Friday, February 20, 2009
"The Music Man" in Ashland
Theater fans who travel to Ashland, Oregon usually make the journey for a fix of Shakespeare, as the charming town in the southern part of the state is home to the oldest (and perhaps best) Shakespeare festival in the country. Sitting under the stars in their outdoor theater, a mostly faithful recreation of The Globe, where many of the Bard's plays were originally staged, taking in one of the classics, is a delightful way to spend a warm summer evening.
But in February the outdoor stage is closed, and the Ashland festival stages its offerings in its indoor venues, the largest of which is the Angus Bowmer Theater. I remember the Bowmer from several high school field trips. It's where I saw "Oedipus Rex" and "Waiting for Godot" (which I still don't fully grok).
Although I travel semi-regularly to Ashland to visit family, I don't often attend festival offerings. In the summer it's hard to get good seats, and much of what they stage I've already seen in New York. And to be honest, though the OSF is a solid festival, I've never been overly impressed. (But I'm hard to please.)
But when Devin and I decided to take a few days of her mid-winter break to head north and visit Mom, I checked the OSF schedule and saw that "The Music Man" would be up one of the nights we were there. "The Music Man" is one of my favorite musicals, and though I had recently seen a production of it on Broadway in New York, I decided to take a chance.
And how glad I am I did. This new production is absolutely delightful. Though I have some quibbles with the show (primarily the orchestra, which is tiny and its playing a touch sloppy), I had a terrific evening. It's easily the funniest version of the show I've ever seen. Richard Elmore, who plays Mayor Shinn, is the best Mayor Shinn I've ever seen, and that includes Paul Ford, who played the role in the movie. Elmore has simply brilliant comic timing. In fact the whole production is working well -- which is surprising since the night I saw the show was only the second performance of the run!
Director Bill Rauch's take on the production is that conman Harold Hill brings life and vitality not just to the life of Marian the Librarian, but to the entire town of River City. At the top of the show, everything is in black and white -- even the flags, even though it's the Fourth of July -- except for Harold Hill's coat. By the time the band plays at the end, everyone is technicolor -- though it takes Mayor Shinn longer to loosen up than anyone else in town.
Two notes in closing. First, though I generally don't have too much trouble with color-blind casting, an African-American Marion Paroo took a bit of getting used to, especially since, in the original, Marion is Irish. I just decided she was black Irish.
Second, I found it interesting to note that when Harold Hill comes to town and is looking for a way to frighten the townsfolk to convince them that they need his boys' band to keep the young folk under control, he inveigles the citizens to see the pool table as a tool of the devil. That's not the interesting part; I've known that since the first time I saw the show as a boy. What's interesting was being reminded that when you want to frighten someone -- and there is no logical reason they should be frightened -- the best way to do so is to invoke God and morality. After all, there's no logical, reasonable response to such an indictment.