THE MUSIC MAN
Announced in 2019 and slated to open in 2020, the newest revival of Merideth Willson’s 1957 hit THE MUSIC MAN starring international film, stage and concert star Hugh Jackman, was perhaps the most hyped musical in recent Broadway history. With an opening postponed multiple times because of the pandemic, by the time the show finally opened in early 2022, it was overhyped. And, despite its lavish production, it emerges over-worked, as is its indefatigable leading man.
Director Jerry Zaks - operating with an apparently limitless budget, big names as leads and supporting cast and a huge ensemble (a cast of nearly 40 all together) - presents an eye-popping spectacle of a musical that has become beloved in American pop-culture. The original Broadway production won five Tonys (beating WEST SIDE STORY) and spawned the 1962 movie version.
The tale is well known. Traveling con-man Harold Hill (Hugh Jackman) in 1912 descends on River City, Iowa with the goal to defraud townspeople in investing in a town band for its wayward youth. The local librarian Marian Paroo (Sutton Foster) sees through his act, but he’s smitten by her and, ultimately, she falls for him. In the end, love prevails, Hill sees the righteous path to happiness and the town, in a way, realizes its dream.
Wisely, Zaks doesn’t plumb the darker strains of the American dream buried in this fable, as has been tried by younger, ambitious “wok” directors; we don’t need any more bad news, thank you very much. But, sadly, it doesn’t find the elusive magic in it either. Still, the show relentlessly entertains, and often marvels.
The actors aim to please. Jackman and Foster celebrate their headline appeal, sometimes winking at the audience, kicking through the fourth wall. Foster’s Marian is different; unlike Barbara Cook (the original Marian) and Shirley Jones (the movie Marion), who were sweet on the inside and tough on the outside, Sutton is tough outside and in. Jackman is not only the star, but the engine for the whole show. His performance persona and show-biz determination, in combination with all the spectacle, render thebook not so much a story to tell but a series of scenes on which to mount a musical. If there’s a moment Jackman can dance, he does; it’s an astoundingly energetic performance.
The supporting players are perfectly cast: Jefferson Mays (as Mayor Shinn), Jayne Houdyshell (Mrs. Shinn), Marie Mullen (Marianne’s mother, Mrs. Paroo), and Shuler Hensley (as Hill’s partner- in- crime, Marcellus Washburn) - like Jackman and Foster, Tony winners all - bring plenty of personality to their roles.
Besides Jackman, the real star of the show is the choreography by Warren Carlyle, who choreographed HELLO DOLLY! for director Zaks In 2017. Working with both a complete adult and youth ensemble, Carlyle achieves some jaw-dropping numbers. The dancing, in combination with sparkling orchestrations by the inimitable Jonathan Tunick (who orchestrated most of the original Sondheim musicals) and the Grant Wood-inspired sets and dazzling Technicolor costumes by Santo Laquasto, informs the show’s exhubernace.
The highlight of the show is “Marian The Librarian”. Typically staged as a soft-shoe duet between Hill and Marion, Carlyle explodes the number to an eye-popping, extended routine, including gymnastics and book-tossing acrobatics, in a multi-tiered library with the entire youth ensemble. It’s a tour de force. Other highpoints include “Wells Fargo Wagon” with the full cast that closed Act 1, Jackman’s kinetic “(Ya Got) Trouble in River City” , a boisterous “Shipoopi” in Act 2 with the youth ensemble, and a charming “Gary Indiana” by a young Benjamin Pajak, who plays Marian’s little brother, Winthrop.
Meredith Willson’s lyrical dexterity is on display in the opening number “Rock Island”, arguably Broadway’s first “rap” song, and “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little)" by the women townsfolk.
The show concludes, not surprisingly, with the famous “76 Trombones” which is presented, curiously, as a coda, rather than finale. It’s a rousing, full-throated, full-cast number, which leaves the audience elated, but this reviewer, like the leading man, is exhausted.