February 22, 2022
Review: With a Wink and a Smile, 'The Music Man' Tunes Its Sour Notes
Matthew Wexler READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Who can blame her? Even the pragmatic librarian Marian Paroo (Sutton Foster) is susceptible to the charm of a traveling salesman when embodied by a strapping movie star with a million-dollar smile. Make that nearly�$19 million,�if you count the advance ticket sales to date for the revival of�"The Music Man,"�starring Hugh Jackman. But a toothy grin and a tap-dancing encore do little to catapult this homage to small-town America into the 21st century.
Featuring a book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Wilson, "The Music Man" won six Tony Awards (nudging out "West Side Story" for Best Musical) when it premiered in 1957, and has long been a favorite of high schools and community theaters for its expandable cast of River City, Iowa, town folk. Director Jerry Zaks ("Hello, Dolly!") keeps the tradition alive, casting 21 performers making their Broadway debuts alongside veteran stage performers, including Jefferson Mays (Mayor Shinn), Jayne Houdyshell (Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn), Marie Mullen (Mrs. Paroo), And Shuler Hensley (Marcellus Washburn), among others.
Quality and quantity coincide among the enthusiastic cast, put through their paces by Warren Carlyle's exuberant choreography, making one wonder if River City is actually an Olympic training site. Except for the intentionally stoic "Iowa Stubborn" opening scene, the town's youth tumble, pirouette, and barrel-turn their way around Madison Gymnasium, Madison Library, and Madison Park.
It is the never-seen Miser Madison who spurs contention among River City's bourgeoisie. The deceased business partner of Marian's father bequeathed her the library, causing many a raised eyebrow around town regarding their relationship. But Marian has no interest in entertaining rumors. When Harold Hill rolls into town, peddling musical instruments and uniforms for a boys' band, she's equally as skeptical.
Charisma can go a long way, though, and this Hill has plenty of it. Even though Jackman has the audience in the palm of his hand upon his first appearance, it takes most of the first act for Hill's spell to work on Marian, culminating in a dazzling "Marian the Librarian" choreography sequence with flying library books seemingly launched by Cupid's arrows.
Hill is a hard sell for Foster's Marian Paroo, who forgoes playing the wispy ingenue, instead finding humor and occasional gravitas in Marian's impatience with small-minded small-town gossip and family loyalty that, until now, keeps romance at arm's length. Stepping off the Paroo porch to take center stage and deliver the show's famous ballad, "My White Knight," Foster's anthemic proclamation is counterintuitive to who we know Hill to be:
"All I want is a plain man,
A modest man, a quiet man,
A straightforward and honest man."
Herein lies the unsettling flaw of "The Music Man." Harold Hill isn't a good guy. Sure, he fesses up in the musical's final moments to keep Marion's much-younger brother Winthrop (an adorable Benjamin Pajak) from having a total meltdown, but an admission of guilt when backed into a corner is hardly a moment of redemption. Marian, at the eleventh hour, also coaxes sympathy from a community scammed out of hundreds of dollars, saying, "Surely some of you ought to be grateful to him for what he's brought to River City ,and if so, I should think you'd want to admit it."
Audiences at the performance I attended were grateful indeed, squealing with delight every time Jackman glanced across the orchestra and leaping to their feet after the just-because-we-can tap-dancing encore. Nostalgia in a pandemic-era world can be a formidable panacea, but under the surface, "The Music Man" also echoes modern maladies. "Ya Got Trouble" reverberates with partisan politics in small towns across America; slap an Amazon logo on those Wells Fargo packages in the Act I finale for a commentary on our obsession with materialism; and the ladies of River City dismissal of Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac as "dirty books" is straight from�today's headlines.
With premium seats selling for $699 each, it's easy to remember that "The Music Man" is a commodity as much as it is a creative endeavor. The con is obvious – what you see is what you get. With Jackman and Foster marching to the beat of their own audience-driving drums, the band will play on. How the musical fares upon their departure may leave "The Music Man" irreparably out of tune.
"The Music Man" is playing at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, NYC. Open-ended run. For more information, visit the show's website