Broadway Review: THE MUSIC MAN (The Winter Garden Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on February 24, 2022

in Theater-New York


“Oh, there’s nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you, when we treat you, which we may not do at all” sing the taciturn and straight-shooting citizens of River City, Iowa, shortly after the curtain rises on Meredith Willson’s classic Americana musical The Music Man. And there’s nothing halfway about the expertly done revival of this surprisingly dark cautionary tale, currently casting its spell over excited audience members at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City. From its gorgeous production design, spot-on casting, exuberant choreography, superbly talented dancing ensemble, principal actors both riotous and moving, and Willson’s familiar yet still-beautiful score, this revival would be welcomed in any county or territory it decided to visit (the titular character’s underlying purpose to grift and cheat notwithstanding).

Maybe because it’s become a staple of high school drama departments in the intervening years since its initial 1957 Broadway run, but it’s easy to forget just how well written this story is. Authored by Willson and Franklin Lacey, the show is solidly constructed and reveals character and plot in entertaining and justified ways. It also offers a clear-eyed warning about accepting evil into one’s midst, no matter how pleasing its shape. And, finally, it optimistically believes that there’s good in everyone, even the worst of us, and that anyone can be reformed through non-judgment, understanding and, perhaps, a little love.

But then there’s that evil bit. The main character, Harold Hill, is not a nice man, to say the least. Posing as a travelling salesman, he goes from town to town, grifting unsuspecting citizens of the American mid-west out of their hard-earned money, then quickly skips town under cover of darkness — leaving angry citizens and a few brokenhearted young women in his unfeeling wake. As the show begins, this handsome and charming con artist blows into River City, Iowa ready to pull yet another grift but meets his match in town librarian Marian Paroo, a super-smart and no-nonsense young woman. Marian sees through his ruse very quickly but voluntarily keeps his secret because of the inadvertently positive effect she perceives that Hill’s false promises are having on the townspeople in general, and on her troubled little brother Winthrop in particular. And maybe, just maybe, Hill’s spell-binding double-talk is also inadvertently softening her own emotionally shut-down and very lonely heart?

As the buttoned-up Marian Paroo, Broadway star Sutton Foster shines. To use some old-timey phraseology (apologies to Mayor Shinn) Marian seems to be a role that Ms. Foster was born to play. Her Marian is a multi-faceted human being, not a one-dimensional drudge. With her vocals in top form, Foster delivers a poignant portrait of a young woman struggling in difficult circumstances to fulfill her many responsibilities, while still trying to nurture her more wistful, romantic and hopeful side. Foster hits all the required comic and dramatic beats and then some. She also makes it clear that her Marian is quite intelligent and has full agency in the actions she takes. When she finally reveals to Hill that she basically had his number all along, but still let him do his thing because of the good she saw for the town and herself, it is a satisfying moment of triumph for both Marian and the audience.

A few of the other roles are also filled with Broadway favorites from a hilarious Jayne Houdyshell as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn the mayor’s wife to Shuler Hensley as Hill’s now reformed partner in crime Marcellus to Jefferson May’s bumbling but no dummy Mayor Shinn to Phillip Boykin’s comical yet officious Olin Britt, schoolboard member. All deliver thoughtful, humorous moments as does the remainder of this very talented cast. And the dancing ensemble made up mostly of children and teenagers is excellent – no doubt a few future stars will rise from their hard-working ranks. And special mention must be made of Benjamin Pajak as Winthrop Paroo. Young Mr. Pajak has the confidence and stage presence of a much older performer and is so very compelling and poignant in his role as the lisping, introverted, unhappy Winthrop.

And those coming to see Movie and Broadway Star Hugh Jackman will not be disappointed. In the role of Professor Harold Hill, Jackman sings, dances, does comedy, does drama, is handsome, sexy and oh so likeable. The challenge is that Harold Hill is not really likeable. In fact, he’s quite the jerk. The play’s text is very clear about who this man actually is. However, Jackman shies away from showing any of Hill’s more manipulative, malignant side. This characterization choice softens Hill’s ultimate redemption in the play and throws the entire production slightly out of whack. And robs the audience of the experience of also getting hoodwinked by Hill’s seduction only to realize that it’s all a lie and feel for the unsuspecting characters onstage. That said, Jackman is entertaining and, once again, proves himself a Star. Just not sure if he’s also Harold Hill.

Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks’ direction is confident and effective. Choreography by Warren Carlyle pays homage to the original staging but also infuses the show with today’s athleticism and physicality. His choreography of the first act appearance of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” with the town’s kids embodying musical phrases that grow and build, is particularly impressive. The cartoonish color scheme and slightly stylized physical surroundings and costumes by expert designer Santo Loquasto help lift the show into a sparkling, semi-heighted reality. All other production departments are well-represented and deliver admirably.

The Music Man is a crowd pleasin’ night out. Instead of spoonin’ at the footbridge, maybe bring your sweetie on down to the Winter Garden Theatre. As those stubborn yet endearing citizens of River City, Iowa would say, “You really ought to give Iowa a try.”

photos by Julieta Cervantes

bottom photo by Joan Marcus

The Music Man
Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway
open run
for tickets, visit Music Man on Broadway

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