76 Trombones and a Simpler Time

”The Music Man” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is nostalgic and innocent in the best and worst ways, but its wholesome jubilee shines through
In the foreground, from left to right: Peggy O'Connell as Mrs. Paroo, Ann Michels as Marian Paroo, Hugo Mulaney as Winthrop Paroo, and Michael Gruber as Harold Hill. Photo by Dan Norman, 2020, at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' The Music Man.
In the foreground, from left to right: Peggy O’Connell as Mrs. Paroo, Ann Michels as Marian Paroo, Hugo Mulaney as Winthrop Paroo, and Michael Gruber as Harold Hill in “The Music Man”

Dan Norman, 2020

Meredith Willson, creator of The Music Man, is the biggest baby to ever be born in Iowa at 14 pounds, six ounces, according to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ writeup on him. He is also the first in his town to receive a mail-order flute. Combine this picture of Midwestern wholesomeness with small-town character sketches and a lying salesman, and you have the gist of CDT’s production of The Music Man, which runs through September 5.

It All Starts With a Plan

Michael Gruber (most recently in CDT’s Mamma Mia! as Harry Head Banger and Jim Hardy in Holiday Inn) plays the leading man, a gregarious and flattering Professor Harold Hill—real name Greg, last name unknown. Harold has rolled into River City, Iowa, his next hit on a list of money grabs. He’s got the formula down pat. Step 1: Stir up concern for the youth. Step 2: Promise to lead a music band to get the boys back on the right track. This, of course, includes ordering instruments, instruction books, and dazzling uniforms. Step 3: Ditch the town and enjoy the profits. Repeat. 

Luckily, he finds an old friend who is willing to help him out with the con (Tony Vierling as Marcellus). But he also faces his most troublesome roadblock yet: Marian the piano teacher and librarian, played by Ann Michels (CDT’s Linda Mason in Holiday Inn). Michels’ Marian is independent and proud, not unlike a 1902-version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She wastes no time shutting down Harold’s attempts to woo her so he can carry on with his scheme. She wastes even less time before investigating who he truly is. I’m sure you can guess what comes next.

Michael Gruber and Ann Michels in "The Music Man" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Photo by Dan Norman.
Michael Gruber and Ann Michels in “The Music Man”

Dan Norman, 2020

A Dreamy Set Brings the Story to Life

The cast and crew pull off this production with their normal aplomb. Costumer Rich Hamson’s muted harvest palette gives way to brighter accents as life is breathed into the town. Tamara Kangas Erickson, on the other hand, adds a more reeling, country feel to her choreography.

Perhaps most innovative is the set by Nayna Ramey. The backdrop is a soft landscape of rolling hills undershot with warm pinks and golds. Across it all is a translucent, white geometric pattern, which echo the various white wood trim decorations on storefronts and house awnings. The whole design gives the musical an airy feel of gazebos and open windows to let out the summer heat. In a particularly dreamy 30 seconds, Richards created waltzing choreography that simultaneously set up the lamp posts and pathways for the footbridge while evoking the promise of romance to come.

The Take Away

Overall, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man is nostalgic and innocent in the best and worst ways. It holds some universal truths: The older generation will always think the next generation is lost; parents will pay to see their children play instruments poorly. It has moments where you laugh at the relatability of it. For example, Willson’s song “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” has the busybody women of River City acting like clucking hens as they gossip over the latest news.

There were times where I thought, “Gee, I wish the only concern we had for teens today is whether or not they read Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bang.” Other parts, however, made me thankful that we have moved forward in time, especially regarding society’s views on women. Songs like “The Sadder-But-Wiser-Girl” and, for all of its gaiety, “Shipoopi” made me raise my eyebrows, and some lines from the hilarious but marriage-minded Mrs. Paroo (Peggy O’Connell) were frustrating to swallow.

Still, when the upbeat songs kick in and propel the cheery plot, it’s easy to see why The Music Man is a classic. This is the fifth time that CDT has performed it, tying with Fiddler on the Roof for the highest number of productions in the theater’s history. As theater choices provide both escapism and insight, reflection and progressiveness, classics like this will continue to contend with the test of time. For now, though, if you want a spirit-filled show that makes a change of heart seem easy, CDT’s The Music Man is a sale as good as gold.

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