It’s obvious to everyone in the theater world that, as Broadway has battered its way through the latest coronavirus surge, the business could use a shot in the proverbial arm.
The highly, if not ecstatically, anticipated revival of “The Music Man” — pandemic-delayed and pandemic-plagued — was the obvious, if not the only, candidate to bring a jolt of much-needed excitement to the business. More’s the pity, then, that this undeniably polished production, with its ticket-sales-galvanizing star, Hugh Jackman, proves to be a sadly mechanical, overproduced and overdesigned revival of a musical that needs tender care to allow its undeniable charms to bloom.
Even when it was first produced, in 1957, the musical was patted on the head as being a quaint bit of Americana, its best musical Tony over the more forward-looking “West Side Story” to this day seeming a bit eyebrow-raising. It does not appear in some major anthologies of the best American musicals.
But the musical, with book, music and — most importantly — lyrics by Meredith Willson, does in fact have the grit of permanence embedded within it. For while its tale, of a lovable con man who falls for a love-averse librarian, might seem a rom-com cliché, Willson’s startling ingenuity in using lyrics to create music, and using lyrics to create character, were radical for the time, as they are radical now. (The last time I reviewed it, I noted that Willson had, in a very different way, both channeled Gilbert and Sullivan and prefigured rap.)
Certainly the new production, directed by Jerry Zaks, doesn’t give short shrift to Willson’s wonderfully coruscating lyrics. For the most part, they come through, even in the huge Winter Garden Theatre, with delightful precision. But what’s missing from this production is that elusive thing, the beating heart of a musical that is fundamentally a love story. Instead, there is a lot of busy stage business.
Jackman, needless to say, is a phenomenally talented and charismatic actor. As Harold Hill, the seller of band instruments and leader of the (fake) band he creates before stealing out of town, Jackman is, as always, a stage wonder. But here his magnetism and dynamism, not inconsiderable heaven knows, get tripped up.
It’s true that words are at the core of the role. Robert Preston, who originated it, was not by any means a great singer, or indeed a singer at all. But Jackman has certainly established himself as a musical theater artist of some renown (his “Oklahoma!” in London remains a major highlight in my memory). Here, unfortunately, his singing is consistently off-pitch and metallic. More disappointingly, he seems to be aiming his performance at the audience like a blazing torchlight, in a way that ill suits an artist of his caliber.
This may be in part the fault of Zaks, who seems determined to turn every one of the show’s more lively numbers — “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Shipoopi,” “Marian the Librarian” — into an audience-rousing, applause-generating machine. The choreography by Warren Carlyle is superb, but, as with the production’s elaborate set and costume designs, at a certain point overkill sets in. The sets, by Santo Loquasto, are inspired by Grant Wood (the backgrounds, anyway, although there is also an “American Gothic” visual gag), but are overly lavish. The gym looks like a training area for Olympic potentials. Loquasto’s costumes are flagrantly, even vulgarly, overdone.
As Marian, who despite her stern ideals falls for Harold, Sutton Foster sings beautifully, albeit (as has been noted) in lower keys than are traditional. She dances up a dazzling storm. But what’s sorely missing from her performance is the vulnerability — and tenderness — that contrast with Marian’s erudition and righteousness. In attempting to make Marian a more independent-minded woman (the revival sensibly uses the more lyrically dense version of “My White Knight” to connect Marian’s love of words with Harold’s verbosity), Foster and Zaks have rendered her a sort of zombie: At first a chilly automaton, and then…a melted automaton, struck by love.
Among the supporting cast, Jayne Houdyshell as the mayor’s wife fares significantly better than the also-estimable Jefferson Mays, who, in accord with the overall production, is a bit louder than he needs to be. Marie Mullen as Mrs. Paroo strikes just the right note, wry but warm.
Certainly this production is the work of first-rate theater artists. But despite their efforts, there is a fatal lack of chemistry, that admittedly vague and undefinable element, in this revival — between the two leads, regrettably — but also in the whole shebang, as I expect Iowans would say.
Review photo: Julieta Cervantes
Creative: Book by Meredith Willson; Music by Meredith Willson; Lyrics by Meredith Willson; Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey; Directed by Jerry Zaks; Choreographed by Warren Carlyle; Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto; Costume Design by Santo Loquasto; Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Hair and Wig Design by Luc Verschueren and Campbell Young Associates.
Producers: Barry Diller, David Geffen, Kate Horton and Fictionhouse; Associate Producer: Rashad V. Chambers.
Cast: Sutton Foster, Hugh Jackman, Remy Auberjonois, Gino Cosculluela, Emma Crow, Shuler Hensley, Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen, Nick Alvino, Jordan Beall, Ronnie S. Bowman Jr., Phillip Boykin, Audrey Cardwell, JT Church, Kammie Crum, Aydin Eyikan, Carlee Flanagan, Ethen Green-Younger, Curtis Holland, Eddie Korbich, Eloise Kropp, Ethan Lafazan, Kayla LaVine, Garrett Long, Drew Minard, Sean Montgomery, Linda Mugleston, Benjamin Pajak, Tanner Quirk, Lance Roberts, Ann Sanders, Jessica Sheridan, Sherisse Springer, Kayla Teruel, Mitchell Tobin, Daniel Torres, Nicholas Ward, Rema Webb and Branch Woodman.