His performance consisted of beaming smiles and beaming sideways glances for the adoring premiere house. But charm isn’t everything, especially when you’re playing a musical theater giant like Hill, who Robert Preston made her own forever on stage and screen. In the conservatory one will never fail to feel Hugh Jackman playing Hugh Jackman – no doubt a pleasant task. In this case, however, you also need the feel of a crook, aware of the scale of the scam he’s committing by taking hard-earned money from the honest citizens of an Iowa town for a boy band he has no idea about, how to guide or lead.
You don’t get any of this. This Professor Hill seems less a traveling salesman and more a singer and dance man on a second-rate national tour.
So you’ve got trouble in River City, and miscasting Jackman is hardly the only problem. Director Jerry Zaks has inexplicably decided on a cartoon version of the musical, with set and costume designer Santo Loquasto as an over-the-top accomplice. All kinds of top-notch actors were drawn into the process. Jefferson Mays’ bombastic Mayor Shinn and Jayne Houdyshell’s over-decorated Mrs. Shinn become true sight gags; Shuler Hensley’s Marcellus, Hill’s ally, is portrayed as a mindless errand boy. Even the “Pick-a-Little-Talk-a-Little” ladies squeak and vibrate as if in need of reassurance.
The townspeople come across as perversely silly, not funny. No wonder Hill doesn’t have to do much more in “Ya Got Trouble” than carry a tune, usually the number at the beginning of the show, that alerts townsfolk to the dangers of billiards and gets the audience’s heart rate up. This version of Hill is the confident center of his own world; He never seems to think he needs to cast someone else. As a result, the gullible Hayseeds of Zaks’ River City simply have to fall in line behind him.
That wasn’t Williams’ idea at all. River City is based on his hometown of Mason City, Iowa, and the characters he populated the musical with were people he knew. I discovered that when I was there in 2000 to write about Mason City and learned that the Shinns were still in the phone book and that the local women’s dance group that Willson immortalized – as in “One Grecian Urn, Two Grecian Urns” – was still active. In an introduction to his screenplay, Willson wrote that the musical “was meant to be a Valentine, not a caricature. The humor of this play depends on its technical fidelity to the real small-town Iowans of 1912, who certainly didn’t find themselves funny at all.”
Only Sutton Foster as Marian Paroo, the wily librarian who sees through Hill from the start, sticks to that recipe and escapes drenching in wide-open comic splatter (the adorable Benjamin Pajak also gives a sweet performance as Winthrop, her shy brother with the Speech). Disability). Foster’s Marian appears to be from a better production: she’s a woman of little patience and big heart, as Foster reveals in loving renditions of “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You.” (Though the arrangement by David Chase and Jonathan Tunick for “My White Knight” is oddly souped up.)
Choreographer Warren Carlyle seems to have convinced Zaks that The Music Man is a dance show; the townsfolk, from kiddies to biddies, spin and kick in no time. More often than not, this coincidence turns out to be an accommodation for Jackman, who, like the happiest guest at the wedding, hops onto the dance floor every time the band hits a note. (Perhaps the River City boys don’t practice their instruments in this upbeat version of the show because they spend so much time in the dance studio.)
A lovely scenic touch emerges during the joyful Act One finale, ‘The Wells Fargo Wagon’, and the School Board’s hair salon quartet – Phillip Boykin, Eddie Korrich, Daniel Torres and Nicholas Ward – are in fine harmonizing form. However, nothing can ever be done with the excellently cuttable, cute-wooty production number from the black lagoon “Shipoopi”. Some new lyrics were added by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman with absolutely no success.
The company is a missed opportunity of the golden age. All I thought as I scurried out of the conservatory was: They didn’t know the area.
the music man, book, music and lyrics by Meredith Williamson. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sets and costumes, Santo Loquasto; Lighting, Brian MacDevitt; Clay, Scott Teacher; Musical direction, Patrick Vaccariello; Orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. Starring Marie Mullen, Emma Crow, Gino Cosculluela and Kayla Teruel. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, New York. telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.