By: David Sheward
February 23, 2022: The question on every theater fan’s mind for two years has been: Will the highly anticipated revival of The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s beloved 1957 tribute to chicanery, Americana, and apple pie, be worth all the hype? The production, helmed by the magic-touch showman Jerry Zaks (the Bette Midler Hello, Dolly) and starring two of Broadway’s most charismatic, Tony-winning stars, Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, was slated to open just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters around the world. The production is dazzling and enjoyable and does what it’s supposed to do: keeps the audience enraptured and brings them to their feet in response to a heart-tugging curtain call featuring a bubbly cast in Santo Loquasto’s snazzy parade-wear costumes performing Warren Carlyle’s fizzy, show-bizzy choreography.
And yet (yes, there is an “and yet”), this is not a perfect Music Man. The problem is with the two leads. Both Jackman and Foster are consummate triple-threat professionals, capable of creating believable, relatable characters who can sing like birds and dance like angels, all while not seeming to be musical comedy stars giving a performance. While Jackman hypnotizes with his showmanship and magnetic attraction, he fails to explore the darker, slippery side of Harold Hill, the titular con artist bent on swindling the citizens of 1912 River City, Iowa by posing as a band leader. This Hill is a good guy from the get-go who never transforms from heel to hero.
Foster, on the other hand, makes Marian, the skeptical cynic Hill falls in love with, into a complex character. She carefully charts Marian’s journey from prudish scold to sensuous, tolerant semi-accomplice in Hill’s scheme. Every choice is clear on her eloquent features from her initial disdain for Harold’s slick advances to realizing he might do the town some good to finally winning him over to her vision of domesticity. Both stars display exquisite musical talents executing Zaks’ precise staging and Carlyle’s polished dance steps, but only Foster endows her side of the equation with an emotional dimension and a sexual spark. When she agrees to meet Harold at the foot bridge before he lams it out of town, it’s clear she’s willing to go “all the way” with him and she has no regrets. For her multi-level performance, this production should have renamed Marian the Librarian.
This imbalance will probably not lessen the enjoyment of the show for the vast majority of ticket-holders. If they do notice, it will not detract from the otherwise magnificent job done by Zaks and Carlyle in creating a homey picture of middle America as envisioned by Willson and in staging Willson’s cornucopia of delightful standards including “Ya Got Trouble,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” and an exhilarating “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Loquasto’s folksy, Grant Wood-inspired sets add to the nostalgic atmosphere.
Audiences will no doubt also not mind the mostly cartoonish work done by the supporting cast. Marie Mullen, normally an actress of perception in Irish plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the film version of Dancing at Lughnasa, gives a clownish turn to Marian’s doting mother. The usually versatile Jefferson Mays’ buffoonish mayor is a one-note joke. Shuler Hensley’s Marcellus, Hill’s good-natured henchman, fails to register beyond helping the plot along. On the plus side, Jayne Houdyshell as the mayor’s pompous, artistically-inclined wife, creates a character with subtext, aided by Loquasto’s clever costumes. Gino Cosculluela displays exciting dance skills as the rebellious Tommy and Benjamin Pajak avoids cloying kiddie cliches as Marian’s introverted little brother Winthrop.
While this may not be the perfect Music Man, it’s joyful enough to bring a much-needed lift to a beleaguered and battered Broadway and should bring in audiences for years to come. But, at nearly $700 for a top ticket, it’s a big ask during a stressed economy. Yet like the citizens of River City, Broadway patrons will gladly fork their ducats over and they shouldn’t feel cheated.
The Music Man Opened Feb. 10 for an open run. Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway, NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission. $99—$699. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Julieta Cervantes