Pro & Con Artists

Some people never overcome their suspicion of art. To them, all artists are scam artists, trying to put something over on a public that neither wants nor needs any of it. Not that the Puritans, who opened this particular can of inartistic worms for us, were wholly mistaken. Art is always doing something other than what it says it's doing; the skeptic's mistake is to see this other as taking place instead of, rather than in addition to, what's on the surface. Far from trying to swindle you, art is the shell game that offers an extra pea under every shell, if you know how to look for it.

It's no accident, anyway—to get out of these tangled musings—that the theater's always been fascinated by con artists, from the sophistical reasoners who flimflam their way through Euripides and Aristophanes down to "Professor Harold Hill," the hero of The Music Man. Unlike many of his predecessors, Hill is a softhearted phony suitable for musicalizing, a sheep in wolf's clothing. We know he's going to turn this stiff-lipped Iowa town around, and we know the town's piano teacher cum librarian is going to turn him around; only a born husband would brag this much about his imperviousness to female snares. The force that does the turning is music, the invisible merchandise this pseudo- traveling salesman travels in and the passion he shares with Marian the librarian. Accused by rival and friend alike of not knowing one note of music from another, Hill is nonetheless musically sensitive enough to know when four male voices constitute a barbershop quartet, patient enough to teach a bandful of kids to hum the "Minuet in G," and wise enough to explain that "singing is just sustained talking." Pretty good for a guy whose standard practice is to hightail it out of town the minute the uniforms arrive.

A Popular Front leftist who was "graylisted" in the early '50s (the movies he scored include Chaplin's The Great Dictator), Meredith Willson believed that music should be accessible to everybody. He also had the '30s leftist commitment to preserving folk and popular forms in composition. Add the notion of sustained speech, and you get the wit of a score that's built not only on the musical modes of 1910, with its anthems and marches and parlor ballads, but also, drolly, on the noises and rhythms of everyday life: pitched conversation over the rackety beat of train wheels, argumentative recitative over a piano student plinking thirds up the scale, a pattery counterpoint to "Goodnight, Ladies" out of the indignant clucking of town gossips. The script, drenched in period locutions to a degree far beyond simple quaintness, seems fresh and witty too, full of jokes whose very age gives them a gleaming patina of newness. Add a few hit tunes, two enchanting stars, knowing direction, and brilliant choreography, and you've got an old-style Broadway hit.

Rebecca Luker in The Music Man: 1912 overtures
photo: Joan Marcus
Rebecca Luker in The Music Man: 1912 overtures

Details

The Music Man
By Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Neil Simon Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-307-4100

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov, translated by Mike Poulton
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street 212-307-4100

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These last elements, as you probably suspected I was going to say, are only intermittently on view in Susan Stroman's production. The hit tunes are still there, and the new orchestration, by Doug Besterman with dance music by David Krane, has electronified the score without curdling Willson's creamy sound. What Stroman and her colleagues don't do is invent a magically appealing version of small-town Iowa, circa 1912, and invite us to explore it. Instead, conscious of the work's age and the need to glitz it up, they engage in a variety of standard Broadway ways of showing off, dashing back into that magical world whenever the material's siren call is too enticing to resist, but never staying there for long.

When they do stay for a while, some fairly delightful things transpire. Rebecca Luker, with her Victorian-cameo features, is an ideal Marian, graceful and firm in acting the role, her voice secure and perfectly placed for singing it. Katherine McGrath as her matchmaking mother and Michael Phelan as her troubled kid brother are fine; Ruth Williamson, as the mayor's haughty wife, is both funny and focused, not always the case with her. On the sadder but wiser side, Stroman hasn't succeeded in making the quartet anything but four guys who bicker a lot and then sing together, and she's misfired, badly, with Paul Benedict, who somehow manages to remove all comedy from Mayor Shinn's verbal left turns, and with Max Casella, who makes Hill's local sidekick a drab obstacle. One of Stroman's really bad ideas is to have him, on the edge of the crowd, cuing the hero during "Trouble in River City," as if the con man couldn't remember his own spiel.

It's a shame, because Craig Bierko, the Harold Hill, isn't an actor for whom you want to lose respect. He's clearly a nice guy, handsome, craggy-jawed and big-eyed, making up in solidity what he lacks in flair. The only problem is that Harold Hill is all flair; Robert Preston was ideal for the role, a beefily solid actor who sizzled across the stage in an electrical haze—he seemed to throw off sparks whenever he moved. Bierko, an engaging performer with relatively little stage experience, has neither Preston's magnetism nor his finesse; nurtured in TV and film, he tends to play from the head—a common fault these days—and let the body go. But a musical is a physical event; talking heads don't suffice.

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