When Hugh Jackman’s Harold Hill whispers into the impressionable ears of River City whippersnappers, their minds and feet alight. The Music Man, which arrives on Broadway following a two-year delay, likewise hopes to entice an especially receptive crowd, still sating pent-up appetite for seduction, spectacle, and bodies in motion.
The big-ticket production from director Jerry Zaks heaps its wagon with comely and persuasive wares: Marquee stars Jackman and Sutton Foster, whose individual magnetism is so strong, any conflict between their characters seems to defy physics. Meredith Willson’s score of nostalgia triggers so Pavlovian, even Proust would trash his madeleines. And, of course, a wormhole to the core of American ideologies — self-invention, groupthink, the manifest destiny of a man’s libido — with proven staying power.
Whether you’ll pony up for the ride (which ain’t cheap) and gladly tap your feet may depend on how liable you are to be convinced. Are there soothing and satisfying pleasures in familiarity, high voltage, and expert execution? By golly, yes. Will this Music Man’s sweet nothings reveal anything previously unknown about the nature of life, love, or the pursuit of happiness right here in 2022? Egads! No.
The traveling-salesman fable of deception and redemption has been updated so as not to appear out of step — a “shipoopi” is no longer a “hussy” who kisses on the first date, but a man who’s tough to pin down (additional lyrics are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). But The Music Man doesn’t attempt an argument for contemporary resonance, reinvent the wagon wheel, or entirely iron out the logic of its Febreze’d gender politics.
And maybe that’s just as well. After all, the boys in Harold’s band, which he pledges to whip up while lining his pockets with townspeople’s cash, can’t play a note. But their parents are just as pleased with the diversion.
In another way, the production is exquisitely timed, to the heights of its above-the-title talent. Jackman is a charm attack in suspendered slacks, nimble-footed, smooth but not slick, with suave vocals and a smile as assured as a railroad. His Harold makes quick and delectable work of small-town marks, with the exception of one, whose front is harder to crack until it shatters in a heap of impossible dramaturgy.
Foster’s Marian is wry but not cynical, sharp but still tender, a tough shell with a golden, runny heart like an egg. The Anything Goes star brings a precise wit to the role that is relentlessly delightful, attention to detail that buoys Marian’s tenuous modernization here into a woman with some measure more agency (if a soft will). The pair’s chemistry obviates the plot, though it goes a long way toward filling the vacuum of dramatic tension.
Choreography from Warren Carlyle is smartly portioned into knockout numbers — “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Marian the Librarian” — that meet the weight of their anticipation with a vocabulary of movement that’s refined and sensual, playful and fresh. Any effort to resist the virtuosic children in this production, particularly Benjamin Pajak as Marian’s brother Winthrop, would prove a fool’s errand.
The storybook aesthetic of Zaks’ production is appropriate for one that’s been cracked open many times, flipping from one scene to the next with mollifying ease. Designer Santo Loquasto’s set, which toys with flatness and dimension, likewise feels fitting for characters like paper dolls only selectively rendered palpable. Beautifully painted backdrops, which borrow heavily from “American Gothic” artist Grant Wood, depict rural Iowa’s rolling hills and sprawling farms. Laborers are often pictured close at hand.
But Zaks’ production also makes plain (with help from Loquasto’s luxe, embellished costumes) that money doesn’t mean much to the residents of River City, until after it has leapt from their wallets and into Harold Hill’s. Given that The Music Man is a grift, the stakes never get off the ground. It’s another way the production’s lavish attention to surface belies a blithe and curious hollowness.
If American stories are fundamentally about enterprise, the most vivid one on display at the Winter Garden Theatre may be the cost of admission.
Photo credit: Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster, and the company of The Music Man. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)