Review | ‘The Music Man’ is an epic letdown

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

It’s a question we’re going to be pondering for a very, very long time: How did the starry, big-budget, eagerly-anticipated Broadway revival of “The Music Man” turn into such a bloated, boring, uninspired, absolutely maddening letdown? 

Seriously, what happened? Is it us? Is it the production? The direction (by Jerry Zaks, who scored big time five years ago with “Hello, Dolly!”)? Has the show itself not aged well? Is it Hugh and/or Sutton? The cringeworthy new lyrics of “Shipoopi”? Or, did we allow the hype to reach such epic heights that it created unrealistic, unmatchable expectations? After all, how many of us spent the long Broadway shutdown dreaming of and pining for this particular production?

Now don’t get me wrong. Meredith Willson’s musical, which premiered in 1957 (and famously won the Tony Award over “West Side Story”) and received a faithful 1962 film version (starring Robert Preston, the original Harold Hill), is an absolutely superb musical comedy – full of musical innovations, hummable tunes, complex characters, tight plotting, and critical analysis of old-fashioned Americana. (That being said, many have recently questioned whether the show is out of place in the current political and cultural environment.)

The revival, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, and featuring a large cast and orchestra, plus splashy sets and costumes and dance choreography, is by no means a train wreck. (It is certain to bring pleasure to many theatergoers – and some of them might even be glad they spent hundreds of dollars on premium-priced tickets.) However, all these individual elements, no matter how luxurious or impressive, do not come together to create the kind of one-of-a-kind alchemy that you find in the greatest productions. (That being said, perhaps over time the production will come together and get better.)

Jackman, who has not appeared in a Broadway musical since “The Boy from Oz” back in 2003, is a superb, triple-threat musical theater performer. But as the consummate con artist and showman Harold Hill, Jackman, Jackman displays little more than peppy cheer and easy charm. You get the sense that he is too busy bearing the weight of the production’s physical demands and the audience’s oversized expectations to be able to fully immerse himself in the character. 

Sutton Foster is plainly miscast. She is about two decades too mature to play Marian the Librarian, an ingenue role, and she does not have the soprano voice for the character’s three romantic ballads, which sound inferior when altered to suit her lower vocal range. In completely reinterpreting the role to suit her comic abilities, she ends up giving a performance that is wired, occasionally captivating, and out of place.

The supporting cast– which includes Tony winners Shuler Hensley, Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, and Marie Mullen, as well as many sunny young performers making their Broadway debuts, including the adorable Benjamin Pajak as Winthrop – is great, but unable to bring cohesion to the production.

One can’t help but look back with envy at the underrated 2000 Broadway revival, directed by Susan Stroman, and starring Craig Bierko and the late Rebecca Luker. That production began with a stunning visual surprise, in which the orchestra materialized onstage, in band uniforms, inside the train car that was then populated by the traveling salesmen. Not one moment in the new Broadway revival of “The Music Man” comes close to matching that kind of ingenuity.

In an unusual move, the producers of “The Music Man” insisted that theater critics attend the production on opening night instead of a pre-opening preview performance. One can’t help but wonder if they had hoped that the critics would get carried away in the excitement of opening night and overlook the production’s problems. Unfortunately, in spite of the sparkling wine at intermission and spotting celebs in the audience, it didn’t work.   

Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, musicmanonbroadway.com.

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