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.
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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