Sharon Playhouse’s ‘The Music Man’: A crying shame

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By Tuesday, Aug 8 Arts & Entertainment  12 Comments
'The Music Man,' at the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut, through August 20.

The Music Man

By Meredith Willson

Directed by Morgan Green

Does “76 Trombones” mean a marching band? Not in Sharon Playhouse’s joyless, soulless version of THE MUSIC MAN. Instead, trombones are emoji bugles projected on a computer-like screen upper left quarter of a fixed set of a large bleacher. The screen is supposed to be the field of stars on the American flag; the closed bleacher tiers painted in dirty white and red are its stripes. The River City, Iowa of 1912 in Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Tony-Award winning musical is 2017. Townspeople are hooked-up to Iphones, Wells Fargo delivers Amazon packages and Marian the Librarian uses a barcode scanner to check books in and out.

There’s nothing wrong with modernizing or freshly interpreting a well-known work, but it assumes a basic skill set for competent staging, technical craft, and fundamental character development.

On the Sharon barn stage, movement careens from static to frenetic. Use of the playing space is weird: players spend time in front row seats, unseen by the audience, and central action occurs often on the upper bleacher tier as far from the audience as possible. Musical arrangements – of one of the most melodious scores of American musicals – from the 9-member, off-stage band are just fine but orchestrations that could have more smoothly linked scenes that lumber one to another are inadequate or absent. The lighting bizarrely over-illuminates background figures but sometimes leaves soloists in the shadows. Miscues abound.

Professor Harold Hill (Robert Johanson) closes the curtain on act one of THE MUSIC MAN. Photo:

Professor Harold Hill (Robert Johanson) closes the curtain on act one of THE MUSIC MAN.

The leading characters, Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian, are cardboard. Hill is, if nothing else, supposed to be charming but the portrayal here is charmless, the actor struggling vocally and physically with the role. (It’s not all his fault. His required maneuvers in the “Marian the Librarian” number are ludicrous.) Instead of getting Hill’s fake bravado from character, we get a video projection that resembles a glossy GQ cover shoot. Instead of getting spinster Marian’s suppressed romantic longings from character; we get a video akin to a Victoria Secret commercial. (Marian stares lustily at us from a bathtub of rose petals.) Looking for Hill and Marian’s flirtatious war-between-the-sexes? Forget it. Here, they have absolutely no chemistry, which is elemental to the love story that underpins Willson’s original text.

Two aspects of the production are appealing. The guys in barber shop quartet are uniformly talented and perform “Lida Rose’, “Sincere” and “It’s You”, pitch-perfectly. The only entertaining number with re-interpretive integrity is the ensemble “Shipoopi” cleverly re-orchestrated with a disco beat, inventively choreographed in a line-dance, hip-hop style, and led by an irresistibly comical Larry Owens, who plays Hill’s sidekick Marcellus.

The director’s notes in the program assert that “musical theater is the ultimate indulgence in fantasy” Sharon Playhouse’s intent was “to strip away some of the falsehoods” in an America susceptible to the “mass-steria”, which Hill exploits, and “indulge thoroughly in other (fantasies)”.

Despite Sharon Playhouse’s ambition to do something different with a classic musical, it fails to dramatize what’s at the core of Meredith Willson’s text – a universal tale of fulfilling a dream. Marian’s mother dreams of her daughter being happily married. Winthrop, Marian’s little brother, dreams of the father he’s missing, and of not being encumbered by his lisp. The Mayor dreams of a town without strife.The Mayor’s wife dreams of being an actress and dancer. Marian dreams of falling in love. Harold Hill dreams, underneath his fakery, of being an honest man. Marian and Harold fulfill their dream, and the marching band with 76 trombones, even if illusory, is the dream that binds Rock City as a community. This theme explains why THE MUSIC MAN is such a treasured musical and celebration. Everybody has a dream.

Sharon Playhouse’s THE MUSIC MAN is a pity, a crying shame, a hollow, emotionless exercise in pointless pretense. For those who love American musical theatre, one might be more forgiving if Sharon’s conception of THE MUSIC MAN wasn’t informed by “indulgence” which exceeds its level of artistic competence. When this travesty of THE MUSIC MAN finally collapses, one is left with the consolation that at home the movie version is just a Netflix request away.

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The Music Man is playing at the Sharon Playhouse through August 20. For tickets and information consult the Berkshire Edge calendar or the Sharon Playhouse at 860-364-7469 ext. 200 & 201.


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12 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Annie says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I am so disappointed in the Playhouse for putting up this disjointed, misguided, offensive, and just generally awful production.

    It seems to me that Green just doesn’t understand the show. There are almost endless examples of this, but how about: my companion, who had never seen The Music Man, didn’t understand that the first scene, “Rock Island,” was supposed to be on a train. And then to put Harold dead center, facing the audience, making faces every time he was mentioned? Ruined the fantastic reveal at the end of that number. To show the band, in uniform, on the screen during “76 Trombones”? Ruins the big, emotional moment at the end of the show, when you see the band for (what is supposed to be) the first time.

    And this is leaving aside the nonsensical decision to set the show in present day, and the blatantly sexual overtones injected into nearly every moment of this show. It seemed as though Green thought she was better, smarter, than Willson’s script, which is the absolute height of hubris.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll just say this: I am certain Meredith Willson would be heartbroken to see his greatest work reduced to… whatever this was. And I, for one, am heartbroken that this is how young/new audiences are being introduced to this brilliant, timeless musical. But Dan is right: at least there’s always Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, waiting for me in my television set.

  2. Nat says:

    I’m not sure who Dan Dwyer is really angry at, but this is the most unnecessarily harsh and borderline cruel review I have read in many years. If he can’t accommodate re-interpretations of 60-year-old classics, then he should review blogs and tweets.

    1. Dan Dwyer says:

      Nat, Thanks for your comments. On the contrary I have thoroughly enjoyed re-interpretations of classics, most notable Daniel Fish’s shocking version of OKLAHOMA two season ago at Bard and Ivan van Hove’s jaw-dropping version of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. What distinguishes both of these productions is that both really burrow into the text so as to enhance not diminish the playwright’s text.
      OKLAHOMA! – https://www.facebook.com/OffScriptWithDanDwyer/posts/1601294613453194
      A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE – https://www.facebook.com/OffScriptWithDanDwyer/posts/1649931991922789

  3. Maurice says:

    Really? What’s up with Dwyer’s nuclear rage at this production? The classic songs can survive new renderings. The performers throw their hearts, souls and bodies into the elaborate choreography on small stage. What so provoked him that he can’t tolerate an earnest, warm-hearted presentation? You want to talk about “pointless pretension,” look in the mirror.

    1. Dan Dwyer says:

      Thanks for your comment. Indeed, songs could have “new renderings” but the only number that is re-styled completely with integrity is SHippopi and the disco beat and the hip-hop line dancing is really fun. .

  4. Enjoyed myself says:

    I have never seen the music man so having no expectations I found it to be enjoyable. I easily recognized they were on a train or waiting for one. The people on cell phones identified with the modern concerns of disconnect/ ill/ evil in our society. Nothing was ruined for me with the 76 trombones..I have to say some people sound like ” Hey you kids get off of my play….!!!”

  5. I Love A Good Tale says:

    You know what I love about a bad review like this? When the reviewer plays both sides of the fence with what’s appealing. Then refers to aspects of the show as if he doesn’t know the show: “The Mayor’s dream of Rock City without a pool table.”

    Two things wrong here. The Mayor bought the pool table, so if he dreamed of it gone, all he needed was a refund. Also, he didn’t live in Rock City. Maybe the author of this article was referring to the neighboring town that was their imaginary rival?! Or maybe he went to the wrong show.

    Either way, this reader thinks this article was poorly written. The show however made the audience laugh and cheer. Everyone who did their job correctly, please raise your hand!!

  6. dan dwyer says:

    Thanks for your comment. You’re right about the pool table, but the dream that the Mayor has is a town without strife, where voters arent at unrest (something almost universal to all politicians). My point here is for a piece of theater to be whole, there needs to be a commonality in goal among charcaters. They can behave differently about it, in fact some characters can behave in ways that contradict that goal, but that’s where the theme in the playwright’s text can be found. Some drama schools refer to this as the “transaction” In this reviewer’s take the transaction in Willson’s text is fulfilling a dream, which sadly, IMHO, isn’t acknowledged dramatically in the Sharon production.

    1. I Love A Good Tale says:

      It’s funny that you’re trying to teach me something in your response with so many spelling errors.

      The goals in the Sharon production are common they are just seen through a different lense. But if you can only view through the one lense of the original, you’ll be found lacking. But you saw what you saw.

      1. DAn Dwyer says:

        Apologies for the typos.

    2. I Love A Good Tale says:

      No worries. Nobody’s perfect. And it’s River City.

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