The Music Man (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)


It might be hard to believe now, but West Side Story and The Music Man competed against each other at the 1958 Tony Awards, with The Music Man walking away with the Best Musical prize as well as three of the four acting awards! It’s not that Meredith Willson’s The Music Man isn’t a good show; it’s just that with time (and the hugely popular 1961 film adaptation), West Side Story has emerged as arguably one of the greatest musicals ever and the one from that season that made the biggest lasting impact on popular culture. Still, the story of “Professor” Harold Hill selling band instruments and uniforms from town to town, convincing families to invest in their children’s musical “gifts” (Harold himself can neither play an instrument or read music), and wooing Marian the Librarian is the kind of old-fashioned, sweet and simple crowd-pleaser that has made it an enduring favorite for nearly sixty years now; how nice to have it return in an enjoyable production at the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark right around Independence Day.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

The Music Man is a slice of Americana set in Iowa during the summer of 1912 when the biggest news of the day included the local gossip and happenings within the town, not what was going on anywhere else in the world. It was a time of traveling salesmen, including the type that would make a big sale and then skip town as quickly as possible once the customers found that they had been mislead. Harold Hill is just that kind of salesman, promising to form a marching band and teach music to the children of the town only to disappear once the instruments and uniforms arrive. It is a con he has been working for years, making it difficult for the honest traveling salesmen who find themselves unwelcome in towns burned by Mr. Hill’s tactics. All of that is about to change when Harold arrives in Iowa, bewitches the town, and earns the affection of the town librarian, Marian. With a score containing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Till There Was You,” and “Ya Got Trouble,” The Music Man is an enjoyable work, one that also shows how easy it is to convince people of anything you want so long as you keep telling them what they want to hear (brings to mind this election season, doesn’t it?).

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Layne Roate plays Harold Hill, tough shoes for anyone to fill as Robert Preston, who originated the role on Broadway, preserved his performance in the popular 1962 film adaptation. Mr. Roate wisely doesn’t try to copy him; his Professor Hill seems far more human and relatable than the template, yet he doesn’t reinvent the character entirely. He may not be able to master Mr. Preston’s speed or diction in “Ya Got Trouble,” but Mr. Roate’s “Till There Was You,” in which he expresses his love to Marian, is sincere in a way Mr. Preston’s was not in comparison. His Harold is still a sneaky salesman, but what he really sells isn’t instruments or uniforms but hope. Sure, he may be planning to disappear as soon as the checks clear, but he has a knack for making a lot of people happy in the process.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Natalie Szczerba is a kind and emotionally accessible Marian Paroo, completely believable in the moment when she decides not to expose Harold for what he really is to the town when she sees his positive effect on her lisping brother, Winthrop. Ms. Szczerba doesn’t make Marian a pushover at all, but she isn’t as militarily strident as Shirley Jones was in the film either. This Marian’s “Goodnight, My Someone” feels like a hope-filled prayer, and Ms. Szczerba and Mr. Roate’s chemistry is immediately apparent. Do we know they are going to end up together? Sure, but the joy is in watching it happen.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Standouts in the supporting cast include Brad Johnson as Tommy, the rowdy boy courting the mayor’s daughter, and Ricardo Locci as Charlie Cowell, the salesman looking to expose Harold’s past to the town. Neither part is particularly large or defined, but these two performers bring a lot to the table. Mr. Johnson’s energy and bright smile as Tommy would be cloying if it didn’t come off as so naturally naive and youthful. Mr. Locci’s Charlie is the kind of anvil salesman you’d definitely want to steer clear of; when he starts to get close to Marian, Mr. Locci comes off as genuinely slimy and a real threat to her safety! This Charlie has an ax to grind alright, but his motive is to hurt Harold, not save the townspeople from being swindled.
Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Director Kevin Connell and choreographer Tracy Wilson have their work cut out for them with such a large number of children in the ensemble; and yet, everyone has their own space and something to do, even when the action extends into the auditorium and within the aisles. While there may not be a lot of complexity to much of the dancing, everyone seems to be doing their part and appear glad to be there. The production moves quite well, and that includes the moments when there are forty people on the stage, which is no small achievement.The set is made up of three panels to the left that represent the colors of American flag, a large newspaper advertisement that serves as the pool hall in the center, and the Paroo home to the right. The Paroo’s house swings around to reveal the living room and is quite well-executed; the vintage ad being on the building for the pool hall looks quite odd, and the panels to the left that rotate to reveal books (for the library) leave a lot to be desired. Still, Jennifer Sansfacon’s lighting brings a surprising array of colors to scenes; the cues shift subtly to support the action at hand, a highlight being the pastel blues, pinks, and greens during “Shipoopi” and some other crowd numbers. Ms. Sansfacon also keeps the entire stage dark save for a single light several times to focus the audience’s attention on the more intimate moments.
Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

There is a lot of joy to be found in Weathervane Playhouse’s The Music Man; I honestly think one would have to put forth effort not to have a good time. The overall positive, cheerful effect of this production far outweighs its relatively minor deficits. This is family entertainment that isn’t icky sticky sweetness, yet it also isn’t trying to be “hip” and alienate half of the audience. The Music Man exists in a specific time and place, and how nice it is to see it live in a production as happy as this one.

*** 1/4 out of ****

The Music Man continues through to July 9th in the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/meredith-willsons-the-music-man/

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say… It’s what Ma say that counts,” says Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone and is the unofficial leader of the band. The Ma he is referring to is Ma Rainey, and the argument is over which version of a song she will sing in August Wilson’s seminal Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently being presented by Short North Stage as part of a year-long festival of Mr. Wilson’s works.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Of course, the play isn’t really about music – it’s about power, and in a time and place like Chicago in 1927, being black and female would normally place one near the bottom rung in the pecking order of the day. Ma Rainey is no ordinary woman though, and she knows that she has something that Irvin, her white manager, and Sturdyvant, her white record producer, want desperately, but she’s going to make them work for it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the rehearsal and recording session for the song of that same name; her trumpet player, Levee, has written a new arrangement for the song, but Ma Rainey is not a woman who is about to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes doing a favor for the pushy Levee. The rest of her band is ready to follow her lead, but Levee feels that siding with Irvin and Sturdyvant against Ma will put him in their good graces, enabling him to embark on a career of his own. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma confides to Cutler. “All they want is my voice. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.” Ma knows that she holds all the cards but that her power is transient; when all is said and done, she’ll be dismissed until she is needed again. This is why Ma Rainey has demands she makes sure are met; it’s not just for her, but for all of the people who don’t have a voice to command the same kind of respect for themselves. In the same position, wouldn’t we all play up the opportunity to throw our weight around before the clock strikes twelve and the coach turns back into a pumpkin again?

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say… As long as he looks to white folks for approval… Then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what the white folks want him to be about,” Toledo, Ma’s piano player, wisely tries to explain to the hot-headed and ambitious Levee, though it’s a lesson Levee must learn the hard way. This is a time when segregation is still strictly enforced, and even up north, where the social situation is far more open, black people are still regarded with skepticism and a side eye. It’s enough to make anyone restless and frustrated, something with which
people who have been subjugated be it for their color or sexuality or some other reason can surely relate; remove “colored” and “white” from Toledo’s advice and it still rings true. This might be a “black play,” but its story about the disenfranchised and repressed is universal. The characters live in a time when racism is pervasive in a way that could make many complacent – but not Ma Rainey or Levee, one fighting quality which they both share.

So much of the play is spent with Ma’s band as they discuss and argue about life, all the while waiting for Ma to make her appearance and then be ready to record. The band members discuss women, money, philosophy, and even their ancestors in Africa; their conversation flows so naturally (a credit to Mr. Wilson’s genius) that it isn’t immediately apparent the relevance it will all have in the play. It’s during all of this that the audience gets to know and care for the characters as real people; we all become invested in how the session is going to play out because we get to know these people and how they think. This makes the startling finale all the more heartbreaking, a perfect demonstration of the misguided aggression that can result from broken promises and shattered dreams.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight drama with enough genuine laughs and tense moments to feel thrillingly real. Mr. Southers doesn’t allow any of August Wilson’s spry dialogue to be tossed about or sped past; everyone in the cast gives the appearance of being united to tell this story without sounding too precious or studied. It’s a landmark work, but this fine cast thankfully doesn’t tiptoe around the material; many of the characters aren’t exactly endearing or likeable, but that’s completely beside the point.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Standouts in the cast are Wilma Hatton as the persnickety but in demand Ma Rainey; Chuck Timbers as Cutler, the voice of reason in the band; Will Williams as Toledo, the pianist who knows a little bit about most everything; Taylor Martin Moss as Sylvester, Ma’s stuttering nephew; and Ryan Kopycinski as the policeman who just can’t quite believe Ma Rainey could own a car or is as important as she claims.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The real treasure though is to be found in Bryant Bentley’s performance as Levee, the bullish trumpet player who is as uneducated as he is blindly ambitious. Mr. Bentley takes a character who often rubs people the wrong way and makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; we understand why he is the way he is, and we want him to find some measure of success because we can see that he wants it so badly he can taste it. Levee’s disillusionment is felt by the audience all because of Mr. Bentley’s commitment and instinctual quickness; his performance rises to be the equal of this material, a daunting feat indeed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

One could quibble about the prerecorded music and the fake playing of the instruments being handled in a way that is less than optimal, but Short North Stage’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so alive and otherwise involving that it is futile to deny its charms and power. This is the second work of August Wilson I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this year. Mr. Wilson is hailed as one of America’s foremost black playwrights, though I think the qualifier is unnecessary; August Wilson is one of America’s foremost playwrights, period, and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not to be missed.

**** out of ****

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through to June 19th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/536

School of Rock The Musical (Winter Garden Theatre – NYC)

Popular films being turned into Broadway musicals seems like a modern trend, what with Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, and An American in Paris being recent examples, but the truth is that musicals have been – and will continue to be – adapted from popular films in the hope of creating a success with a known property in a different medium. I’d wager that the risk doesn’t pay off more often that not, but that won’t stop people from trying. The latest example of a screen to stage transition comes from the 2003 hit Jack Black comedy, The School of Rock, aided and abetted with music by the Andrew Lloyd Webber of The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. It’s hard to ignore a new Mr. Lloyd Webber musical no matter your personal feelings about the man and his impact on musical theatre, and School of Rock The Musical is no exception. Instead of starting in London like other Mr. Lloyd Webber musicals, this show is premiering on Broadway, it’s American flavor probably being the factor most responsible for this difference. I had not seen the film, and I waited to see it until after seeing the Broadway musical; what’s interesting is to see how this stage version has improved upon its source while also introducing some problems of its own.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 


School of Rock The Musical
is about Dewey, who has big dreams of having a career in rock music, the same dreams he has had since high school. He lives with (and mooches off of) his friend Ned until Ned’s girlfriend, Patty, threatens eviction. Dewey needs cash fast, and so he pretends to be Ned to secure a long-term substitute teaching position at prestigious private school Horace Green, figuring that he can fake his way along for a few weeks until the annual “Battle of the Bands” competition. Once Ned realizes how much musical talent his pupils have he organizes them into a band named “School of Rock,” educating them on all ’70s and ’80s rock music and bands, thinking that together they can all compete at the “Battle of the Bands”; that is, if Principal Rosalie doesn’t find out Dewey’s real identity first and show him the door.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Alex Brightman stars as Dewey, managing to out-Black Mr. Jack Black from the film with his exuberance and musical talent. Whereas Mr. Black played the part for comedy alone, Mr. Brightman brings real rock performing chops to the floor while also hitting (and improving upon) every comedic moment retained from the film. Whereas Dewey is an unrealistic dreamer in the film constantly being kicked out of bands, Mr. Brightman plays him more as an undiscovered talent, and it isn’t too hard to believe that he could have some legitimate career if the right opportunity presented itself. Mr. Brightman is a Dewey that you want to succeed and is more likable than his silver screen counterpart; he brings so much heart to the play that is sorely needed to sustain it.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
It is the singing, dancing, musical instrument-playing kids that nearly steal the show from Mr. Brightman, each one of them bringing so much personality to their performances. Some of the standouts among Dewey’s students are Isabella Russo as Summer, the bossy overachiever; Brandon Niederauer as Zack, the guitar prodigy; Ethan Khusidman as Mason, the shy keyboardist; Bobbi MacKenzie as Tomika, the withdrawn girl who reveals her great big, beautiful voice; and Luca Padovan as Billy, the pint-sized fashion designer with sass. It’s interesting to note that curtain is at 7.30pm and not the usual 8pm, perhaps owing to its young cast and the fact that there aren’t rotating casts of children like at some other kid-heavy shows. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is playful and not robotic like what can be found in Matilda, and director Laurence Conner should be congratulated for the riotous but controlled chaos within the show, even if the large production with all of its impressive moving parts aren’t enough to gloss over some of the book’s deficiencies (more on that later).

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Sierra Boggess plays Principal Rosalie in the role originated by Joan Cusack in the movie; you’d be hard pressed to find two more different actresses for the same part. Ms. Boggess has an expanded role in the play as a music teacher, an unnecessary contrivance that allows her to show off her operatic singing ability; she leaves little doubt that she is a leading player in a part more suited to a quirky supporting actress. Still, Ms. Boggess appears to be having a grand time, only really coming alive once her character’s love for Stevie Nicks is exposed, belting out “Where Did the Rock Go?” and endearing herself to the audience. Ms. Boggess comes off as perhaps too quick to fall for a lot of Dewey’s shenanigans, but there is no denying her chemistry with Mr. Brightman; their budding friendship in the show rings true. At least a superfluous love subplot between Dewey and Principal Rosalie wasn’t added as I had feared it would be for the stage musical, but being grateful for changes not made is a dubious honor when other additions that were made are so lackluster.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame has adapted the film written by Mike White by adhering closely to the source material; still, added scenes with the rest of the faculty at Horace Green and Patty’s drive to expose Dewey as an imposter are strikingly dull contrasts to the scenes with Dewey and the kids. I noticed more people checking the time on their phones during these scenes than during any other show I saw on this New York trip, the first time being just twenty-nine minutes into the play! That can’t be a good sign; surely there was a better way to expand the book of this property for the stage. And what was with the scene in the second act when Principal Rosalie enters the classroom stating that she thought she heard music? Sure, it leads into a very funny, improvised song about the joys of math, but didn’t all of the music the kids played during the first act disrupt the other classes? This logic gap is also in the film, though it’s odd that it was retained in the book to the show as well.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 
Mr. Fellowes makes a few other changes that I find curious, such as a scene where names are suggested for the band. In the film there are two sweet little girls suggesting cutesy names like “The Koala Bears,” then suddenly adding in “Pig Rectum” as an option. That moment is quite funny because of the contrast with their other suggestions; in Mr. Fellowes’ stage adaptation, the line is given to the Streisand-loving, clothing-designing Billy. There was some uneasy laughter at that moment in the theatre as it felt suddenly tasteless to have Billy reference a rectum, as if making the gay kid say the line would make it funnier; it just brought with it a sexual connotation that it didn’t have in the film because of the change in context.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 

School of Rock The Musical doesn’t “sound” like an Andrew Lloyd Webber show (he wrote the music while Glenn Slater handles the lyrics), but perhaps that is the point; I’ve heard criticism that many of his songs could be interpolated into different shows and still sound right (imagine “Memory” moved from Cats to Sunset Boulevard, or “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” transplanted from Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita), but that isn’t the case here. While I may not have left the theatre humming any tunes, the score has its best moments in “You’re in the Band,” “If Only You Would Listen,” “Stick It to the Man,” and the humorous “Math Is a Wonderful Thing.” The score is one that grows on you quickly if you give it a chance, but without songs that overwhelm the storytelling like perhaps we are used to from Mr. Lloyd Webber in the past. I wonder if more actual rock songs should have been included instead of just Jim Steinman’s “Where Did the Rock Go?”

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
 

School of Rock The Musical succeeds because of Alex Brightman and all of those talented kids in the cast. No matter how plodding and contrived the rest of the book may be, the scenes between the teacher and his pupils are fantastically entertaining. There is a sense of palpable joy whenever the kids and their teacher are together that make School of Rock The Musical worth seeing; this is one film to stage adaptation that surpasses the quality of its source material.

*** out of ****

School of Rock The Musical is performed at the Winter Garden Theatre at 1634 Broadway (at W. 50th St.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://schoolofrockthemusical.com