The Music Man at TUTS is a Fragrant Slice of Americana

The set-up:
The role of con man deluxe “Professor” Harold Hill, star of Meredith Willson's all-American musical The Music Man (1957), is one of the iconic roles in musical theater. So where was actor J. Anthony Crane?

The execution:
Testing his mettle against the other turn-of-the-century traveling salesmen on board the train in the rhythmic and idiosyncratic opening number (“Rock Island,” perhaps the most startling opening number in musical theater history because it's all rhyme and rap set to a train's clickety-clack as it moves along the rails while the salesmen bicker, bicker, bicker about credit replacing cash), Hill disembarks at River City, Iowa, in the heartland of those stoic Hawkeyes (“Iowa Stubborn”) ready to sell his dubious wares to the most dubious of middle Americans.

He's gonna fleece these rubes into buying expensive band instruments and uniforms for their kids, take the profits, and abscond with the installment payments before the yokels realize they've been had. He's the flip side of the American Dream, peddling flash and panache, all while warning the puritans against the wages of sin, i.e. the pool hall, in the equally iconic number “Trouble.” You know this pseudo-patter song: Ya got trouble, Right here in River city! With a capital "T" And that rhymes with "P" And that stands for Pool. But this most American of bad guys, a low-rent robber baron, always one step ahead of being found out, falls for the frigid local librarian, and, in true American musical fashion, risks all for love. At the finale, the kids can't play a lick of music, but the parents are so impressed with the flash and sparkle that all is forgiven, Hill and librarian Marian find true love, and the curtain falls. Now that's the American dream. And the making of a great American musical.

It's fitting that this classic show, a real one-off, arrived on Broadway without fanfare and then proceeded to sweep the major awards, overpowering even the monumental West Side Story that had opened a few month earlier. For the showbiz cognoscenti, the tsunami was named Meredith Willson, and he surprised everyone with his utter Broadway facility in his first effort (he'd wow them again in his second try, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.) A prodigy on flute and piccolo, Willson played in John Philip Sousa's legendary band before joining another legend, maestro Arturo Toscanini, at the New York Philharmonic. Later in Hollywood, he wrote the scores for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and William Wyler's The Little Foxes. He found his calling on radio, hosting his own variety program, as well as appearing as a regular on The Burns and Allen Show and later Tallulah Bankhead's Big Show. But he always yearned to celebrate his pre-WW I Iowa childhood, and to him that meant a Broadway show. It took years to hone down the dozens of songs he wrote for the project, rewrite the plot, and get a producer who'd back a novice. But when Willson's love-child premiered, starring another Broadway novice Robert Preston in his Tony Award-winning role, Willson's glorious pastiche of ragtime, barbershop quartet, march, and love ballads bowled over audiences with its simple but bracing tribute to gentler times.

It's a show filled with novelty, with that first number on the train shaking us awake for what's to come. There's the “Piano Lesson,” with its simple counterpoint melody underscoring a contretemps between feisty outspoken Mama (Mary Vanarsdel) and suppressed daughter (Sara Jane Ford). Or the male quartet that Hill creates out of the four squabbling school board members, who then rhapsodize on events like a melodic Greek chorus. Or the way Marian's dreamy love song, “Goodnight My Someone,” is ratcheted up in tempo to transform into Hill's rousing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” telling us in musical shorthand, before either of them realizes it, just how right they are for each other. Willson fills the show with neat little touches like this, smoothing our way into this quaint and forgotten world of cracker barrels, canoodling, sen-sen, and ice cream socials.

Which brings us full circle to Crane and his non-appearance. The Music Man is rarely performed these days, probably because original Preston made such an indelible impression that anyone afterward would seem to be aping his magnetic performance. But without a formidable Hill, Music Man turns tame and insipid. While he looks handsome enough to wheedle the small town folks of River City out of their egg money, Crane creates a huge gap where Harold Hill should be. A pleasant-enough song-and-dance man, he's a cipher, not a glib, sweet talkin' con man. There's no snake oil in him. His patter is garbled and level-headed, not inspired or really anything close to animated. I'd blame it on the Hobby's notorious sound system – yet again! – but certainly Sara Jane Ford, as pristine-voiced Marian, comes across with every vowel intact. (Her crystalline soprano, crisp diction, and subtle performance carry the show.) Even though the miking is on-again, off-again – usually off when someone in the chorus is speaking – I'm afraid that Crane just isn't there, and there's no way to fill the hole. Without a charismatic Harold Hill, there is no Music Man.

So, we watch others. Other than Ford, the only one worth noticing is Peter Chursin, as rough young male ingenue Tommy, who romances the mayor's daughter. His supporting role is, well, fairly insignificant, but he's the best dancer on stage. He high kicks like a Rockette, and there's no step of Michelle Gaudette's routine choreography that he doesn't better just by dancing it. He seems to be having a hell of a good time, unlike the others who only go through the motions so they can collect their paychecks. The Barbershop Quartet is a harmonious one (Thom Culcasi, Charles Swan, Phil Gold, and Joseph Torello), and the “Pickalittle Talkalittle” Ladies shine comically, whether gossiping or practicing their frantic Grecian Urn rehearsal.

Produced in-house by Theatre Under the Stars, the production is finessed nicely by director Bruce Lumpkin, who keeps everything moving smoothly. The impressionistic scenery by Martin Christoffel is a lovely blend of Art Nouveau swirls and American Gothic angles; the lighting by Richard Winkler bespeaks dappled Iowan moonlight; and the costumes by Colleen Grady are a pastel delight of hobble skirts and two-tone spats.

The verdict:
Willson's witty and nostalgic musical is a fragrant slice of Americana. If you can stand a Music Man without a music man, this is the show for you.

The Music Man. Through May 17. The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at or call 713-558-8887. $25-$124.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover