The Music Man
James Caverly as Harold Hill and Adelina Mitchell as Marian in The Music Man at Olney Theatre Center; Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

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

Being no originalist when it comes to 65-year-old musicals—particularly ones that have already cut numbers due to racist depiction of Native Americans—I didn’t notice any problem with Foster’s singing. I had a swell time at the revival. But to say I don’t know the territory (to appropriate one of the show’s running jokes), would be to undersell my non-credentials. I’m no more a musical scholar than Harold Hill, the con-man kiddie band “professor” whose attempt to defraud the hardworking citizenry of River City, Iowa, forms the show’s plot. (In fact, I’d seen Die Hard several dozen times before I realized the quip that something is happening “right here in River City!” was indeed referencing a song from The Music Man.) It turns out the play is a classic of the American stage, revived on Broadway at 20-year intervals ever since it first appeared during the Eisenhower Administration. But to my uneducated eye and unsophisticated ear, the fissile chemistry between Jackman and Foster more than made up for the fact that Foster is, like Christopher Moltisanti before her, not a soprano. 

Populating this venerable crowd-pleaser with two Tony-winning stars did exactly what it was meant to do: rack up massive sales, never mind the tepid reviews. But even allowing for that, some observers wanted to know why the producers (including persona-non-grata Scott Rudin!) didn’t just cast someone who could sing the part in the written key.

If that’s a fair objection, then what are we to make of a Music Man wherein some of the most indelible songs in the musical theater canon are not sung at all? That’s the proposition Olney Theatre Center is offering in its admirable but uneven production featuring a mixed company of deaf and hearing performers.

In the lead role of Hill is deaf actor James Caverly, who had a major role in the Hulu mystery-comedy series Only Murders in the Building last year. He’s the magnetic north of the show, but his singing—in a device that directors Michael Baron (who is hearing) and Sandra Mae Frank (who is deaf) extend to other deaf members of the cast, too—is outsourced to another performer; in this case, Vishal Vaidya. Vaidya also plays the smaller part of Hill’s scofflaw pal 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 got more of him, even though he’s the dude singing “Seventy-Six Trombones!”

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

As for the surrogate singing, you get used to it pretty quickly. Musical theater is the furthest thing from naturalism in the first place, so the notion of some characters having a sort of shadow who expresses their eruptions of emotion tunefully and eloquently while the player who is acting-but-not-singing the role wrestles with their feelings in the clumsy way we all do when we don’t have a songwriter to beautify our thoughts makes aesthetic sense. 

The only problem is the way it clashes with the more conventionally sung roles. As Marian, the wary librarian who discovers Hill’s deceit but falls for him all the same, we have Adelina Mitchell, a hearing actor who sings the role beautifully. (And as a soprano. Be comforted, purists!) She and Caverly make an appealing Beatrice-and-Benedick pair, even if the fact that she’s singing and he’s not makes the show’s emotional peaks feel a bit wanting. “‘Till There Was You” leaves its final refrain unsung in this production, an attempt to underline the show’s catharsis that still feels more anticlimactic than moving it down the scale. It makes the show’s grandest, weepiest love ballad land more like a piece of interstitial music.

Casting deaf actors in both lead roles might have solved this problem. Casting a deaf Marian opposite a hearing Harold would likely have worked better, too. After all, it’s Marian who sees through Hill’s motormouthed evasions, not the other way around. Either Caverly or Mitchell might have been an inspired choice for their role in isolation, and their mutual talent is more than evident, but they’re not a match. It just doesn’t make sense for Marian to register as more boisterous than Hill. And either fix would’ve given Mitchell and the two directors more room to try to do something about Marian’s antiquated characterization. You can sense that Mitchell has more to bring to this hoary character than just making her yet another sad spinster waiting to be rescued from dismal, bookish husbandlessness. But their romance is presented without comment. So be it.

Outside of the central couple, the production channels the same broadly cartoonish view of River City and its people as rubes that some critics have bemoaned in the Broadway version. It isn’t just Rosemary Pardee’s Sunday best circa 1912 costumes that reflect this (though the necktie that Marian wears at one point is a little bit scandalous, I suppose). The supertitles use vernacular spellings like “widda” for widow and “tablow” for tableau. I should warn you this production also commits the cardinal sin of asking actors in their 20s or even older to play small children. Maybe this is ungenerous, but that’s a place where my suspension of disbelief invariably finds itself suspended.

Near 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’s a liar. Caverly nods in shame, pulling out his hearing aids as if to imply they were a part of his charade—even though we’ve been watching him perform in ASL for two-and-a-half hours. The intention here is unclear. Was Hill trying to pass himself off as hearing this whole time? Baron and Frank have brought confusion to The Music Man, which is not the same thing as complexity.

The Music Man, book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson and directed by Michael Baron and Sandra Mae Frank, plays at Olney Theatre Center through July 24. $42–$85.