Come up and see these sometime

On Broadway, a lovable 'Music Man' and a humane 'Dirty Blonde'

One reason for the continued popularity of Meredith Willson's 1957 musical, The Music Man, is the lovability quotient of its leading character - the traveling rogue, Professor Harold Hill. Given the odds of finding an actor to fill the supersize role, it's no wonder that Craig Bierko, starring as Hill in the current revival on Broadway, has attracted so much attention.

Unknown as a stage actor, Bierko who has a list of films to his credit ("The Thirteenth Floor," "The Suburbans") has made one of the most stunning Broadway debuts in years as the fast-talking, music-hawking con man who gets the citizens of River City, Iowa, to pay the piper - alias Hill.

With a lilt to his eyes and a twinkle in his voice, Bierko's face reflects an expression of permanent delight as each new audacious idea begets another in his fleecing of the gentry. He plays the all-American flip side of Willy Loman, a salesman who thrives under the challenge of hitting the road each day.

Fleet of foot and rippled with humor, the current Broadway production is directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman ("Contact"), who has found the balance between spoofing it and loving it while offering no radical changes. She has adorned the show with gentle surprises, plus some stunning dance numbers that get everyone on stage involved, not just the cartwheel-turning, high-flying Broadway gypsies.

Rebecca Luker as Marian, the librarian, has a gorgeous voice, a throwback to the days of operetta when a full soprano was obligatory for the leading lady. Like Bierko, she can also hoof it - at least under Stroman's coaching - to underline the theme about a community that becomes injected with joy when it learns to sing and dance. Stroman keeps in mind the family aspect of "The Music Man," so there's no suggestion of impropriety, except for some smooching down at the bridge over the river at the edge of town.

Mae West is another unforgettable character, but unlike Professor Hill, she was a real person who invented a larger-than-life persona. Born in 1893, she performed in vaudeville before moving to the stage in plays which she wrote and starred in and films that exploited her forthright attitude toward sexuality. "Come up and see me sometime" is just a sample of one-liners that passed from her lips into theatrical legend.

A new valentine to her legacy, Dirty Blonde, which began Off-Broadway and then moved uptown, is a play-with-music about her life as seen through the eyes of two contemporary fans who have not forgotten her. While the show explores adult attitudes on gender issues that might make some viewers edgy, the story of Jo and Charlie, who find each other through their shared obsession with Ms. West, is so touching that it would be a shame to forgo its human values.

The playwright, Claudia Shear, performs the two leading female roles of Ms. West and Jo. Ms. Shear describes West as a "tough girl," "a straight shooter" who said what she meant and meant what she said. In an era that submerged the attraction between men and women under talk of the birds and the bees, West was upfront with her formula for success.

The three-actor cast - Shear, along with Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman, who portray the platoon of men in Ms. West's life - takes on 22 roles.

The action veers back and forth between modern times and a chronology of West's career. Although West is the subject of the play, its central premise revolves around Jo and Charlie, two lonely people who learn a lesson about making compromises along a bumpy road to happiness.

Julie Taymor was the leading presence in The Green Bird, even though she never came on stage. She is the director and creator of the masks and puppets, giving the production her distinctive stamp of imaginative images. But the show, which closed June 4 after a brief run, faltered because of its off-kilter tone. Instead of the breakthrough visual sweep of Taymor's hit musical, "The Lion King," or the charm of an earlier Taymor undertaking, "The King Stag," one of the most beloved productions of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., "The Green Bird" was loaded with too many of the jokes that set schoolboys to giggling behind closed doors.

"The Green Bird" is a fairy tale, based on Carlo Gozzi's 18th-century play, translated from the Italian by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery. Elliot Goldenthal created the lively musical score, which takes its cue from contemporary pop music as well as the period of Italy's commedia dell'arte clowns, who populate the cast. The problem lay in the updating of Gozzi's fragile work. Coarseness is no novelty in the theater, but the problem is that little of it here was funny.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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