Hugh Jackman is playing one of musical theater’s greatest with men on Broadway these days but he’s not fooling anyone: He’s the real deal.
As Harold Hill in a glorious and exuberant new revival of “The Music Man,” Jackman is like a coiled spring, effortlessly leaping onto desks, two-stepping with kids, tossing books into the air and pounding out a rhythm on his thighs. He’s even magnetic in a romantic clinch.
“That man is a spellbinder,” someone notes and you’ll have no argument here. “I’m in rare form these days,” Jackman’s Hill at one point boasts. Again, no argument.
But Jackman is but just one astonishing part of the subtly reworked Meredith Wilson musical that opened Thursday night at the Winter Garden Theatre. It overflows with talent, clever ideas and a hard-working multicultural cast.
Sutton Foster somehow channels her inner Carole Burnett to play Hill’s reluctant love interest, showing a gift for physical humor and comic timing in addition to nifty tap dancing and a gorgeous voice. If there ever was a stage match for Jackman, Foster is it.
This production celebrates the quaint American soul with the simple story about a traveling salesman who in 1912 cons a small Iowa town into forming a band and buying his instruments and uniforms — even though he knows nothing about music. He’s going to fleece them for sure, until he falls for the town librarian.
Director Jerry Zaks is a master at the romantic, comedic romp and moves things along with a seemingly effortless crispness aided by Santo Loquasto’s lush sets, with balloon-like trees and red wood barns. Zaks goes big with tunes like “Shipoopi” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” of course, but he also knows the power of calming everything down and just letting the song shine, as he does with “Gary, Indiana.”
Choreography by Warren Carlyle is complex and witty and especially shimmers in big numbers like the ambitious “Marian the Librarian” and the train-bound opening “Rock Island ” Wilson’s words are often tricky and slippery — “swindlin’ two-bit thimble rigger” — but the cast isn’t cowed.
In fact, there’s a winking knowingness to the show, a quiet awareness that the tomfoolery is just that and the folks up there are killing it. Jackman sometimes looks out into the audience with a rakish smile for just a second and he and Foster seem to naturally crack each other up.
There are so many actors up there — 21 cast members are making their Broadway debuts — that it seems to rival the number of people in the seats. Jefferson Mays makes the most of his suspicious mayor and Jayne Houdyshell as his wife is able to prompt laughter with just the tilt of her head.
The script was quaint even in the late ’50s and is still studded with very dated references — like pinch-back suits, Uneeda biscuits and the humor magazine Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang — but it also has been cleverly edited of misogamy and racism. (The “Hairspray” song writers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are credited with “additional lyrics”).
“Squeeze her once when she’s isn’t lookin'” in “Shipoopi” becomes the more #MeToo appropriate “Squeeze her once/Tell her she’s good lookin.’” And listening to ragtime in “(Ya Got) Trouble” that used to provoke a “jungle, animal instinct” now just triggers a “syncopated frenzy.”
You wouldn’t expect this 60-plus year-old chestnut to speak to 2022 but it often does. Like the grifter at his heart, who appears on stage the same week we’ve learned 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 books being removed from schools and libraries around the country. That’s touched on in “The Music Man,” too: “She advocates dirty books,” says a townsperson about the librarian, “Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac.”
“The Music Man” may be a musical theater confection but its reach has been far. You can find in its embrace of quirky small-town characters an ongoing part of Broadway DNA, showing up in recent shows like “Waitress” and “Come From Away.”
The musical’s script has always ended a little abruptly, without a huge rousing number. But at the Winter Garden Theatre, it leads into an impromptu dance party where it feels like every single one of the 76 trombones is rocking out and the performers are just loving the moment. This “The Music Man” starts on a train and feels like a ride you never want to stop. As the driver says at the beginning: “All aboard!”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits