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REVIEW: Sterling Music Man Marches Back to Town (Channhassen Dinner Theatres)

Winthrop (Hugo Mallaney) receives a brand-new cornet in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s The Music Man, now playing in Chanhassen, MN. Photo by Dan Norman.

You might wonder what a musical written in 1957 has to say about the present day. Then come the famous lyrics – “Ya got trouble – right here in River City!” – and the start of the most famous long con in musical theatre. A fast-talking, trouble-stirring meddler who promises big but ultimately can’t deliver? Ah, yes – ’tis election season!

There are no formal elections in The Music Man, which opened last night at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, but there is a sort of straw poll. More to the point, there was music, and wonderful roses, but you never heard it all until you heard Ann Michels sing “Till There Was You”.

Michael Gruber (as traveling conman Harold Hill) and Ann Michels (as Marian Paroo) in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ The Music Man. Photo by Dan Norman.

Let me walk that statement back. There are many exciting, thrilling musical moments in CDT’s production of The Music Man, but as Michels began that famous song, a whole row of theatregoers leaned forward in their chairs. A lady in the front row put her hand over her heart, and tables waited ensemble on bated breath as she sang of fragrant meadows, dawn and dew, and the enrapturing charm of knowing someone who makes you positively resonate inside.

It’s been almost two decades since CDT last produced The Music Man, a tale set in 1912 Iowa about a conman who hops off a train and snickers a whole town into funding an elaborate music program that he can’t actually direct. If this story was set in 2012, the conman would be cast as the hero, bringing music programs back, but that’s a minor point of trivia. The musical justly won five Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway, including beating out West Side Story for Best Musical, and has been a universal favorite ever since. A revival is even slotted for Broadway this fall, in New York City’s cavernous Winter Garden Theatre; Chanhassen’s more intimate space is a far better environment to experience this send-up and tribute to small town life.

Harold Hill (Michael Gruber) enlisting key stakeholders. Photo by Dan Norman.

While small town life may be famously slow, this show is not. Act I flies by, not so much from the pacing, but because there are no throwaway scenes in this staging by director Michael Brindisi. Establishing songs like “Iowa Stubborn”, often rushed through to get to better-known pieces, roll out with a humorous aplomb that makes you grin and wonder why you didn’t appreciate those songs before. Then the really big production numbers roll out – “Ya Got Trouble”, “Seventy-Six Trombones”, and “Shipoopi”, for example – roll out with an extra-large bang.

This cast is headed by Michael Gruber as Harold Hill and Ann Michels as Marian Paroo. Gruber is in stellar vocal form and shines on the dance floor as well, notably in the tap duet that “The Sadder-But-Wiser-Girl” becomes (Tamara Kangas Erickson choreographed) and “Marian the Librarian”. The pair are backed by an excellent cast, including a stellar Barbershop quartet (John-Michael Zuerlein, Shad Olsen, Aleks Knezevich, and Evan Tyler Wilson) and River City’s executive couple (Keith Rice as Mayor Shinn and Michelle Barber as Eulalie Shinn).

There is a magic in music, but moreso – as the climax of The Music Man tells – in watching children grow and develop through music. This is what gives the show its true emotional heft: watching the characters not in the spotlight smile and beam as the children of River City are swept up and enlivened in the magic. It’s the ensemble that sells the con, and the ensemble that sells this thrilling evening of theatre.


  • For its background research, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres visited Mason City, Iowa – the model for the show’s River City – including its library and other notable settings. No marble dropping was reported.
  • Composer-lyricist-librettist Medetith Wilson was the first person in Mason City to purchase a mail-order flute.
  • The recurring in-show references to piccolos are a nod to the composer and his memoir And There I Stood With My Piccolo, which provided some of the background material for the musical.
  • Wilson composed several successful musicals, notably including The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but his tombstone is inscribed with “The Music Man”.
Charlie Cowell (Jay Albright) throws a few revelations into the plot. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Music Man plays at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Chanhassen, MN through August 2020.

Basil Considine