It’s been over a week since I saw the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s truly lovely production of The Music Man, and I still haven’t posted a review. So I’m sitting in an airport waiting to board my flight to London (indeed, that’s where I’m sitting) and I reach into my jacket pocket for my passport and unexpectedly pull out a copy of the sheet music for “Seventy Six Trombones,” a souvenir of a lovely lunch with some of the actors and musicians from this year’s musical productions at Stratford. Well, of course I couldn’t delay any longer, and here we are.
The Music Man is one of the handful of shows that could legitimately try to claim the title of Greatest American Musical. It’s funny, witty, romantic, theatrical, great to look at and superlatively tuneful. Even the book is strong. If you don’t like this show, there is something very rotten in your soul. And if your theater company can’t make a good thing of it, they really ought to consider going into accountancy.
But just because even a mediocre production of The Music Man is generally fun, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make distinctions among productions. And Stratford has delivered a production of distinction.
The principal distinction has to go to Jonathan Goad, slipping into Robert Preston’s agile shoes without missing a step, and without attempting to impersonate the inimitable. Which is a good thing not only because of inimitability but because Preston, for all his other achievements in the role, lacked one thing that Goad has in full measure: sex appeal. And it’s a very good thing indeed for, finally, Marian to plausibly feel a little pitter-pat when she stands close to her Professor. Goad was a surprising choice for the role since most of what he’s done previously at Stratford is classical work (he played Iago last year, and in earlier seasons played Hotspur, Pericles, Oberon and Angelo) and more modern stage drama (other roles at Stratford included Leo Katz in Pentecost and Valentine Xavier in _Orpheus Descending). So far as I know, he had not done musical work at all before. But his pipes and stems appear to be in good working order, and having such a strong actor in this role is a real blessing.
And he is very well-paired with Leah Oster as his maid Marian. Oster is no Shirley Jones, but she’s got a strong voice, a beautiful face, and an immediate chemistry with Goad that makes their budding romance eminently plausible.
The rest of the cast is also fine, and I’m really not sure whom to single out for praise: Michelle Fisk as the widow Paroo, Christopher Van Hagen as Winthrop, Aveleigh Keller as Amaryllis, Fiona Reid channelling the ghost of Hermione Gingold as Eulali Mackecknie Shinn, all four members of the barbershop quartet, or the host of wonderful dancers led by Eric Robertson as Tommy Djilas and Rachel Crowther as Zanetta Shinn. I’m honestly struggling to find a weak spot in the cast.
The production is very straight and clean, the whole set done up in cream-colored clapboard, the lighting full and unobtrusive. The only element of the choreography that I particularly noted was during the library scene, when Tommy and Zanetta mimed a rather more elaborate production of Romeo and Juliet than usual, but that’s not a criticism; the dancing is fine throughout.
My only regret about the whole production, in fact, is the wistful knowledge that, under the current regime, we won’t see any more Stratford musicals at the Festival Theatre. The stated reason is twofold: first, that the Festival should be reserved for the classics, and primarily for Shakespeare; second, that the American musical was originally conceived for a proscenium stage, not a thrust, and so proper fidelity to that original conception requires the musicals to be mounted at the Avon. But Stratford has done a magnificent job in the past of reconceiving the musical for that much more classical stage, and productions there were excitingly intimate in a way that productions at the Avon never can be. So count me as one vote for putting one musical back on the Festival stage, and the other at the Avon.
(I don’t expect to be listened to, and I think economic reasons had as much to do with the decision as any other – musicals are the cash cow of the Festivals, and the Avon has nearly as many seats at the Festival, so if they reserve the Avon exclusively for musicals they can sell far more total seats for them than if they had to share a calendar with three or four other shows at the Festival Theatre, but be that as it may, I’ll say what I think and they’ll do what they need to do.)