The Music Man at Arena Stage: A Delightful Summer Musical

In honor of the unofficial start to summer and my mom’s birthday “present” day,  last Wednesday night was Ladies Night for moi, my sister and my mom. And what better way to celebrate a fabulous ladies night than with dinner at Zaytinya and Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man at Arena Stage? If wine, Mediterranean tapas, a singing barbershop quartet, and one of the most fun American musical productions don’t equal a successful ladies night, then I am just confused.

Burke Moses as Harold Hill, Ian Berlin as Winthrop Paroo and Kate Baldwin as Marian Paroo in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater's production of The Music Man. Photo Credit: Arena Stage

The truth is, we were practically raised on musicals chez moi. Was it because we were raised overseas and back then, there was basically no TV, save for Top of the Pops in England in the 80s, and a few cheesy European commercials where someone inevitably ends up naked even if they’re not selling soap, or was it because my parents were also raised on musicals and so they paid it forward? Who knows. But we love musicals. And mark my words, my children are being raised with a deep love of musicals. Whenever I meet someone who loathes musicals, I don’t understand them. I wonder if they have ice pumping through their veins or were they raised by wolves? How can you not love 2 hours of a quaint small town in Iowa, for example, where everyone has a great voice and they talk to each other by singing? What’s not to like?

I hadn’t yet been to Arena Stage and if you are also planning an evening on the town, might I suggest Zaytinya was the perfect pre-theater location because it was a straight shot down 9th street to the theater, maybe a five-minute drive. I even noticed some street parking by the stage but given the voracity of last Wednesday’s storms, we opted for valet parking.
#firstworldproblem #spoiled
Here’s where I confess to feeling like a moron. I was surprised upon entering the theater to learn its set up like a…wait for it…ARENA, a four-sided arena, in fact. Apparently I hadn’t given any thought to why they might have named Arena Stage…Arena Stage. As I processed the stadium like seating in the theater, I admit to feeling a little disappointed that there was no chance for fabulous stage design. My sister later confessed to having a deep love for stage design, noting it rained on stage when we saw Singin in the Rain in London, so there were times she struggled to reconcile her love for props and design, with her love for the musical. But, as we settled into our seats, we agreed that the lack of props and set design makes for an even greater challenge for the actors.
Then the lights dimmed, a circle raised from beneath the stage, and up rose the actors in the opening train scene. As the salesmen pull into River City,
one of the most perfectly choreographed scenes I’ve ever seen in a play began, quelling our anxiety about the absence of stage design and assuring us that the actors were more than capable of compensating for it. Days later, we are still talking about the opening scene, how well choreographed the actors were in mimicking the movement of the train and the great dialogue of “But he doesn’t have a territory” as the other salesmen discuss the con artist known as Harold Hill.
Burke Moses stars as the charming, mischievous Professor Harold Hill, and having been raised on Robert Preston’s version of Harold Hill, these are big shoes to fill. Moses succeeded as a charming, convincing and hilarious Hill wooing his way into the heart of Marian, Madame Librarian, played by Kate Baldwin. Five DC area youth were cast in the musical and each did an excellent job. For the duration of the 2.5 hour musical, I was enthralled with how these kids managed school, homework and what must have been a rigorous rehearsal schedule (and what logistical planning it involved for their parents).
The orchestra, hidden beneath the stage, beautifully performed each of the well-known and popular songs and acted as an impeccable supporting cast to this delightful musical. As for the stadium seating, I quickly realized that I absolutely loved it. Instead of sitting rows away from stage with an orchestra pit separating us from the actors, my sister deftly pointed out that this was a very intimate experience, being arms length away from the actors some of the time, as they moved around the theatre and skillfully made sure to rotate during scenes so that no one section was stranded seeing only their backs. The choreography and practice to achieve that careful balance must have taken an extraordinary amount of time and concentration. Also, I delighted in looking around the stadium and soaking in the expressions of the other theater-goers.
The first half flew by in 90 minutes and if someone asked, I would have said 30 minutes passed. At intermission we discussed the costumes because they weren’t necessarily period pieces. My mom wasn’t overly keen on their costumes but I didn’t mind that they diverged from tradition and made their costumes slightly more modern. Plus, as a true shoe lover, I adored all the women’s shoes.
The second half-opened with one of the most exciting and beautifully choreographed dances, to the carefree song “Shipoopi.” The young men of River City all looked like they belonged in West Side Story with their old-fashioned jeans but again, I liked it. It worked for me. If you are heading into the musical raised on the Hollywood version, at least you can prepare yourself for this major departure from the film. We were really anxious for Eulalie Shinn (performed by Barbara Tirrell) to lead the ladies of River City in the dance performance of Grecian Urns…who doesn’t love “ONE Grecian Urn!”… and sure enough, this scene did not disappoint. I especially loved the creative use of accessorized umbrellas for the Grecian Urn waterfall sequence and Mrs. Shinn oozed charm throughout the musical, earning her the Wired Momma award as most beloved character in the play.
If you’re still reading my review, odds are you, too, love The Music Man, so there’s no need for me to mention how the play ends. Overall, the 2.5 hour musical production flew by and we loved it. It makes for a great date night this summer or ladies night. If you’re thinking of bringing the kids, my guess is it depends on the kid, but for kids older than 8 or 9, it’s a great family musical. Unfortunately, mine are still too young for it but some day, they will learn all about Madame Librarian and how the boy’s band will keep them all on the straight and narrow from that rotten pool hall. And for anyone paying careful attention, the actors excelled in this production because in the end, it didn’t matter that there was no fancy set design or props to dress up the performances, they just didn’t need it.
The Music Man runs through July 22. Tickets are $46-$91 and I think all the May performances are sold out, so if you’re considering it, I’d urge you to buy your tickets pronto.
Two other things to look out for, on Friday June 1 at 6pm at Nationals Park, inspired by the Music Man’s signature song “76 Trombones,” Arena Stage is partnering with FAME (The Foundation for the Advancement of Music & Education, Inc.) to bring together more than 500 trombone players to set the world record for the largest all-trombone ensemble. Under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg, the music director for the Music Man, musicians will fill Nationals Park to perform “76 Trombones” prior to the Nationals game against the Braves. If you are interested in participating, arrive to the park by 5:15PM and you can stay to watch the game for free. Register in advance here.
Second fun fact – on Wednesday June 20 or July 11, following the 7:30pm performance of The Music Man, you can stay for show tunes after the show. I am SOLD! Join cast members for a post-show piano bar in the Mead Center Main Lobby or drop by just for the post-show. You can grab a drink at the bar and soak in the fun. I seriously am thinking I am going. Care to join moi?
For more delightful ways to pass your summer evenings, or really for just surviving summer, “Like” the Wired Momma Facebook page.
Disclosure: Arena Stage gifted two tickets to me for the musical last week but all my opinions here are my own.

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