Hugh Jackman dazzles as Professor Harold Hill, the charismatic con man who fires up an entire Midwestern town, in this abso-tootin’-lutely smashing revival of Meredith Willson’s adorably corny 1957 musical “The Music Man.”
Tired of COVID and lockdowns and dining in street gutters? Yearning for the pre-pandemic days when masks were something you only wore to Mardi Gras parties? Then grab your coat, get out of the house and lose your cares at this totally enchanting show. Trust me — it will give you new life.
Willson’s gem of a musical gets a fresh shine from director Jerry Zaks’ great-big-Broadway-show treatment. The cast is huge and hugely talented, the sets and costumes are an eyeful, and the stage effects are cleverly inventive. Take the highly anticipated arrival in River City, Iowa, of the Wells Fargo Wagon, a hometown spectacle which introduces us to that legendary con man, Harold Hill, in the irresistible flesh. Like the show itself, the scene is vintage Broadway, but gussied up in grand, glorious style.
As embodied by Jackman, Harold Hill is the fabled stranger who boldly bursts into town and bowls over its innocent citizens with his captivating but heartless charms. The winsome book, written by Willson (who also penned both music and lyrics) with a story co-written by Franklin Lacey, reveals Harold’s scam: to con the gullible townsfolk of River City into shelling out their hard-earned cash for musical instruments they can’t play — on the promise that this fraudulent “music man” will teach them. (Cue “Seventy-Six Trombones,” which raises the roof.)
As the story (and the immortal ditty “Ya Got Trouble”) goes, Harold convinces these rubes that sin — in the form of the popular pool hall — will corrupt their idyllic town. To save their souls, Harold will graciously sell the town a bunch of musical instruments so they can outwit the devil by forming their own marching band.
It’s a role made for Jackman, a song-and-dance man who can also act up a storm and — wonder of wonders — play a convincing lover. This is also a heavy dance show (the huge cast is a big hint) and it’s great to see a leading man who can keep pace with the dance ensemble.
Only Marian Paroo, the local librarian and music teacher, can save the besotted town from its infatuation with Harold. A true hometown honey in Sutton Foster’s captivating performance, this modest heroine is vibrant and charming in “Marian the Librarian” but Foster’s take on “Goodnight, My Someone” will melt your heart.
Marian is clear-eyed enough to see through Harold’s wily spiel. But if he should win her heart, will she have the gumption to expose him for the scoundrel that he is? (We know he’s a cad, because he brags about it in “The Sadder but Wiser Girl,” a killer of a song that Jackman attacks with unabashed relish.) Not to give away the plot, but “Till There Was You,” the gorgeous duel sung by Foster and Jackman, pretty much settles the matter.
That leaves us with the locals, whose characterizations are genuinely warm and affectionate and thankfully free of condescension. Quaint as it sounds, Willson did not write this show with tongue in cheek. He genuinely loved Mason City, the little Iowa town where he grew up. This musical is his heartfelt love letter to his hometown and to the folks who lived by its staunch Midwestern values back in the early days of the 20th century when he was still a country lad.
“Innocent, that was the adjective for Iowa,” Willson once said. “I didn’t have to make anything up for ‘The Music Man.’ All I had to do was remember.” What he remembered were the county fairs and the Sunday church picnics and the occasional fast-talking traveling salesmen, like those slick-suited drummers — and occasional charming scoundrels like Harold Hill — who ride the rails from town to town on the Rock Island railroad line, bringing a bit of excitement to Mason City, Iowa. “Rock Island,” which opens the show, is wonderfully staged (on a train, of course) and performed with verve by Remy Auberjonois and his salesmen cronies.
The immense cast makes it feel as if an entire town were on stage, especially in the full-scale dance numbers. The sheer scope of it all validates the strong presence of cute little children in adorable costumes. Although often deadly to theatrical norms, these kids are little dynamos and really well directed. (No child handlers are credited in the program, but I’ll bet that life backstage is pretty lively.)
Tops among this disciplined gang is Benjamin Pajak, who is a little marvel as Winthrop Paroo, Marian’s kid brother. Even in a great big show like this, Zaks clears the room for a quiet and very sweet fishing scene beautifully underplayed by Pajak and Jackman.
The secondary characters are played by performers who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but refrain from patronizing the locals as yokels. Jefferson Mays is a fine comic blusterer as Mayor Shinn, but even a kiddo like Kayla Teruel, who plays one of Marian’s music students adorably named Amaryllis, owns the stage for her brief turn in “Piano Lesson.”
Warren Carlyle, a choreographer who revels in period dance (“Kiss Me, Kate”), knows what to do with this enormous cast. More gratifying still, he’s respectful of Willson’s old-fashioned values. The lavishly staged dances are so very robust, so very upbeat, so very American, they perfectly capture the energy, the innocence and the hope of this pre-war generation.
Santo Loquasto, wise in the ways of big mainstream musicals, designed the uncluttered sets and divine period costumes. And though his costumes are meticulously detailed (love the pointy-toed shoes!), they also work for dancing.
The designer outdoes himself on dressing Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the sheriff’s stagestruck wife played like a trouper by Jayne Houdyshell. Smitten with the razzle-dazzle showbiz style that Professor Hill has introduced to her sleepy town, the silly old dear fancies herself a diva and swans around in the designer’s most outlandish costumes (The flounces! The feathers! The shoes!) without losing her dignity.
Flounces, feathers and fancy shoes are a distinct theme of these amusing costumes. They’re faithful to the slim lines and bustled bottoms of the turn-of-the-century period, but the fabrics are rich and gorgeously patterned, and the shoes (not much heel but lethally pointed) are out of this world.
One last word, and it’s about the children: By all means, take your kids. You’ll be raising a brand new generation of theater lovers.