The In-Person Theatre Review: Broadway’s The Music Man
Well, here it is boys and girls, that crisp new revival of Meredith Willson’s corny 1957 musical, The Music Man, coming on strong and slick, just like its leading man, “The Greatest Showman,” Hugh Jackman (Broadway’s The Boy From Oz). It’s the big-ticket item of the Broadway season, with sales and seat prices flying higher than one can imagine at the Winter Garden Theatre. It’s a salesman-like dream, packaging a big movie star with a Broadway darling kicking up their heels in a good ol’ fashioned musical. It’s a guaranteed win-win for Broadway, but the question that hangs in the air is basically, like any salesman, good or bad, would know, “is it really worth the hype?”
I will admit, right off the bat, that I have never taken a full-on shine to this musical, even when I saw it so well done at the Kennedy Center in 2019 with Norm Lewis and the wondrous Jessie Mueller in the two lead roles. I have never watched the 1962 film version of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man in my life, which starred Robert Preston (“Victor Victoria“) and Shirley Jones. The show seems sweet but I never can quite recall, off the top of my head, any of the numerous songs that made it into my obsessional frontmezzjunkies orbit, except of course the iconic “76 Trombones” and I can’t say that song causes my musical mind to go all misty with adoration. I did almost have the chance to march into the town of River City, Iowa, and see the musical when it was produced a few seasons ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. I heard through the theatrical grapevine that the production, starring Daren A. Herbert and Danielle Wade (and, hilariously, my namesake, Steve Ross as the Mayor of River City), was “irresistible” (NOW Magazine), reminded us all of “the joy of the Stratford Festival” (Toronto Star), but I never did, in the end, make it over to River City, via Stratford, Ontario.
I know this could be seen as blasphemy, to admit that I never found my way to be in utter rapture of this all-American musical. It just doesn’t grab hold like some of the other classic ones that find their way back to the Broadway stage, usually (and preferably) when a high-wattage actor gets an inkling to play one of these historic iconic parts and stream rolls the whole show onto the stage. I mean, I get it. Who’d say no to Jackman wanting to star in this, or any classic stage musical for that matter? The idea on its own sells tickets, but I’m not sure I was ever excited by this particular show, regardless of its star, being revived. But here it is, and standing right behind it, ready to usher them all onto that stage, is famed theatrical director Jerry Zaks, just like he did so magnificently with the divine Bette Midler in the much more overall fun revival of that other classic stage show, Hello, Dolly!
No surprise there, and right by his side is the outrageously good choreographer, Warren Carlyle, a craftsman who can’t help but find excitement and precision in every classic show he touches, like She Loves Me and Kiss Me, Kate. He also can find the same in the quiet (and expansive) recesses of the River City library, even when the cast is continually, and adorably shhhh’d. These two pros seem to know exactly what to do to please, particularly with this type of old-fashioned musical and the wildly talented enormous cast that have been pulled together to do their will.
The Music Man does work, just like Bette Midler’s Dolly extravaganza. It sings and struts its stuff with simple strong precision, playing complete homage to Willson’s small-town values quite perfectly while offering up some technically challenging and awe-inspiring upbeat movements guaranteed to make you smile with glee. I mean, that library number and the book tossing that fills the air is just so thrilling and robust that it dazzles. It’s a wonder to take in, just like that acrobatic waiter dance number did so perfectly in Hello, Dolly! It’s one of those theatrical ‘you gotta see it to believe it’ kinda moments that make you happy you’re sitting in your high-priced seat taking it in live and in-person. It just wouldn’t, or shouldn’t be translated for the small streaming screen we got accustomed to since March of 2020.
The production’s dancing and singing truly are a spectacle to behold, with a cast that elevates the material that I think, in general, is perfectly fine and good, but not as magnificent as many suggest. Give or take a few songs, here and there, many of the numbers feel like fun exercises in construction, but few really take advantage of the star power on stage other than the mechanics of good singing and charm. Hugh has that in spades, but beyond that, he and triple-threat Sutton Foster (Broadway’s Anything Goes) as the stern librarian Marian, are almost wasted. Almost, but not completely.
Foster’s Balzac frown, as she sees through this salesman’s charm, is as adorable as when she flips that frown upside down and starts liking that man who found a way to make her young brother smile. Her singing is absolutely lovely, not surprisingly, and her connection to all around her is completely endearing. Also not surprisingly. Her “Goodnight, My Someone” will fill you up fully, as with her duet with Jackman near the end of the show when love conquers all and everyone sings a happy tune. “Till There Was You” is sweet and delicious, but not the greatest challenge, I imagine, for any of these high-end performers. But it is appealing to skip along with them for a little more than two hours, smiling it all in while singing, “Gary, Indiana” out the door into the streets of New York City.
Standing alongside these two twinkling stars, the rest of the cast is perfection in diction, dance, and their attention to detail. The gossip ladies of the town (Linda Mugleston, Garrett Long, Jessica Sheridan, and Rema Webb) and their nonsense singing weave their way magnificently in and around one another like pro-hens. As fantastic as that barber quartet’s sublime harmonies and connection (Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich). But where is that moment when Jackman and Foster really can unpack and vocally shine, beyond exhibiting great chemistry and charm? I just don’t think this show has it inside itself to offer up anything beyond what is delivered here so reasonably.
The glorious costumes against that pretty but somewhat flat set design, both by Santo Loquasto (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh), with lighting by Brian MacDevitt (Broadway’s Carousel) and sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird), deliver the goods as pretty and cute as the “Wells Fargo Wagon.” That number arrives into town pulled by some gallant hoofers spruced up to resemble the horses that pulled Dolly’s trolley car. All to the sighing sounds of an audience’s sweet approval. This is the epitome of vintage class act Broadway, ushered in with polish and pizazz, but it somehow feels borrowed and a bit blue. Which left me smiling but not exactly dazzled nor as gloriously uplifted as I’m thinking those producers were hoping for.
It does make perfect sense though that Jackman wanted his Broadway resume to include Harold Hill, the iconic charmer, slick salesman, and bold conman stranger. It’s effortless fun, this part, riding into town and sweeping (almost) everyone off their feet without ever breaking a sweat, including the mayor’s wife played to hilarious perfection by the always incredible Jayne Houdyshell (Broadway/Showtime’s The Humans). She and her fellow “Pick-a-little” ladies are a welcome joy to behold, but her husband, Mayor Shinn, portrayed lovingly by the very funny Jefferson Mays (Broadway’s Oslo), just isn’t as easily hooked, even as his bumbling buddies continually get distracted by Hill’s focused refocusing the crew on their own stellar voices.
Shuler Hensley (Signature’s Sweet Charity) as Marcellus, Marie Mullen (Broadway’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane) as Mrs. Paroo, newcomer Benjamin Pajak as the young sweet and sad Winthrop Paroo, and the cute as a button Kayle Teruel making her Broadway debut as the piano-playing Amaryllis, all find their moment to shine bright, with a wink and a smile. It’s pretty much a slam dunk, given that this charmer of a book, written by Willson (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) who also wrote both the music and lyrics with a story co-written by Franklin Lacey (Pagan in the Parlor), is a class act. Or never pushes any envelope too far. Rather it is happy just putting a smile on your face throughout your time spent in Willson’s River City, Iowa.
But let’s not forget to mention all those wonderfully talented ensemble players, particularly the magnificently talented Gino Cosculluela (Netflix’s Senior Year) as bad-boy Tommy Djilas, who could basically sweep pretty much anyone off their feet with his finely skilled moves and charming smile. The only disappointment, in regards to casting, is that sitting idly backstage is the equally impressive, fantastically talented Max Clayton (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge) who is Jackman’s understudy and sadly, nothing else in the show. I had hoped he’d be on stage somewhere somehow playing some part, and not just waiting for his chance to shine as Harold Hill. But no such luck. I get it though. It’s a huge responsibility and undertaking for Clayton, one I’m sure he is taking very seriously, but it is quite the pickle to hope for an understudy’s arrival on to the stage, as it would mean Jackman had to stand down. But here’s hoping he’ll get his moment to shine in the part, maybe when Jackman wraps up his run and takes his final bow. One can hope. Now the question. “Will I want to go back to see it?“
Regardless, the gullible River City townsfolk con runs smoothly forward, thanks to Hugh’s wide-eyed wonderment, prancing out all those well-known “Seventy-Six Trombones” songs effectively and meticulously well done, thanks to the fine work of Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and Patrick Vaccariello (music supervisor/music director). But I can’t quite shake the idea that this salesman con is also a bit on us. “Ya Got Trouble”, yes, in River City, but also, maybe on Broadway, if the star-power of its cast is more high-voltage than the artistry of the show, even when all the theatrical elements, including the dancing, are first-rate. Where’s the creativity and inventiveness? I’m not sure I see it here in this revival.