An essential element of being a good performer is your audience’s willingness to believe in your performance. This principle applies, whether the relationship is the actors in the theatre, the salesman on the pitch, or the lover going courting. Come, see Arena Stage’s production of Music Man, and they will have you believing in all three.
Arena Stage’s creation of River City, Iowa is in their threatre-in-the-round Fichandler Stage, where we see a wooden floor with green and yellow lines forming an outline and a circle in the middle. My first image of Eugene Lee’s set was the school basketball court. The circle actually is the outline of the central drop-elevator, from which we will see actors portray a railroad car full of salesmen, the front parlor with a piano lesion, the library’s central desk checking out ideas, and a raised stage for performances in by the towns civic groups.
Music Man opens with the railroad scene. Six traveling salesmen gather on the train, heading out to their territories, playing cards, and bouncing with the rhythm of their conversation and the tracks. As they talk about their lives on the road, the tricks of their trade, and the characters whom they meet, they weave in the story of one Professor Harold Hill.
This salesman is a con-artist who comes to a town, convinces them that the youth need activity to keep them out of trouble, then provides the solution: forming a march band. Of course, Professor Hill will then sell them the instruments, the music books, and uniforms. He proposes the “Think Method” of study. The day that he delivers the pre-paid uniforms, he skips town before the town folks realize that they have all the equipment but the children do not know how to play the music. As the train pulls into River City, one salesman, who had appeared to be asleep, sits up, introduces himself as Harold Hill (Burke Moses) and steps off the train to work River City.
From this first scene, the stage is rarely quiet or still. Professor Hill quickly scouts out a former associate in River City who will help him convince the adults to sign for instruments, etc. Without delay, several men deliver the new pool table to the billiard hall, which happens to be owned by the mayor of River City. Hill sees this as his wedge, as he sing the famous song “Ya Got Trouble” about how a respectable game, like billiards, will be replaced by hustling, gambling, gossiping, and all sorts of youth corrupting activities. He ends the song standing astride the pool table, stepping off as the citizens wheel it off stage. Of course, he assures them that he has the solution to this trouble. In a demonstration of his persuasive skills, he stops a young man whom the school board deems reform school material, instructs him to act as a gentleman and escort a young lady, who turns out to be the mayor’s daughter, slipping him a coin to stop as the soda shop on the way home. His expectations shape the potential hooligan into an upright lad, as least for an hour.
Having established the threat and the solution to it, Hill must confront the one person who could expose his fraud: the music teacher, Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin), who is also the local librarian. His suit and slicked-back hair do less to charm her than to raise her suspicions. While he would like to appear to be the influencer of youth, she is. In a scene with Amaryllis (Heidi Kaplan), a young piano student, she demonstrates her music knowledge and ability to entice young fingers to do their lessons on the keys. In the library scene, while warding off Professors Hill’s flirtations, she encourages the young people in the library to explore books, and check them out to read at home. The one child whom she cannot influence is her young brother, Winthrop Paroo (Ian Berlin), who refuses to speak because of his lisp.
Through the rest of the first half of the show, Hill charms everyone in town into believe that they can play in the band, dance, sing, and otherwise join in the revelry that he proposes… while opening their wallets to purchase the items that he will order for them. Even Winthrop begins to talk, as he also begins to spend time with Hill. The only town folks whom Hill cannot change are Mayor Shinn (John Lescault) and Marian Paroo.
In the opening scenes, everyone was dressed in muted, earth tone colored clothes. As the lights dim for the intermission, Judith Bowden’s costume design has most of the town wear pastel yellows, blues, greens and reds. What has the Music Man done to effect this transformation? He has gotten them to believe that they have talents. And, just before the stage goes dark, the boxes filled with instruments arrive, each addressed to the young man who will join the band. Winthrop opens, pulls out, and holds his cornet. He steps atop the pile of packages and sings “The Wells Fargo Wagon”. His is a voice that no one had believed they would hear.
For the second half of the show we, Professor Hill, and Marian are anxious with the knowledge that this is all a fraud. Our anxiety is not so much whether his scheme will be revealed, but whether he will be redeemed. The inevitability of his exposure is assured when one of the other traveling salesmen from the train arrives with pages of paper that he wants to deliver to the mayor, warning him of Hill’s prior exploits in other towns.
Meanwhile, the town’s folk are in full swing both in the continued brightening of their clothing and preparing their barbershop quartet, band, and dance numbers for the upcoming gala. Hill responds to Marian’s challenge about what the band is doing to prepare. He attempts to evade her inquiries by distracting the conversation with his “Think Method”. Marian presses her inquisition, stating the while Winthrop talks about playing the cornet, he has not actually picked it up and practiced, after the first few days of blurts and squawks. Hill has to pull out his final bluff to buy time to finish his con game. He asks Marian to meet him at the footbridge, which is the town’s spooning place.
Our anxiety increases as Hill’s local cohort has collected the final payment, arranged for the train out of town, and warns him that the uniforms have arrived. The other salesman has missed his train, and is now determined to expose Hill in revenge. The men of the town gather a posse to track him down. In the midst of this chaos, Hill and Marian have slipped out to the footbridge. We are seeing the final conquest, on the narrow bridge, wondering whether either or both will fall, and who is conning whom, as they sing “Till There was You”. Is Hill about to break another young woman’s heart, just to skip town? Is Marian exposing Hill’s fraud to himself, but with the potential for change?
The final skirmish occurs at the civic group’s performance. The ladies are in the midst of dancing to tableaus of Grecian urns. The men catch Hill and bring him to a mob trial in the gym. The train is about the depart River City. As Hill looks but sees no escape, the sound of a whistle blows and the march of boots comes into the auditorium. The marching band arrives. While the parents glare condemnation, Marian steps forward, takes the mayors pencil and holds it out to Hill. She no longer challenges him, but encourages him to stand and conduct his band. He is ready to concede defeat, but stands, raises the pencil as a baton, and gives the downbeat. The band plays and marches, badly, but they play.
The question we are left with is whether Professor Hill’s and River City’s beliefs are in lies or truth? While Hill’s sales tricks have been to convince people to buy instruments and uniforms, when people start believing that they have talents, they begin to sing, dance, and dream of what they could do. Without his intuitions and intimations, they would have remained a dusty, earth tone town. Marian’s courting trick is to draw Hill in with her aloofness. But, without the rebuff would he have discovered that he could actually care rather than just use people. He could have skipped town earlier rather than meeting her on the footbridge. She could have let the men of the town jail him and try him for fraud. Maybe Music Man is about having faith in things unseen. If you are in town, head to the theatre to test your beliefs.