker Hill cast his spell, Willson gives him such powerful persuasion as "Seventy-Six Trombones" and "Trouble," the famous snake-oil sermon. By the musical’s end Hill has sold far more than he knows, a passel of dreams for River City to grow on. It’s a great formula: A mysterious stranger comes to town and changes everyone for the best, including himself when he realizes that what he gives is worth far more than what he sells.

Few shows strike such a shrewd balance between downhome decency and showbiz savvy. Because The Music Man wears its songs on its sleeve, it can’t seem too slick or smooth. What matters is the tender loving care.

The heart comes through like a charm in Marriott Theatre’s easy-winning, arena revival. Intimately homespun yet always knowing, Gary Griffin’s staging trusts the material, Willson’s fast-moving book, deceptively clever lyrics and unimprovable melodies–and gets them right throughout.

The look, for instance: Tom Ryan‘s clever, flexible and detailed set pieces combine to create a richly nostalgic Iowa setting, and Nancy Missimi’s fashionplate period costumes complete the illusion.

The human illusions are equally on target. Conning with unforced charm, Bernie Yvon offers a Harold Hill who listens as much as hoodwinks; like a good salesman he connects with the townsfolk until you see how much he means it. His charm is non-negotiable, though the changes he undergoes are a bit harder to measure under Yvon’s boundless confidence.

Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones notwithstanding (comparisons are odious), Johanna McKenzie Miller nicely inhabits Marian’s rich mix of spinster standoffishness and idealistic yearning. Her "Till There Was You" is earned by every line she’s said. (The fact that she also sounds just like Cook in her perfect prime doesn’t hurt in the least either.)

The cast of The Music Man - Marriott Theatre 2

Johnny Rabe and Danny Coonley in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre Johanna McKenzie Miller and Bernie Yvon in The Music Man - Marriott Theatre 3

Like the leads, the supporting roles betray much more life than art, even the hammy stock roles like John Reeger‘s pompous mayor, Iris Lieberman as his starched-blouse wife, Mary Ernster as Marian’s matchmaking mother and Andy Lupp as Hill’s gleeful trickster accomplice.

As the decent local kids whom Harold helps, Adrian Aguilar and Amanda Tanguay carry the romantic subplot with goofy grace. Special credit goes to little Johnny Rabe whose bashful Winthrop wails out "Gary, Indiana" as if he just made it up.

Finally, Matt Raftery‘s unshowy choreography reminds us that these are unpretentious Iowans whooping it up as best they can: There’s no showoff hoofing here. The “Shipoopi” explodes with prewar pep and a palpable joy that makes the most difficult dancing seem a gift to perform as much as perceive. David Kreppel’s musical direction is assured, especially in the barbershop-quartet offerings.

 

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1pm and 8pm, Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4:30pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 5pm.  There will be an added performance Tuesday, 11/23 at 8pm and Friday, 11/26 at 4:30pm.  No performances Tuesday-Thursday, Nov 24th and 25th.

The cast of The Music Man - Marriott Theatre

 

 

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REVIEW: A Chorus Line (Marriott Theatre)

Gotta Dance!

 

Chorus Line at Marriott

   
Marriott Theatre presents
   
A Chorus Line
   
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Directed by Mark Lococo
at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire (map)
Through October 31  |  tickets: $35-$48  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Mara Davi as Cassie - Chorus Line MarriottCelebrating its 35th anniversary in a terrific revival staged by Mark Lococo, A Chorus Line remains the late Michael Bennett‘s breakthrough backstage musical, winner of nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. In this "show before a show" the parts–the 17 dancers–outweigh the whole. That greater good is an imaginary musical where, as the hoofers swagger in Nancy Missimi’s gold lamé suits against massive mirrors, their Broadway fantasies come true. But by then we know “what they did for” dance.”

Most musicals are examples of art imitating life. Not so A Chorus Line. It fascinates because its constantly young cast insure that this show is a textbook case of life imitating art imitating life. (Actors in 2010 who could be the children of the 1975 cast are creating the 1975 creation that was itself inspired by the reality of 1975 dancers.) The recessed mirrors in Marriott’s Production perfectly symbolize the backstage, show-before-a-show nature of this unconventional depiction of the creation of a very conventional Broadway musical. (Remember: The finale, “One Singular Sensation,” is really intended as a backup to a star of the Streisand, Verdon or Ann Miller persuasion. “Chorus Line” may be all about dance but the “outside” musical that they’re creating is not.)  

It’s ironic that, after we get to know the "dance gypsies" chosen from the 24 who endure this grueling try-out, the survivors get swallowed up in "One," this massive finale where what counts is the lockstep anonymity of a kick line. The humanity that went into the song-confessionals, where the auditioners testified to the resilience, sexiness, escapism and transience of their trade, yields to the conformity of interchangeable parts. This "one singular sensation" is American individuality feeding American efficiency. Another all-too-American quality, at least at this stage of the recession, is the desperation that surges through “I Need This Job.”

 

Anika Ellis as Shiela - Chorus Line Marriott Bryan Knowlton as Paul - Chorus Line Marriott
Chorus Line - One Singular Sensation Nina Fluke as Val - Chorus Line Marriott
Chorus Line Cast - Marriott

Before that chorus/assembly line closes ranks, we’ve felt the full diversity of the dancers, as preserved from interviews that Bennett did with the original dancers some 35 years ago. It’s ironic that the current dancers may have their own stories but they’re in effect prisoners of the musical’s now-distant past.

In Lococo’s devoted reprise of this not-so-retro musical, a second (or third?) generation solidly replay the life stories of the 1975 originals, slinking and strutting their way through Bennett’s pizzazz-packed choreography (here re-imagined by Rachel Rockwell) and tearing into Marvin Hamlisch‘s sturdy score. This arena staging may be in the round but the mirrors work even better than in a proscenium  production. They may not suggest many more dancers than the cast itself but the recessed effect makes it look like we’re seeing memories as much as moments here.

Adam Estes as Gregory - Chorus Line MarriottFleshing out showbiz stereotypes with true-life immediacy, Alexander Aguilar relishes the effortless bravura of "I Can Do That" and Pilar Millhollen belts out the tough-girl wisdom of "What I Did for Love." As Sheila, the aging but indomitable siren, Anika Ellis purges her past in "At the Ballet," while Nina Fluke reinvents Val’s surgical saga in "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three."

In the one unsung solo, Bryan Knowlton digs heartache from Paul’s tale of a gay dancer unexpectedly accepted by his family. Registering the full joy of moving fast, buffed-up Max Kumangai is a blurry revelation.

As he shapes the audition-rehearsal with God-like omniscience, Chicago favorite Tim Gregory brings easy authority to confessor-choreographer Zach, though his soap-opera showdown with Cassie, his old flame, seems perfunctory. Undeterred, Broadway notable Mara Davi (who appeared in the recent revival) throws herself into "The Music and the Mirror," Cassie’s tour-de-force dance sequence. It should feel as if everyone who ever danced the part were with her but on opening night she seemed to lose her terpsichorean motivations and it fell flat.

First and always, the revival confirms the continuing cause for its docu-tribute: Bennett’s high-strutting, soul-stirring dances are a perfect match for the aspirations this musical will always extol.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Chorus Line - One Singular Sensation2

 

   
   

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REVIEW: Once on this Island (Marriott Theatre)

Refreshing as a cool summer breeze.

 

ISLAND- Full Cast

   
Marriott Theatre presents
   
Once on this Island
   
Book/Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by
Stephen Flaherty
Direction/Choreography by
David H. Bell
Musical Direction by
Ryan T. Nelson
at
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island is best when the entire ensemble is on stage. During these group numbers, Flaherty’s score is heavily influenced by the calypso and tribal music of the Caribbean, giving the show a distinct sound perfectly suited for the mystical subject matter. Ti Moune (Chasten Harmon) and Daniel (Brandon Koller) are two lovers from different worlds: the former an orphaned peasant, the latter a mixed-race aristocrat. After being seriously injured in a car accident, Daniel is found by a bewildered once-on-this-island Ti Moune, who prays to the Gods to give her  the power to nurse him back to health and win his heart.

Director-choreographer David H. Bell and his cast work wonders in the Marriott space, using props and movement to create the illusion of rain, birds, trees, and other island phenomena without the need for set dressing. This gives the ensemble ample room to move, a necessity for Bell’s intensely physical choreography, and makes the efforts of the actors to create a fully realized setting even more impressive. The problem with Once on this Island, though, is that these group sequences are much more interesting than the action involving the principals, slowing down the momentum of the production during those scenes.

Harmon captures Ti Moune’s youthful effervescence and naiveté well, but her vocals feel restricted, as if she is holding back her vibrato to keep better control over the notes. It makes the moments when her vibrato creeps in feel out of place, but also gives the feeling that each belt could be taken all that much further. Koller’s songs are fairly typical Broadway fare, but he doesn’t really have much to do until the second half of the show. There’s artificiality to his charm that gives Daniel a very ‘90s boy-band quality, and he takes on a bizarre dialect that sounds nothing like anyone else’s in the show and goes back and forth between French and an odd assortment of eastern European accents. The chemistry between the two finally clicks during the (surprise) group number “The Human Heart,” but it never reaches the emotional heights needed for the show’s climax.

Luckily, the rest of the cast picks up the slack.

Melody Betts’s incredible vocal instrument is used to its fullest as Asaka, God of Earth, her powerhouse belt combined with a motherly affection that gives each note beautiful emotional weight. Erzulie (Melinda Wakefield Alberty), God of Love, achieves the same effect with a gentler touch, maintaining strength but bringing a smoother groove, especially during the pitch perfect “Human Heart.” I’m a big fan of the HBO series Treme, and Nancy Missimi’s god costumes reminded me of the Indian chief garb donned by some of the show’s characters (albeit on a smaller scale), as seen here:

imageThe massive voice of Michael James Leslie, playing Ti Moune’s adopted father Tonton Julian, is almost too big for the Marriott space, but there’s a goofy bewilderment about his characterization that makes it fit, as if Tonton doesn’t realize how loud he really is. Along with Nya as Little Ti Moune, Leslie turns up the adorable factor for this production, creating the kind of good hearted character that you only see on stage.

When Once on this Island embraces its cultural heritage, whether it is in the calypso rhythms of the score or the tribal dance choreography, it is unforgettable. Ahrens’s book embraces the mystical beliefs of the native people, and the direction has an ethereal quality that reinforces the fable aspects of the narrative. Bell and his ensemble of actors transport the audience to an exotic world, and the music is richer when it taps into the vast cultural history of island music. The transformative powers of the creative team are magical in themselves, and a trip out to Lincolnshire is worth the illusion of a cool Caribbean breeze carrying the scent of mangos and the taste of saltwater.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
   

ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Brandon Koller as Daniel

ISLAND- Nya as Little Ti Moune Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune Joslyn Jones (Euralie) and Chaston Harmon (Ti Moune)
ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Melody Betts as Asaka once-on-this-island-2
       

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