Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 17, 2022
The Music Man. Book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair, wig, and make-up design by Campbell Young Associates. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Vocal and dance arrangements by David Chase. Music supervision and direction by Patrick Vaccariello.
On second thought, maybe you should hang on to them for the next revival. Because this one kind of falls flat, like a leaky hot-air balloon that bounces along the ground a bit but never quite becomes airborne. Not what anyone expected from this much-hyped, much-anticipated production with a pair of big-name stars on hand to lead the big parade.
But this is the sad truth of it, despite Meredith Willson's seemingly foolproof blend of romantic storyline and musical score that has been an embedded piece of Americana ever since its first Broadway production in 1957.
Surely you already know the plot, but in case you should need a reminder, The Music Man is about a traveling salesman by the name of Harold Hill, who, as the old saying goes, could sell ice to an Eskimo. Hill's specialty is going from town to town, charming folks into buying band instruments and uniforms, all based on his false promise that he will establish a boys' band to give the young'uns a wholesome activity to engage in. Up to now, he has always managed to escape ahead of the tar-and-feather brigade that comes looking for him when everyone realizes they have been bamboozled and are now stuck with a pile of drums, horns, glockenspiels, and fancy duds, all useless because there is no one around who knows what to do with them. Hill, of course, knows nothing about music himself. Turns out, he also knows precious little about the power of love until he meets up with Marian Paroo, the librarian and piano teacher in the town of River City, Iowa, where the show takes place way back in 1912, shaped by Willson's loving memories of his own Iowa upbringing.
Here is a show that offers no surprising twists and turns. No one needs them. No one wants them. What we want is to take a deep dive into the nostalgia of a beloved musical that we remember from seeing it on stage (my own first encounter was in 1960 during the national tour that starred Forrest Tucker in the title role), performing in it in high school, listening to the original cast recording with the sublime pairing of Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, or watching the movie, with Preston again, this time coupled with Shirley Jones.
The previous and well-received Broadway revival opened in 2000, so certainly it is not too soon for this new production. To sweeten the pot and to draw in an even larger audience than those carried to the box office by their own fond memories, what could be better than to find the perfect lead for the role of Harold Hill, con artist extraordinaire? Enter Hugh Jackman, Wolverine himself, who, in addition to movie stardom, has a well-earned positive reputation and two Tonys for earlier stage performances. Audiences love him, and how he can sell tickets!
Bear with me for a moment as I recall the last time Jackman performed on Broadway. That was back in 2014, in Jez Butterworth's poetic puzzler of a play, The River. I rather liked it, although I can understand why Jackman fans, expecting a rock star presence, were disappointed in the way he quietly focused on portraying his character instead of making it the Hugh Jackman Lovefest Show. Even more, I was taken by the gracious way in which he allowed his co-performers to shine without upstaging them in any way.
Fast forward to The Music Man. If there ever was a role that seemed tailor-made for Hugh Jackman Superstar, that would be Harold Hill, someone who you understand on sight how it is he can swoop into a town of stubborn and recalcitrant Midwesterners, sweet talk them out of their hard-earned money, and win the heart of the most resistant and savvy woman around. Yet here is Jackman, doing as he did in The River, deferring repeatedly to the other cast members. Right for The River. Wrong for The Music Man. In this production, Harold Hill could almost be just another Iowan farmer, though with more lines and more songs. Who could imagine "Seventy-Six Trombones" coming off as a dull throwaway?
Sadly, you cannot ignore the character of Harold Hill. Like "Where's Waldo," he's here, there, and everywhere. But fortunately, you also cannot have Harold without Marian, and what a relief it is to find Broadway's much-loved Sutton Foster filling those shoes.
There are several standouts among the rest of the cast. I'm loving Jayne Houdyshell as the mayor's wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn; she is a fearless actress who will take on anything and give it her all, including embracing the silly haughtiness of this role. And three cheers to the delightfully entertaining barbershop quartet (Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich), to young Benjamin Pajak as Marian's little brother Winthrop, and to Marie Mullen as Marian and Winthrop's mother. The younger cast members are all terrific dancers, but I will give a special nod to the tremendously energetic and acrobatically gifted Gino Cosculluela as the town's "juvenile delinquent" Tommy Djilas. And while I am handing out praise, let me say that William Carlyle's choreography for the "Marian the Librarian" scene is thrilling.
But individual performances and special moments aside, this is a production that never coalesces into a single solid show. I have to ask, what was four-time Tony winning director Jerry Zaks trying to achieve as he was preparing to take on the love fest that is The Music Man? He's shown us he is more than capable of pulling off classic musicals with big-name stars; remember a little thing called Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler? And while we are raising questions, where did four-time Tony winning set designer Santo Loquasto come up with the idea of stretching a little visual joke about Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic" into the overall, unimaginative design of backdrops based on Wood's art, especially since Wood was producing his work in the 1930s, two decades after the musical takes place?
I would not label The Music Man an unmitigated disaster. There's too much talent and good will at work here to say that. But a disappointment? Definitely. Maybe The Music Man just needs to make its permanent home within the world of community and regional theaters, traveling from town to town like Harold Hill and winning hearts everywhere but on Broadway.