Reviews: ‘Music Man,’ ‘Philadelphia Story’

Broadway Rose and Clackamas Rep take on a couple of comic classics, right (almost) here in River City

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, those days of soda and pretzels and beer. And, on stages from Maine to California, comedy classics from the Great American Nostalgia Playbook.

One of the geniuses of the American comedy and musical stages is that when the shows get most playful, the best ones also unveil genuine insights into the national character. O’Neill creates an Ah, Wilderness! as a counterbalance to the likes of The Iceman Cometh. Thornton Wilder introduces us to the escapades of the Antrobus clan in The Skin of Our Teeth. Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows make national sensations of a bunch of two-bit hoodlums and holy high-rollers in Guys and Dolls. And audiences settle into a ritual of laughter, immersing themselves in the sunny pleasures of true play.

Two such summer-season classics have just opened in Portland’s suburbs, providing a comic alternative to that other great American summer staple, Shakespeare in a Thousand Parks: The Music Man at Tigard’s Broadway Rose, which has been doing polished musicals for 23 years; and The Philadelphia Story at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, which is in its 10th season on the campus of Clackamas Community College near Oregon City. Both shows continue through July 20.

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Professor Harold Hill (Joe Thiessen) gives Iowa a try. Photo: Meg Williams

Professor Harold Hill (Joe Theissen) gives Iowa a try. Photo: Meg Williams

 

The Music Man

Broadway Rose’s funny and crackling new Music Man opens with a giant locomotive steaming toward the audience, bright searchlight piercing the auditorium, a sweeping powerhouse of theatrical entertainment pulling confidently into the station a century overdue.

The train stops, and the engine unfolds like the bellows of a squeezebox to reveal the familiar interior of a passenger car filled with traveling salesmen talking territory and the tricks of the trade. It’s like a babushka doll, or a Fabergé egg of the Iowa cornfields. Then the toy men inside begin to bob and sway and sputter like the clattering pieces of a Rube Goldberg contraption.

The sense of something toylike and mechanical is at the heart of director and choreographer Peggy Taphorn’s bright, appealing production, which bounces to the brassy march of pop-up pieces and interlinking motifs. Every movement’s matched to the rhythm of the music, which is borrowed, in composer and author Meredith Willson’s brilliant opening rail-car scene, from the steam and clack of the train itself. Plus, the harmonies! We got treble, right here in River City.

By this point in your life you have the story, and probably a lot of the songs, pretty much memorized. The job of any fresh production is to get you to hop onboard and get excited about taking a familiar journey all over again. Broadway Rose succeeds at that, providing lush sets and costumes (both from Fullerton Civic Light Opera in California), a lot of laughter, a dash of sentiment, and plenty of sharply turned supporting performances.

Taphorn’s crisp sense of rhythm and some splendid choral work (Alan D. Lytle is music director) provide a flexible frame for the show’s success, which is driven by Joe Theissen’s knowing and buoyantly musical performance as Hill, the musically illiterate band-instrument salesman who blows into town determined to take the rubes for a ride. His talented tamer, the town librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo, is played with contrarian vexation and slowly thawing charm by Chrissy Kelly-Pettit, whose Marian knows a worthwhile project when she sees one.

Musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma! and The Music Man are beloved and sometimes belittled, a condescension that springs mostly from overfamiliarity. They’re like the Rhapsody in Blue or Mona Lisa of the theater: nice piece, but, again? Well, yes. When it’s done well, as it is here, or even passably, as it often is on high school and amateur stages for audiences who know what level of achievement to expect, there’s always room for another Music Man.

Harold and Marian (Joe Thiessen and Chrissy Kelly-Pettit) cut a rug. Photo: Meg Williams

Harold and Marian (Joe Theissen and Chrissy Kelly-Pettit) cut a rug. Photo: Meg Williams

And there’s always room because The Music Man is more than just another song-and-dance show, although with its nifty counterpoints and barbershop harmonies and novelty numbers and brassy exuberance it’s brilliant at that. It also digs deep into the perplexities of the American character, holding up a mirror that seems flattering but can also be unsettling. It’s telling that the huckster hero Hill was played originally by Robert Preston, a faded charmer with a hint of desperation and a lumpy face that looked as if he’d just sparred a couple of rounds with Jack Johnson. Hill is the quintessential American man of moxie, an eternal adolescent wandering the countryside from adventure to adventure, unshackled from any sense of social responsibility, afraid of growing up. And that surprisingly acute observation tucked inside the fun of a musical comedy has as much to do with The Music Man’s evergreen success as Willson’s sparkling comedy and witty, whistle-inspiring score.

Like Sinclair Lewis, author of such blistering satires as Main Street and Elmer Gantry, Willson understood the insularity and anti-intellectualism of small-town Midwest life. Unlike Lewis, Willson also saw a strain of basic decency that, combined with the reckless urban verve that Hill represents and the cultural openness of awakened regionalists like Marian the Librarian, created a vision of a measured but optimistic and energetic national character. Like Norman Rockwell, Willson flirted with sentimentality and blind hope (we seem to resort over and over in our public life to variations of the “think system”). Willson compensated with a streak of native skepticism – a keen eye for rascality and its eager accomplice, credulity, to anchor his generous belief in people’s possibilities for good. The unlikely romance at the heart of The Music Man represents a coalescence of progressive and conservative impulses that seems nigh unto impossible in our bitterly divided current national conversation. Then again, what if?

Taphorn understands that the keys to making The Music Man work are to cast well, keep things tight, and trust the play. You can tinker here and there, and you can make sure the springs are well-timed and well-loaded, but the thing’s so intricately and expertly structured that any attempt to make a statement or lay a concept over it is probably going to just muck things up. This is Meredith Willson’s masterwork, and one of the masterpieces of the American musical theater, and a confident director, which Taphorn is, takes it as it comes.

Mostly, what comes is good. Sometimes, not so much. Like all masterworks, The Music Man is a product of its time, which is 1957 looking back to 1912. The “Indian” dance by the mayor’s wife and her claque, no doubt meant originally to lightly mock the small-town Daughters of the American Revolution approach to history, comes off wincingly today. Did we really think this sort of burlesque was OK a scant fifty-odd years ago? Yes. We did – and maybe being reminded of it isn’t entirely a bad thing.

Lytle’s twelve-piece orchestra drives the action with gusto, and there are performances of note across the board, from Norman Wilson’s as Hill’s secret sidekick Marcellus to Annie Kaiser’s genially vibrant Mrs. Paroo to Josiah Bartell’s lisping Winthrop and Thomas Prislac Jr.’s bumbling Mayor Shinn.

The show’s biggest drawback, at least on opening night, was a booming sound system that played hob with the singing voices and robbed the show of some of its musical complexity. Just about everybody in musical theater uses body microphones these days, but controlling the contraptions seems to be a daunting task. The Deb Fennell Auditorium, where The Music Man is playing, is a comfortable hall that doesn’t rise to the acoustical challenge of awkward amplification. Unfortunately, it’s hardly alone in that.

Once again, The Music Man leaves us with an intriguing unanswered question as it marches toward its happy ending: even with the good professor deciding to stick around and settle down, how are these kids ever going to learn to play those instruments? The think system is a con, as cleverly conceived and ultimately useless as a trumped-up political controversy. At some point, someone’s going to have to teach the kids to actually read the notes. Sounds like Marian’s got her work cut out for her.

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Tracy (Hillarie Putnam) and Mike (Jayson Shanafelt): desire under the alms. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Tracy (Hillarie Putnam) and Mike (Jayson Shanafelt): desire under the alms. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

 

The Philadelphia Story

Work, on the other hand, isn’t high on the list of lifetime goals for socialites Tracy Lord and C.K. Dexter Haven, the squabbling lovebirds of The Philadelphia Story.

In one sense Tracy and Dexter exemplify the term “the idle rich.” Their most cherished mutual memory – “my, she was yar” – is of time whiled away on a sleek yacht built to Dexter’s design, and their appreciation of its beauty represents their closest brush with the toil and ingenuity it took to make it so.

In another sense, Tracy’s obsessed with work, or at least her unwavering sense of what ought to be right: so much so that she’s determined to marry a “man of the people,” a dull but successful businessman who’s worked himself up from the bottom. And Dexter has a healthy skepticism for opportunists and a firm belief in honest creativity.

Playwright Philip Barry, writing in 1939, poked fun at the pretensions of both the ruling and aspiring classes, and the mix of sympathies still plays well in a culture that simultaneously despises its 1 percent and yearns to join it. The script also, of course, features some of the cleverest line-for-line writing in American stage and screen history, in a biting and often declamatory literary style that has all but disappeared from modern movie scripts.

The celebrated 1940 movie version, in fact, almost undoes this stage production of The Philadelphia Story. It’s not so much that Clackamas Rep’s stars are tried and found wanting against the memories of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Ruth Hussey. It’s that they, or director Doren Elias, consciously call up those memories instead of creating fresh interpretations of their own. They seem to be trying to replicate the voices and mannerisms of the film performers, and the effort is awkward and constricting: the first act in particular is slow and tentative rather than quick and sharp, the way it ought to be.

Things get considerably quicker, and more fun, after intermission, when everybody enters in the lingering haze of a long night of booze and Champagne, and the truths begin to tumble out. The principals – Jayson Shanafelt as reluctant journalist Mike Conner, Jayne Stevens as his photographer sidekick Liz, Tom Walton as Dexter, Dennis Kelly as plodding fiancé George, and especially Hillarie Putnam, who begins to deliver the comic goods as Tracy – loosen up and start letting ’er rip. Thank goodness for a few stiff drinks. Thank goodness, too, for some fine, breezy supporting performances by the likes of James Sharinghausen as brother Sandy and young Aislin Courtis as precocious sister Dinah.

CCC’s Niemeyer Center, where Clackamas Rep performs, is something of a hidden treasure. With fine acoustics, an adaptable stage, comfortable seats, and a sharp seating rake that brings everyone in the audience close to the action, it’s one of the most inviting small theaters in the metro area. And the set and lighting for this production, by the talented Chris Whitten, are terrific: the show’s look, including Margaret Louise Chapman’s smart period costuming and Shelly Mortimer’s props, is as chic and stylish as the performances aspire to be.

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