When I attended the Molly Smith directed The Music Man at the Arena Stage, I noticed someone at intermission. He was a tall, handsome gentleman who was formerly the head of the Republican National Committee and Lt. Governor of Maryland, Michael Steele. I went up to him and we chatted about the musical he was really enjoying.
Then, about three days later, on the MSNBC program "The Daily Rundown" hosted by Chuck Todd, there is Michael Steele raving about The Music Man on national television singing "The Wells Fargo Wagon". I was stunned. How often does a local theater get such national exposure? Kudos to Michael Steele. And his comments were well-deserved. This is a Music Man not to be missed. It's filled with great music, superb acting, lovely voices, and superb dancing. There was so much anticipation for the show to begin, the audience was clapping when the lights went down.
The year was 1957 when MerEdith Wilson's musical in which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics and co-authored the story with Franklin Lacey opened on Broadway. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical beating a show with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins...yes, it beat West Side Story. Both shows went on to be successful films. Robert Preston played the leading role of Harold Hill in both Broadway and the film while Barbara Cook played Marion the librarian in the stage version and Shirley Jones was Marion in the film.
Whoever plays Harold Hill will inevitably be compared to the iconic Preston. And whoever cast Burke Moses for the part (casting by Stuart Howard and Paul Hardt or maybe Molly Smith herself), is a genius.
Moses is so slick, his hair so greasy it looks like he just returned from Jiffy Lube. Yet he's so suave and debonair, so believable when he convinces the townspeople of River City, Iowa that children can learn to play musical instruments by using the "think" system - "You don't bother with notes". He doesn't walk across the stage...he floats and glides across the stage, leaping onto pool tables, jumping here and there, he's just plain exhilarating. He has a masterful voice and many will recall he created the role of "Gaston" in the Broadway company of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Without a strong "Hill", The Music Man wouldn't survive. But there also has to be a "Marian" who sees through Hill's non-existent credentials but keeps this fact to herself due to her infatuation with Hill and the way her brother Winthrop (known for his lisp) is so excited about the prospect of being in a marching band, his shyness disappears. Ian Berlin plays Winthrop (the role played by Ron Howard in the film) and is wonderful. He does a great job with "Gary, Indiana". I noticed he attended the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in Hancock, NY, a summer camp I'm thoroughly familiar with and I highly recommend it for aspiring young artists.
Thankfully, Arena Stage has the incomparable Kate Baldwin as Marian who has the voice of an angel and a smile that could melt icebergs. There are so many incredible scenes in the show, but "Marian the Librarian" has to be my favorite. But, close behind is "The Wells Fargo Wagon" which got a great ovation ending Act I. As I was walking out at intermission, I mentioned to my wife if Arena Stage had tried to get Wells Fargo to underwrite the show. Someone overheard me and said, "We tried". There's even a Wells Fargo wagon in the lobby selling delicious ice-cream, Philadelphia water ice, and Popsicles for $3. Brilliant!