Rising stars are what every theater troupe hopes to discover and nurture, but this week’s openings are a reminder that old pros count, too. Having them around can burnish a production, provide continuity to a season, and resonate with the crowd out front in ways no batch of fresh faces ever will.
This used to be the not-so-secret strength of our major repertory companies—the play might be unfamiliar, but a regular stable of actors ensured the experience of watching it would not be. These days, with standing rep companies a thing of the past, this brand of continuity is more often honored by our smaller troupes than our more established ones. When hulking Brian Hemmingsen arrives on stage in Forum Theatre’s The Illusion, making his way by glow of cellphone and growling that he seeks a sorcerer, and Nanna Ingvarsson emerges barefoot and wild-eyed from behind a scarlet curtain to help him find the son he drove away, they trail all sorts of associations: Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, dozens of roles in more than 30 years they’ve performed both in tandem (they’re married offstage) and apart.
Does their presence ground a show that’s about to get all hifalutin’ about love, magic, and theater? For sure. In the one-ring circus that is Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s 17th century comedy L’Illusion Comique, she will conjure and he will observe as younger performers play out the sort of romantic fantasies in which they once took the leads themselves. Watch their faces as the others finagle and fuss through a series of variously disastrous assignations, and you’ll know all you need about the folly of love. Director Mitchell Hébert has given the young lovers some clever business—wait’ll you see the staging fillip with which he sets up a line beginning “on the other hand”—but nothing he’s done is more apt to rivet you than the fact of these two sitting on the sidelines.
The raptness of their attention turns out to be central to what you’d have to call the play’s trick ending. But it’s also fun in its own right, whether Hemmingsen’s interrupting the action to protest that it makes no sense, or Ingvarsson’s orchestrating the ticking passage of time (Aaron Bliden, giving his tongue a workout).
The comparative youngsters at center stage are also accomplished—Mark Halpern as a malleable, curly-headed, Candide-like innocent, Brynn Tucker as the fiery, aristocratic lass he’s wooing for all the wrong reasons, Joe Brack and Gwen Grastorf as calculating schemers with designs of their own, and a deliciously hammy Scott McCormick as a poet who more than lives up to someone’s description of him as a “monster of ego.”
Names change, and character traits do, too, partly for reasons I shouldn’t reveal, and partly because Kushner’s so in love with language that he can’t resist putting new sounds in everyone’s mouth every minute. Too many minutes, let’s note—the evening, even paced at a gallop, runs longer than it should. But it’s easy to understand why no one wanted to cut a script in which love will be referred to as a “hydra-headed gargoyle” for the sheer joy of saying those words.
The Music Man Book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson Directed by Molly Smith; At Arena Stage to July 22
I’ve attended 37 Hamlets, and have never once failed to learn something from the experience. I can’t say the Prince of Denmark is remotely mysterious to me anymore, but each time a new director and cast approach his story, something fresh still comes to light—a wayward inflection bringing out an obscure pun, maybe, or a costuming trick illuminating a character. I remember a quasi-Edwardian production at Arena, where it was clear as soon as Ophelia came to the dinner table without her gloves that the poor girl had lost her mind.
I mention all this by way of establishing that it’s not mere familiarity that makes me vaguely impatient with Arena’s handsome, prettily sung, capably mounted but oddly earthbound production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Yes, I already knew this tuneful tale of a traveling con-man and the straitlaced town he humbugs into enjoying itself. My high school did it decades ago. So, probably, did yours. I used to love harmonizing on the songs with my little sister when we were the same age as the lisping tyke who croons, “Gary, Indiana.”
In fact, I suspect most of us know The Music Man, at least a little. What’s frustrating about Arena’s production is that, if you’re not seeing the show for the first time, you’re not likely to know anything more about it coming out than you did going in. That might not be bothersome in a commercial production, but at Arena it spells, uh...trouble, my friend.
Which is not to say director Molly Smith is doing things strictly by the book. She isn’t. She’s dispensed with the overture, given the title character an early moment to stop and hear the bluebirds (presumably so he’ll later understand the lyric “there were birds on a hill, but I never heard them singing”), and instructed costumer Judith Bowden to put the show’s turn-of-the-last-century teenagers in outfits suggesting they’ve just auditioned for River City High’s spring musical, West Side Story.
None of this particularly helps, but neither does it harm a production that, in almost every respect, is admirably sturdy. In Burke Moses, Arena has a whip-smart snake-charmer of a Harold Hill, so constantly recalibrating his band-building sales pitch that he sometimes interrupts himself midphrase, swallowing a syllable or two as a stronger argument occurs to him. Kate Baldwin’s lovely Marian the librarian has a creamy, lilting soprano and a wry way with a skeptical wisecrack. A couple of those audience-engaging old pros I mentioned earlier—John Lescault as a blustery mayor, Donna Migliaccio as an Irish mom—are equally well-cast, as are the town councilmen Hill keeps turning into a barbershop quartet, and the kids who dance up a storm when finally given a chance. And if a joke or two get lost along the way, well, really, who cares.
But what if what’s lost is a rationale for doing the show? Arena is hardly the first regional stage to argue that revisiting a classic Broadway musical can be as rewarding as revisiting Hamlet. Makes sense, assuming a director comes up with a fresh interpretation. And with Oklahoma! in 2010, that’s exactly what Smith did, revivifying a show many had thought irredeemably old-fashioned with cross-cultural casting. With My Fair Lady, which she staged last summer in Stratford, Ontario, and will bring to Arena next season, birds are reportedly her metaphor of choice—the set a series of cages, Eliza a songbird trilling that she wants to “spread my wings” and do a thousand things she’s never done before. These aren’t complicated concepts, but they do bring something new to familiar texts for patrons who’ve seen the shows before.
If Smith means this Music Man to be more than the sum of its previous productions, though, I can’t tell you how. She’s just gotten it up on its feet and dancing—quite fetchingly when Moses squires Baldwin around Eugene Lee’s basketball court of an open set—but without an original thought in its head. It’s pleasant light entertainment, but not very interesting.