When con man Howard Hill arrives by train to River City, Iowa, it’s to swindle the townsfolk with promises of forming a marching band that will keep their kids out of trouble and away from the pool hall. But instead of taking off with the money they advanced him for their instruments, lessons, and uniforms, the disreputable traveling salesman unexpectedly brings the joy of music and community to the previously dour population, while also finding love and redemption there.
Set in 1912, the Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s 1957 Tony Award-winning musical-comedy classic The Music Man, playing a highly anticipated pandemic-delayed open-ended run at the Winter Garden Theatre, brings the nostalgia of old-fashioned Americana, a score full of beloved standards, and the spectacle of big production numbers delivered by a diverse all-ages ensemble of nearly four dozen, led by the bankable names of multiple award winners Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, to current audiences and long-time fans.
Under the direction of Jerry Zaks, Jackman creates a more understated and, consequently, less compelling characterization of Hill (notable in the famed “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones”), which lacks the aggressively sly and self-assured charisma embodied in the iconic portrayal by Robert Preston, who originated the role on Broadway and reprised it in the 1962 film adaptation. And Sutton, as his antagonist-turned-love-interest Marian Paroo, captures the old-time cornpone humor of the stubborn single hold-out for the right “someone,” but doesn’t consistently achieve the fluidity of dance or expressive soaring heights of the vocals required of the role (most notably in Marian’s climactic solo on “Till There Was You”).
What makes the new period-piece production a must-see is the vitality of the featured cast and full company in the show’s blockbuster song-and-dance numbers (choreographed by Warren Carlyle), opening with an immediately engaging rendition of “Rock Island,” which has a group of traveling salesmen bouncing up and down in their seats to the motion of the train, while melodically discussing the guileful Hill, who could damage the reputation of the entire profession. Among the other highlights of the show are the gossiping ladies’ “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” (well performed by Linda Mugleston, Garrett Long, Jayne Houdyshell, Jessica Sheridan, and Rema Webb); the perfectly synchronized book-tossing in “Marian the Librarian” (by Jackson, Foster, and an ensemble of kids); the amusing dance showcase “Shipoopi” (with reworked lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that eliminate the dated sexist tone); and the masterfully harmonic barbershop quartet interludes (by Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich).
Also noteworthy are Marie Mullen’s performance as Marian’s concerned mother, Mrs. Paroo, and the standout dancing of Gino Cosculluela as the town bad boy Tommy. The show’s top-notch vintage-style artistic design is likewise a treat. Costumes by Santo Loquasto evoke both the era and the personalities of the characters, as does the set, also by Loquasto, inspired by the Midwestern Regionalism of Iowa-based painter Grant Wood (1891-1942), which comes to life on stage in a brief (but anachronistic) tableau vivant of his best-known work, American Gothic, of 1930. And be sure not to miss the animatronic horse drawing a Wells Fargo wagon in the distant hills of the background – one of the many delights in this revival of one of the greatest American classics in musical-theater history.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.
The Music Man plays through Sunday, January 15, 2023, at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, NYC. For tickets (priced at $99-550), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a valid photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.