Plus, an ideally deployed Rosie O’Donnell, portraying Marian’s one-woman support system of a mom and doin’ an impeccable Irish accent, don’t ya know.
They’ve all been assembled in the Eisenhower Theater for the latest installment of Broadway Center Stage, which is turning out to be a premier addition to the arts center’s programming. The thrice-yearly concert series revives noteworthy musicals for a week of performances: This season, the entries are “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Music Man” and still to come, “The Who’s Tommy.”
Think of it as a musical-theater love-in, rekindling (in many cases) a romance with a show that won an audience member’s heart long ago, or pulling out of the file cabinet a work that a new generation of spectators can meet for the first time. It’s not an effort at reinvention — at least, on the evidence of five respectfully polished productions, not yet. The value here is in the advanced level of these reintroductions: a musical appreciation course, if you will, of an extremely high caliber.
As these are also quick-turnaround productions — two weeks of rehearsals, minimal sets, somewhat pared-down stagings — they are labeled as “concerts.” So don’t be shocked or feel rooked when you spy an actor or two onstage with script in hand. This is by design, and by the union rules of actor engagement. And besides, under the excellent stewardships of director Marc Bruni and music director James Moore, the actors are hands-free 95 percent of the time.
All of this paves the way on this occasion for an evening of warm Broadway tunes and embracing heartland sentimentality, courtesy of composer-lyricist-book writer Meredith Willson, for whom the 1957 “Music Man” was a crowning lifetime achievement. It also won the Tony Award for best musical, over none other than “West Side Story.” And while you can argue into the night with other buffs over the injustice of that decision, you would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge the sublime accomplishment of “Music Man,” with its astonishing rhythmic variation, precision-guided lyrics and fetchingly eternal melodies.
In the person of Mueller, a Tony winner herself for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” there is a Marian the Librarian of superlative gifts. Her renditions here of “Goodnight, My Someone,” “My White Knight” and “Till There Was You” offer justifiable comparisons to the role’s superb originator, Barbara Cook. (Shirley Jones played her in the fine 1962 movie version.) By 2019 standards, the portrait of lovelorn Marian is something of a throwback: O’Donnell gives a giddy account of a mother all but uttering round-the-clock novenas to snare her daughter a mate. But Mueller’s Marian never comes across as prudish, or pitiful, or needing a man to awaken her. She seems her own woman — both before and after there was Harold Hill.
She’s paired here with Lewis, possessed of a classically handsome profile and equally handsome baritone, which gives a unique texture to the boffo sprechstimme of one of the musical’s signature songs, “Ya Got Trouble.” (This in a show that also boasts “The Wells Fargo Wagon” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.”) Lewis’s Harold appears to be more the rake than the flimflamming spellbinder, selling River City on the idea of a boy’s band, and so his sell isn’t as hard as that of the dazzling Robert Preston, who played him both on Broadway and in the film version. This mellower Harold doesn’t steamroll — he insinuates.
Special mention should be made of the puckish Cariani, as Harold’s local confederate, Marcellus, and the risibly vinegary David Pittu, as the anvil salesman who seeks to unmask his deceptive rival. You can never get enough of the close harmonies of the school board quartet made up of Jimmy Smagula, Arlo Hill, Todd Horman and Nicholas Ward, and Cox gives a priceless account of Eulalie Shinn’s addled artistic aspirations, as misguided head of a local women’s movement troupe.
Willson’s love for River City, Iowa — a fictionalized version of his northern Iowa hometown, Mason City — is so apparent in Bruni’s affectionate revival that you’re compelled to a belief that the spirit of America is alive and well. For 2½ hours in the Eisenhower, anyway.
The Music Man, book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Directed by Marc Bruni. Choreography, Chris Bailey; music direction, James Moore. About 2½ hours. $69-$249. Through Monday at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.