NEW YORK — Professor Harold Hill is the ultimate phony — and Hugh Jackman, unfortunately, isn’t playing one. It’s a pivotal characteristic absent from the long-awaited, and disappointingly miscalculated, revival of “The Music Man,” which had its official opening Thursday evening at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre.
His performance was all dazzling smiles and beaming side glances for the adoring opening-night house. But charm is not everything, certainly not when playing a musical-theater goliath like Hill, whom Robert Preston eternally made his own on the stage and screen. In the Winter Garden, you never escape the feeling that Hugh Jackman is playing Hugh Jackman — a pleasant enough assignment, no doubt. In this case, though, you also need a sense of a hustler who’s aware of the magnitude of the fraud he’s perpetrating, taking hard-earned money from the upstanding citizens of an Iowa town, for a boys band he has no idea how to instruct or lead.
You get none of that. This Professor Hill seems less a traveling salesman than a song-and-dance man on a second-class national tour.
So ya got trouble in River City, and the miscasting of Jackman is hardly the only problem. Director Jerry Zaks has inexplicably opted for a cartoon version of the musical, with set and costume designer Santo Loquasto joining him as an over-the-top accomplice. All manner of first-rate actor has been sucked into the proceedings. The bombastic Mayor Shinn of Jefferson Mays and overdecorated Mrs. Shinn of Jayne Houdyshell are turned into veritable sight gags; Shuler Hensley’s Marcellus, Hill’s confederate, is made to appear a witless errand boy. Even the “Pick-a-Little-Talk-a-Little” ladies squeal and vibrate as if they require sedation.
The townsfolk, perversely, seem foolish, not funny. It’s no wonder Hill doesn’t have to do much more than carry a tune in “Ya Got Trouble,” normally the number early in the show that alarms the citizenry to the dangers of billiards and revs up audiences’ heart rates. This version of Hill is the self-assured center of his own world; he never seems to think he has to occupy anyone else’s. As a result, the gullible hayseeds of Zaks’s River City just have to sort of fall in line behind him.
This wasn’t Willson’s notion at all. River City is based on his hometown of Mason City, Iowa, and the characters with whom he populated the musical were people he knew. I discovered that when I went 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 Willson immortalized — as in, “one Grecian urn, two Grecian urns” — was still active. In an introduction to his script, Willson wrote that the musical “was intended to be a valentine, not a caricature. The humor of this piece depends on its technical faithfulness to the real small-town Iowans of 1912, who certainly did not think they were funny at all.”
Only Sutton Foster as Marian Paroo, the brainy librarian who sees through Hill from the start, adheres to this prescription and escapes the drenching in broad comic splatter (adorable Benjamin Pajak delivers a sweet performance, too, as Winthrop, her shy brother with the speech impediment). Foster’s Marian has arrived, it seems, from a better production: She’s a woman of little patience and much heart, as Foster reveals in lovely renditions of “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You.” (Although David Chase and Jonathan Tunick’s arrangement for “My White Knight” is weirdly souped-up.)
Choreographer Warren Carlyle appears to have convinced Zaks that “The Music Man” is a dance show; the townsfolk, from kiddies to biddies, spin and kick at the drop of a straw hat. Mostly, this happenstance reveals itself as an accommodation for Jackman, who, like the most gung-ho guest at the wedding, hops onto the dance floor every time the band strikes a note. (It may be in this happy-feet version of the show that the boys of River City don’t practice their instruments because they spend so much time at the dance studio.)
A nice scenic touch occurs during the joyful first-act finale, “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” and the school-board barbershop quartet — Phillip Boykin, Eddie Korbich, Daniel Torres and Nicholas Ward — is in fine harmonizing form. Nothing can ever be done, however, with the eminently cuttable, cutesy-wootsy production number from the black lagoon, “Shipoopi.” Some new lyrics have been added by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, to absolutely no avail.
The enterprise is a golden-age opportunity squandered. All I kept thinking as I scarpered out of the Winter Garden was: They didn’t know the territory.
The Music Man, book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography, Warren Carlyle; sets and costumes, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Scott Lehrer; music direction, Patrick Vaccariello; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick. With 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.