Review: Hugh Jackman steals ‘The Music Man’ from Broadway

Sutton Foster somehow channels his inner Carole Burnett to play Hill’s reluctant love interest, showing a gift for physical humor and comedic timing in addition to shrewd tap dancing and a gorgeous voice. If there was ever a stage match for Jackman, it’s Foster.

This production celebrates the quaint American soul with the simple story of a traveling salesman who, in 1912, tricks a small town in Iowa into forming a band and buying his instruments and uniforms – even though he doesn’t doesn’t know anything about music. He’s going to cheat them for sure, until he falls in love with the town librarian.

Director Jerry Zaks is a master of comedic romance and shakes things up with seemingly effortless sharpness, aided by Santo Loquasto’s lush settings of balloon-shaped trees and red-wood barns. Zaks goes big with tracks like “Shipoopi” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” sure, but also knows the power of calming everything down and just letting the song shine, like he does with “Gary, Indiana.”

Warren Carlyle’s choreography is intricate and witty, and sparkles especially in large numbers like the ambitious “Marian the Librarian” and the train overture “Rock Island.” Wilson’s words are often tricky and slippery — “swindlin’ two-bit thimble rigger” — but the cast aren’t intimidated.

In fact, there’s a nod to the show, a clear awareness that stupidity is just that and the people up there are killing it. Jackman sometimes stares at the audience with a flippant smile for just a second and he and Foster seem to be naturally falling for each other.

There are so many actors up there – 21 cast members are making their Broadway debut – that it seems to rival the number of people seated. Jefferson Mays makes the most of his wary mayor and Jayne Houdyshell, as his wife is able to bring laughs just by nodding her head.

The script was quaint even in the late ’50s and is still peppered with very dated references – like pinched suits, Uneeda cookies and Captain Billy’s whiz bang comedy magazine – but it’s also been cleverly edited out of misogamy and of racism. (“Hairspray” songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are credited with “additional lyrics”).

“Squeeze her once when she ain’t looking” in “Shipoopi” becomes most apt #MeToo “Squeeze her once / Tell her she’s beautiful.” And listening to ragtime in “(Ya Got) Trouble” that was used to induce a “jungle animal instinct” now only triggers a “syncopated frenzy.”

You wouldn’t expect this chestnut over 60 to speak in 2022, but it often does. Like the crook at his heart, who appears on stage the same week, we learned that our twice-impeached former president allegedly tried to walk away from the White House with boxes of unauthorized stuff.

It also comes at a time when a wave of new laws and other actions have led to the removal of books from schools and libraries nationwide. It’s also touched on in “The Music Man”: “She advocates dirty books,” a townsman says of the librarian, “Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac.”

“The Music Man” may be a musical theater confection, but its reach has been long. You can find in its embrace of quirky, small-town characters a continuing part of Broadway’s DNA, appearing in recent shows like “Waitress” and “Come From Away.”

The script for the musical always ended a bit abruptly, without a huge catchy number. But at the Winter Garden Theater, it leads to an impromptu dance party where it feels like each of the 76 trombones are swinging and the performers are loving the moment. This “The Music Man” begins on a train and feels like a ride you’ll never want to stop. As the conductor says at the beginning: “All aboard!”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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