Michael O'Flaherty

A Well-Mannered Music Man

Review of The Music Man, The Goodspeed

Watching The Music Man, now in a colorful revival at The Goodspeed, directed by Jenn Thompson, is to be transported to a quintessential American myth: the insular small-town invaded by invidious forces from without. It’s the story of a town—against modernization, against outsiders, against any defiance of the status quo—that says a lot about the ethos of the heartland. It’s played for laughs, sure, and in this version of the venerable musical, the town has been integrated—a nod to the progressive aspects of Iowa. Still, “Stubborn, Iowa” expresses the attitude of the place. It’s not about to change, much—and neither has this time-honored musical.

Harold Hill (Edward Watts), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed’s production of The Music Man, directed by Jenn Thompson (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Harold Hill (Edward Watts), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed’s production of The Music Man, directed by Jenn Thompson (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Into River City comes “Professor” Harold Hill (Edward Watts). He takes up the challenge of hoodwinking the locals with his particular brand of chicanery after hearing Iowa described as nearly impregnable. That’s in the opening scene, the song “Rock Island” an acapella wonder that gets us off to a rousing start, as a group of salesmen bemoan their lot in life, with Hill mentioned as the scoundrel who gives them all a bad name.

Olin Hill (Kent Overshown), Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Gurner), Oliver Hix (C. Mingo Long), Jacey Squires (Branch Woodman) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Olin Hill (Kent Overshown), Ewart Dunlop (Jeff Gurner), Oliver Hix (C. Mingo Long), Jacey Squires (Branch Woodman) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

It’s not long before we’re running through all the well-known chestnuts from this packed score—“Ya Got Trouble,” “76 Trombones,” “’Til There Was You,” “Gary, Indiana,” and, particularly enjoyable here, the barbershop quartet numbers featuring Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner, and Kent Overshown. Mostly everyone is equal to their tasks, making these wonderful tunes captivate, but the story never quite seems to catch fire. In part that’s because Watts’ Hill, good-looking to a fault, seems like a less than confident confidence man. He’s merely competent rather than compelling. He should own this thing because, after all, it’s Hill’s change in attitude that drives the whole locomotive here. We expect him to be cavalier only to become complicit in his own undoing—which might be the making of him. Here he’s too well-mannered so that we never really question his motives.

Marion (Ellie Fishman), Harold Hill (Edward Watts) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Marion (Ellie Fishman), Harold Hill (Edward Watts) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

As Marion “the librarian” Paroo, the love interest who takes a shine to Hill (though she early discovers his lack of bona fides), Ellie Fishman is winsome, delivering her songs, like “My White Knight,” with all the sweetness required and playing hard-to-get with aplomb, though you might find yourself wishing she had a few more solos. She acts more blithely indifferent than alienated by the gossip going the rounds.

Marion (Elliie Fishman), Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O’Brien)

Marion (Elliie Fishman), Mrs. Paroo (Amelia White), Winthrop Paroo (Alexander O’Brien)

As the lisping Winthrop Paroo, Alexander O’Brien is engaging and the other children handle themselves well, including Katie Wylie as Amaryllis. There’s some wonderful support by Stephanie Pope as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife and the local grande dame, by Amelia White as Mrs. Paroo, and by the ladies who gossip, doing their “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” number full justice.

Maud Dunlop (Kelly Berman), Mrs. Squires (Victoria Huston-Elem), Marion (Ellie Fishman), Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope), Ethel Toffelmier (Cicily Daniels) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Maud Dunlop (Kelly Berman), Mrs. Squires (Victoria Huston-Elem), Marion (Ellie Fishman), Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope), Ethel Toffelmier (Cicily Daniels) (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

In fact, it’s the group numbers that are best here—the quartet, the ladies (and both groups move down the aisles to let us sample their dulcet tones up close)—and also the worked up dance numbers, especially Juson Williams, as Hill’s crony Marcellus, leading the teens in “Shipoopi” with rakish charm.

Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams) and the cast of The Music Man (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Marcellus Washburn (Juson Williams) and the cast of The Music Man (photo by Diane Sobolewski)

The scenery by Paul Tate DePoo III is lively and the costumes by David Toser are jaunty. The staging and choreography, by Patricia Wilcox, can feel a little crowded at times, and the whole production feels more respectful than revivified. The stubbornness of Iowa might have infected the whole, or it might be that the very reason to revive this show—to wink at middle-America’s long-established and greatly to be mourned love affair with con artists—requires a bit more bite and less reverence. Like the man said, ‘you gotta know the territory!’

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope, standing second from left) and the cast of The Music Man

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Stephanie Pope, standing second from left) and the cast of The Music Man


 The Music Man

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Patricia Wilson

Scene Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: David Toser; Lighitng Design: Paul Miller; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: F. Wade Russo; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: D. C. Anderson, Iman Barnes, Kelly Berman, Elizabeth Brady, Cicily Daniels, Shawn Alynda Fisher, Ellie Fishman, Damien Galvez, Jeff Gurner, Maddiekay Harris, Victoria Huston-Elem, Elise Kowalick, Ryan Lambert, Danny Lindgren, C. Mingo Long, Matthew B. Moore, Alexander O’Brien, Kent Overshown, Stephanie Pope, Raynor Rubel, William Daniel Russell, Benjamin Sears, Edward Watts, Amelia White, Corben Williams, Juson Williams, Branch Woodman, Katie Wylie

The Goodspeed
April 12-June 20, 2019

Wedding Blitz

Review of The Drowsy Chaperone, Goodspeed Musicals

When Ben Brantley reviewed the original Broadway production of The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006 he noted what a crowd-pleaser it was, but seemed bemused by that fact. You could say there’s a certain critical prejudice against shows that are simply good fun and have, as the saying goes, “no redeeming social value.” It’s fitting that the show should be mostly fluff, since the idea for this musical spoofing musicals began as a party joke that Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, and Greg Morrison devised for the amusement of Robert Martin and his betrothed, Janet Van de Graaff. And so the main plot element here is how to keep the affianced lovers—Bob (Clyde Alves) and Janet (Stephanie Rothenberg)—from seeing each other before the marriage, while, of course, lots of ambient romance circulates and we wait to see who couples or uncouples with whom. An added attraction is that Janet is a Broadway star of some magnitude who has vowed to forsake the footlights for the sake of her man.

“Show Off,” with Janet Van de Graff (Stephanie Rothenberg), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed production of The Drowsy Chaperone (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

“Show Off,” with Janet Van de Graff (Stephanie Rothenberg), center, and the cast of The Goodspeed production of The Drowsy Chaperone (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Lambert and Morrison wrote the music and lyrics and the songs are mostly excuses for silliness set to music, having the kind of effervescence associated with champagne in large quantities. And that’s fitting as the titular character—The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)—imbibes immodestly and tends to get drowsy (or so she says) when she drinks. Her faux dozing leaves her charge, Janet, free for a prenuptial espial of her betrothed, Robert, he of the gleaming teeth, as he roller-skates blindfolded in the garden. Their encounter there sparks a contretemps that may capsize their particular love boat.

“Adolpho,” with Adolpho (John Rapson) and The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)

“Adolpho,” with Adolpho (John Rapson) and The Chaperone (Jennifer Allen)

Meanwhile, the Chaperone finds herself mistaken as the bride for the erotic attentions of Adolpho (John Rapson), an operatic Italian who wants to seduce Robert’s betrothed as payback for a perceived slight. Meanwhile, there are gangsters on hand—two brothers played to the hilt by the brothers Slaybaugh (Blakely and Parker)—because, if Janet jilts the production she’s starring in, it ain’t going to be pretty for Feldzieg (James Judy), a theater producer accompanied everywhere by Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), an inspired ditz as strident would-be star. There’s also the lady of the house, Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall) and her fastidious butler, Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), George, the forgetful best man (Tim Falter), and, for good measure in the finale, a genial aviatrix, Trix (Danielle Lee Greaves).

“Cold Feets,” with George (Tim Falter) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves)

“Cold Feets,” with George (Tim Falter) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves)

The book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar bristles with quick scenes, the kind of exchanges that set-up improbable songs—like Robert singing about “Cold Feets” and then proceeding to tap-dance enthusiastically with George, who channels his best Gene Kelly, or like the gangsters, Feldzieg, and Kitty enlightening us about the “Toledo Surprise,” a bit of vaudevillian vim that leads into the Act One closer. And while I’m on the songs, the show-stopper and untoppable topper is Janet’s big number “Show Off”—she changes costume at least three times on stage, hits high notes, twirls hoops, flings knives, and does everything she can think of to hold attention while insisting, quite fetchingly, that she’s done with it all. My other favorite was The Chaperone’s paean to the blitzed life, “As We Stumble Along,” dished up as what it is: the big number for an aging grande dame of the theater to showboat on.

Man in Chair (John Scherer)

Man in Chair (John Scherer)

Pointing out how each song and plot-point and character-turn hangs together with featherbrained logic is the task of the real hero of this fizzy farce, Man in Chair (an affably flappable John Scherer). He’s a retiring nebbish ensconced in his favorite chair in his no doubt rent-controlled apartment, spinning his beloved platter of the original cast recording of The Drowsy Chaperone. He’s a lover of musicals, so long as the show’s not too long—preferably with no intermission and without the musical theater stylings of Sir Elton. The rest of the scenes occur by benefit of his memory and imagination as the show unfolds before us while the double LP plays. And whether you love musicals or approach them with trepidation, you’ll find him a simpatico host. I wanted to cheer when he chucked a ringing phone out the door. He’s even a bit more scathing than a critic might be: while the spit-take scene between Mrs. Tottendale and Underling is indeed pointless, it is also surprisingly hilarious.

Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Man in Chair (John Scherer), Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall)

Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Man in Chair (John Scherer), Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall)

In fact, most of the fun here is in seeing how much brio the cast—all top notch—and director Hunter Foster, with choreography by Chris Bailey, can bring to this balderdash. And don’t forget the costumes! Tony Award winner (for this show on Broadway, as well as Follies) Gregg Barnes does Man in Chair’s imagination proud, including the chinoiserie of a strange interlude that opens Act Two, and extending to countless costume changes—and not just for the starlet. The Slaybaugh brothers—who have perfected the slow burn—appear in different complementary get-ups each time they show up. The razzle dazzle throughout is in your face and eye-opening, including scenery that comes and goes as required thanks to the design by Goodspeed veteran Howard Jones, culminating with a biplane, by George!

“I Do, I Do in the Sky,” with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

“I Do, I Do in the Sky,” with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

In the end, what if anything does this zany show say? Maybe something about the version we carry with us of a past we never saw in person. Filling out a recording with mental enactments is nearly a lost art, so that our nostalgia for Man in Chair’s nostalgia leads us to newfound delight in living actors able to embody, boldly and broadly, that old Broadway we missed.

Gangster #1 (Blakely Slaybaugh), Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), Gangster #2 (Parker Slaybaugh)

Gangster #1 (Blakely Slaybaugh), Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), Gangster #2 (Parker Slaybaugh)

It’s a hoot, and the most fun you’ll ever have chaperoned.

 

The Drowsy Chaperone
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Hunter Foster

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreography by Chris Bailey

Scenic Design: Howard Jones; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: Jennifer Allen, Clyde Alves, Hallie Brevetti, Abby Church, James Spencer Dean, Tim Falter, Ruth Gottschall, Danielle Lee Greaves, Bryan Thomas Hunt, Jay Aubrey Jones, James Judy, Evan Mayer, Ruth Pferdehirt, John Rapson, Stephanie Rothenberg, John Scherer, Blakely Slaybaugh, Parker Slaybaugh, Gabi Stapula

 

Goodspeed Musicals
From September 21, 2018

Stoops to Follies

Review of The Will Rogers Follies, Goodspeed Theatre

Will Rogers, once upon a time, was one of the most famous Americans alive. He was part Cherokee and became known as a performing cowboy—on radio, in Wild West Shows, on vaudeville, Broadway, and in films. He was a commentator too and columnist, often sniping, in a witty and down-home way, about the issues of the day and about politicians, the perennial laughingstocks of U.S. news.

Rogers’ popular stint in Ziegfeld’s Follies, a cowboy among showgirls, is recreated, tunefully and tongue-in-cheek in The Will Rogers Follies, now at Goodspeed, directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Michael O’Flaherty and choreography by Kelli Barclay. A fond look back at a brand of Americana that has a certain pertinence today, The Will Rogers Follies was a big Broadway success in the hands of Tommy Tune back in the early ‘90s, with Keith Carradine in the title role. At Goodspeed, the razzle-dazzle of what feels like a precursor to every Vegas and television Variety show is abetted by David M. Lutken’s engaging and easy-going enactment of Will Rogers, rope-tricks included.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

The great strength of Rogers’ brand of humor is that it never talked down to “average Americans,” seeming to impart a wisdom derived from homespun common sense. Rogers’ tendency to take shots at those aspects of daily American life that still plague us—the two-party system and those who flourish in that system, and the knee-jerk aspects of news coverage—makes him a welcome voice in our day. His manner, in Lutken’s hands, is casual rather than tendentious, with a low-key delivery that takes every aspect of life in stride—and that includes jokes about his eventual death in a plane crash with friend the pilot Wiley Post.

Lutken, who I saw play Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, a show he devised, at Irish Rep in New York, brings a similar folksiness to the role of Rogers. He has a clear, no-frills singing voice, and immediately warms up the audience by commenting on the stories in a current newspaper. There are similarities between Guthrie and Rogers inasmuch as both believed in the United States as, potentially, a force for good often kept from its best by the specialized interests of those who use government to promote power and wealth for themselves. Both are images of the “common man” (though both were very uncommon in their talents and accomplishments) that are helpful to offset the general cynicism and idiocy of our times.

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

In the show, the story of Rogers comes out in snippets, with songs that keep the Variety show aspects of the musical front and center. As “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” Brooke Lacy is a delight in a role that oozes the kind of sexist casting that Florenz Ziegfeld (voiced with imperious élan by James Naughton) promoted relentlessly. Rogers never lets us get comfortable with the cheesecake, as he tends to shake his head over Flo’s favorite’s every appearance. And yet the display of the feminine physique is key to what makes the show a “follies.” The dance routines and the “living tableau” are part of the charm, and this show will keep a grin on your face, though it never quite stuns or amazes the way some dance routines at Goodspeed have.

To change focus from the chorus girls in Ilona Somogyi’s eye-teasing costumes, Peter Stone’s book plays up Will the family man, with emotional coloration by Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, who becomes Will’s oft-neglected wife. Their kids also get into the act and there’s even a collective rope-trick number in Act Two. It’s a very old-fashioned entertainment, a period-piece looking back at an older period.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

As is often the case with stories of the famous, the first half plays better as it seems that every celebrity is more interesting on the way up than when in demand on all fronts. The interplay between Lutken’s Rogers and the other characters—such as his amiably put-upon father, Clem (David Garrison)—keep things bouncing, as Rogers has a gift for ribbing others’ pretensions and for calling it like he sees it, and that includes the hokeyness of the Follies themselves. The best aspects of the show are Lutken’s natural aptitude for the part and the way the action is commented on as something of a relic that has its place in a nostalgia for an Americana all but lost. Michael Clark’s projections help to recreate a sense of the era when Rogers was consulted by presidents and provided bi-partisan chiding of the show-biz aspects of our press and government.

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Genial, nice to look at, with songs that serve the story but have little strength on their own, The Will Rogers Follies gives us a likeable version of the man who never met a man he didn’t like.

 

The Will Rogers Follies
Book by Peter Stone
Music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Original New York production directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
Inspired by the words of Will and Betty Rogers

Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographer: Kelli Barclay
Director: Don Stephenson

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Projection Design: Michael Clark; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer: Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Rope Trick Supervisor: Keith Nelson; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Michael Biren, Ella Briggs, Riley Briggs, Aaron Burr, Dewey Caddell, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, David Garrison, Brendan Reilly Harris, Patrick Heffernan, Nathan Horne, Brooke Lacy, David M. Lutken, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Ben Stone-Zelman, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Catherine Walker, Caitlin Wilayto, Borris York, and James Naughton as the Voice of Ziegfeld

Goodspeed Musicals
April 13, 2018