Find talented actors, beautiful vocals and bewildering complexity in Olney’s The Music Man

Musical theater purists howled in protest earlier this year when the arrangers of the Hugh Jackman-revival of Broadway headlining The music man dropped the keys to three of the beloved show’s biggest numbers – “Till There Was You”, “Goodnight My Someone” and “My White Knight” – so the second star Sutton Foster could sing them.

Not being original when it comes to 65-year-old musicals, especially those that have already been cut due to racist portrayal of Native Americans, I didn’t notice any issues with Foster’s vocals. I had a great time waking up. But to say that I do not know the territory (to appropriate one of the show’s running jokes), would be to undersell my non-referrals. I am no more a musical scholar than Harold Hill, the “teacher” of the group of child con artists whose attempt to swindle the hard-working citizens of River City, Iowa, forms the plot of the show. (Actually, I had seen die hard dozens of times before realizing the quip that something is going on “here in River City!” actually referred to a song by The music man.) It turns out that the play is a classic of the American stage, revived on Broadway every 20 years since its first appearance at the Eisenhower Administration. But to my untrained eye and untrained ear, the fissile chemistry between Jackman and Foster more than made up for the fact that Foster is, like Christophe Moltisanti in front of her, not a soprano.

Populating that venerable audience with two Tony-winning stars did exactly what it was supposed to do: rack up massive sales, not to mention lukewarm reviews. But even taking this into account, some observers wanted to know why the producers (including persona-non-grata Scott Roudin!) didn’t just pick someone who could sing the part in the written key.

If this is a legitimate objection, what are we to think of a music man where some of the most indelible songs in the musical theater canon are not sung at all? That’s Olney Theater Center’s proposition in its admirable but uneven production featuring a mixed company of deaf and hearing performers.

In the lead role Hill is a deaf actor james caverleywho played a major role in the Hulu crime comedy series Only murders in the building Last year. He’s the show’s magnetic north, but his singing – in a device that the directors Michael Baron (who hears) and Sandra Mae Frank (who is deaf) also extends to other deaf cast members – is contracted to another performer; in this case, Vishal Vaidya. Vaidya also plays the smaller role of Hill’s scofflaw buddy Marcellus, one of the few characters who knows from the jump that Hill is a fraud with bad intentions. Vaidya is warm and compelling enough that I wish we had more, even though he’s the guy singing “Seventy-Six Trombones!”

The 20-member cast performs the show in a mix of spoken English and American Sign Language, with supertitles projected so audiences not fluent in ASL can follow the dialogue. But the scheme for which lines are said, which lines are signed and which lines are said and signed is opaque. It doesn’t seem to be based solely on whether the character being addressed in a given scene is hearing or deaf.

As for the substitute song, you get used to it quite quickly. Musical theater is the furthest thing from naturalism in the first place, so the notion of certain characters having some sort of shadow that expresses their outbursts of emotion with melody and eloquence while the player who plays the part but doesn’t sing it not wrestling with their feelings the clumsy way we all do when we don’t have a songwriter to spruce up our thoughts makes aesthetic sense.

The only problem is how it clashes with the more conventionally sung roles. As Marianthe suspicious librarian who discovers Hill’s deception but still falls in love with him, we have Adelina Mitchell, a hearing actor who sings the role beautifully. (And as a soprano. Rest assured, purists!) She and Caverly make an attractive couple between Beatrice and Benedick, though the fact that she sings and he doesn’t sings makes the show’s emotional peaks a bit insufficient. “Till There Was You” leaves its final chorus unsung in this production, an attempt to underscore the show’s catharsis that feels even more underwhelming than moving it down an octave or two. It makes the show’s grandest, most tearful love ballad feel more like a piece of interstitial music.

Casting of deaf actors both the main roles might have solved this problem. Casting a deaf Marianne in front of a Harold audience would probably have worked better too. After all, it’s Marian who sees through Hill’s powered escapes, not the other way around. Caverly or Mitchell could have been an inspired pick for their role in isolation, and their mutual talent is more than evident, but they don’t match. It just doesn’t make sense for Marian to register as louder than Hill. And either fix would have given Mitchell and the two directors more room to try and do something about Marian’s antiquated characterization. You can sense that Mitchell has more to contribute to this venerable character than just making her another sad bachelor waiting to be rescued from a dismal, bookish husbandlessness. But their idyll is presented without comment. So be it.

Outside of the central couple, the production features the same largely cartoonish view of River City and its people as rubies that some critics lamented in the Broadway version. It’s not only Rosemary PardeeBest Sunday Suits circa 1912 which reflects this (although the tie Marian is wearing at one point is a bit outrageous I guess). The surtitles use vernacular spellings like “widda” for widow and “tablow” for tableau. I must warn you that this production also commits the cardinal sin of having actors in their twenties or even older play little children. It may be ungenerous, but it’s a place where my suspension of disbelief invariably finds itself suspended.

Towards the end of the show, Marian’s deaf brother, winthrop (Christopher Tester, who is old enough to be more convincing in his other role as a member of the River City school board), asks Hill if he is a liar. Caverly nods in shame, removing his hearing aids as if to imply they were part of his charade, even though we’ve been watching him play ASL for two and a half hours. The intent here is unclear. Was Hill trying to pass himself off as hearing all this time? Baron and Frank have caused confusion in The music manwhich is not the same as complexity.

music man, book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson and directed by Michael Baron and Sandra Mae Frank, plays at the Olney Theater Center through July 24. $42 to $85.

Sharon D. Cole