At its big and affectionate heart, “The Music Man” is all about seduction. Con man Harold Hill arrives in River City Iowa in 1912, and in just a couple of days — through sheer charm and well-spun fantasy — he transforms the chilly townsfolk who call themselves “Iowa Stubborn” into an energetic crowd.
Hill almost meets his match in the person of Marian Paroo, the town librarian whose skepticism almost derails the con of selling a boys’ band and teaching music through the “think system,” which requires no actual musical training. However, she ultimately falls for him when she sees how powerful — and positive — a dream can be.
The thing about seduction, though, is it can work both ways, and by the end, Hill discovers that he’s the salesman “who got his foot caught in the door.” It’s the classic tale of a heel being redeemed by the power of love — and we fall for it every time.
And who better to stage a seduction of this magnitude than Hugh Jackman as Hill? Under Jerry Zaks’ flawless direction with spectacular choreography by Warren Carlyle, Hill is transformed into a charming song-and-dance man, which suits Jackman’s enormous talent and inescapable star quality. Faced with that, it’s no wonder the people of River City are signing up to plop down $17 (equal to $560 today) to buy into Hill’s vision of the boys’ band.
The grit in the gear of Hill’s well-oiled machine is Marian. Though the part has traditionally been played by a soprano ingenue, Sutton Foster plays the part of Marian brilliantly, and finally she makes sense. Marian is a spinster who is trapped in the town while caring for her mother and younger brother Winthrop.
Foster is an unparalleled comic actor, and her Marian is completely hilarious in her first interaction with Harold. Yet, as she sheds her emotional carapace and surrenders to romance, she too is redeemed and sees life differently.
In presenting Harold and Marian as multi-dimensional characters, director Jerry Zaks finds new depth in this familiar show. We’re finally among real people, not just cartoon characters or “types.” Nor is Zaks’ truly human approach limited to his leads. Marie Mullen as Marian’s mother is wry and realistic. Jefferson Mays as the often-apoplectic Mayor Shinn struggles to maintain the order that Hill threatens. As his wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, Jayne Houdyshell is hilarious, blossoming as a woman in her own right as she leads the ladies of the town in a Delsarte dance performance. (It’s not by accident that Delsarte, a late 19th Century movement inspired by the desire to express outward emotion, is used to show the loosening of River City’s previous rigidity.) Four stodgy town administrators become a barbershop quartet, which is as delightful as it is ridiculous. Tommy Djilas, the “bad boy” teenager, finds purpose when Hill acknowledges him as more than his reputation. Winthrop, Marian’s young brother, emerges from his sullen sulking when a cornet gives him focus and purpose. At the performance I saw, there were more than a few tears amid the laughs.
All of this is wrapped in a sumptuous production with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, and outstanding sound design by Scott Lehrer. Numbers like “Marian the Librarian” explode with creativity and excitement, and “Shipoopi,” the ludicrous but dazzling production number, doesn’t need to make any dramatic sense to stop the show. There has also been some judicious updating of the show to be more reflective of contemporary sensibilities, and that’s well-advised and helps develop the characters more fully.
It’s not surprising that this is the same production team behind the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler. Then, as now, they captured the joy and excitement only a Broadway show can deliver. It’s hard to imagine a better way to return to the Great White Way after the long pandemic than this production. It is dazzling, heartfelt, human, and hilarious — and just what we all need right now.
And speaking of investment, back in 2017 I couldn’t make the press night and instead spent $350 to see “Hello, Dolly!” That’s a show I’ll never forget and an expense I’ll never regret, so if you need an infusion of Broadway joy — and genius — it may well be worth splurging on a trip to River City.
THE MUSIC MAN | Winter Garden Theatre | 1634 Broadway | Tues, Thurs 7 p.m.; Weds, Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. | $99-$699 | Telecharge.com | 2 hours, 30 mins, 1 intermission