Review: Even With Hugh Jackman, ‘The Songs Man’ Goes Flat

There will come a moment in the newest Broadway production of Meredith Willson’s “The Audio Man” when higher spirits, wonderful dancing and significant stars align in an extended marvel of showbiz salesmanship.

Sad to say, that minute is the curtain simply call.

Until eventually then, the musical, which opened on Thursday night time at the Wintertime Garden Theater, only intermittently gives the joys we anticipate from a basic revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster — in particular just one so naturally patterned on the success of a different common revival, “Hello, Dolly!,” a several seasons again.

The frenzy of really like unleashed in that present by Bette Midler, supported by considerably the similar inventive crew — which includes the director Jerry Zaks, the choreographer Warren Carlyle and the established and costume designer Santo Loquasto — has gone missing below, despite all the deluxe trimmings and 42 individuals onstage. As an alternative we get an incredibly neat, typically perky, overly careful get on a musical that, being about the con match of adore and music, desires far more risk in the telling.

That’s some thing I’d have considered Jackman would deliver. His prior New York outings, specifically in musicals like “The Boy From Oz” in 2003 and a “Back on Broadway” live performance in 2011, have been unbuttoned affairs, occasionally pretty much, threatening at any minute to spill over the lip of the stage. As this kind of, Harold Hill, the traveling salesman who dupes Iowans into acquiring devices for an imaginary band, would appear to be to be a excellent in good shape for him — or at any fee an extremely hard in shape for any one else.

But Jackman largely suppresses his sharky charisma right here this is not a star change like Dolly Levi or, for that matter, Peter Allen in “The Boy From Oz.” Alternatively, he looks to see Hill as a character position: a amazing manipulator and touring horndog who in getting unprincipled ought to also be unlovable.

The outcome is a wise but surprisingly inward overall performance. By turning absent from the viewers, he not only undersells massive quantities like “Ya Acquired Trouble” — in which Hill spellbinds the citizens of River Town into believing that the current arrival of a pool desk will lead to juvenile delinquency and that a boys’ band is the resolution — but also undersells us.

As the town librarian who sees via him straight away, Foster does not have that dilemma her acquire on Marian is witty and front-struggling with through. She completely commits to the seriousness but also to the size of the comedy, permitting it occur from the significant inner conflicts of a woman with standards much too large for her personal joy. You believe it when her mom (Marie Mullen, pretty) complains in semi-spoken tune that “not a man alive could hope to evaluate up to that mix a’ Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster you’ve concocted for on your own outa your Irish imagination, your Iowa stubbornness and your liberry fulla’ guides.”

But the casting of Foster introduces a issue even she simply cannot clear up. With its outpouring of musical designs and counterpoint numbers, Willson’s score is brilliantly developed to press distinctive worldviews into proximity and at times into harmony. Soaring previously mentioned the much more pedestrian seems of the townspeople with their lowdown dances, thickly harmonized barbershop quartets and crisp civic anthems, Marian’s soprano literalizes the idealism at the coronary heart of her character and conflict. Her lilting “Goodnight, My Someone” and Hill’s raucous “Seventy-Six Trombones” could not be far more oppositional — right until it turns out they are in simple fact the exact melody, in various octaves and at distinct tempos.

Even though Foster can sing the needed notes, she is really a belter, with a mezzo high quality to her voice irrespective of the pitch. In her higher-flung tracks she is effective way too challenging to force the bloom when what’s needed is relieve and exuberance. “My White Knight,” an aria that is commonly a rangy emphasize of the part, is performed in this article in a lower crucial and as speedy as feasible it will come off a lot less as a stratospheric desire than a street-level race, earning Marian seem, and thus really feel, quite considerably like every person else.

Unfortunately, that flatness is endemic to the output. The central element of Loquasto’s set is a whole-width barn wall whose doorways from time to time slide open up to reveal vignettes performed out from drops painted in the fashion of Grant Wood (yet another Iowan). But even when the barn disappears fully, the staging feels two-dimensional — and so outdated-fashioned (except for the astonishingly excellent dancers doing Carlyle’s athletic choreography) that it could have appear straight from 1957, when “The Songs Man” premiered on Broadway. Or even 1912, when it’s set.

I suppose you could argue that an outdated-fashioned present warrants an outdated-fashioned staging like the variety that labored for “Dolly” — and it’s definitely genuine that “The New music Gentleman,” as penned, contains some antique components that give us pause now. This output rightly omits, for instance, the “Wa Tan We” girls of the “local wigwam of Heeawatha” and their “Indian war dance.” Even however these ludicrous appropriations are authentic to the environment, a musical comedy will need not be a documentary.

But omit also considerably and what’s left lacks texture. Operating shorter than its marketed duration, this revival cuts a whole lot, doing away with even minimal particulars that may possibly trigger offense. The boy who is secretly relationship the mayor’s daughter is no for a longer time the son of “one a’them day laborers south a’town,” presumably because the recommendation of course prejudice is much too very hot for a comedy to cope with in 2022.

Very same with the show’s procedure of men’s casual harassment of gals. You just can’t definitely eliminate it from the main tale Hill’s modus operandi consists of seducing piano teachers and leaving them flat. (At a person position he refers to Marian as his “commission.”) In light-weight of that, it appears to be foolish just to improve a lyric listed here or there in the dopey dance tune “Shipoopi,” the couplet “the woman who’s tough to get … but you can earn her yet” has grow to be instantly enlightened as “the boy who’s observed the mild … to address a female right.”

What globe are we in?

“The Music Man” can work currently. I have observed it be thrilling as a short while ago as 2018, in a Stratford Pageant production that did not shy absent from the prospect it presents to explore class distinctions and, with a Black Harold Hill, even racial types. In this production, as well — a colorblind a person — some performers deal with the trick of producing their figures, as Willson asked for, valentines to small town folk, not caricatures. Jefferson Mays as the blustery mayor and Jayne Houdyshell as his imperious wife get all the humor out of their roles with no diluting the way their suitable of civic tradition is just another sort of con.

As, no doubt, is ours one of the details Willson helps make in “Rock Island,” the spoken-phrase quantity that opens the show, is that old products continue being sellable even when previous deals turn into “obsolete.” It’s just that if you are a touring salesman, you “gotta know the territory.”

No question which is as accurate for musicals as it was for Uneeda Biscuits. If we’re heading to preserve marketing basic reveals, we have to come across meaningful new techniques to bundle them. Even for the very best salesmen amid us, and Jackman is certainly that, the territory is shifting quick.

The Songs Guy
At the Winter season Yard Theater, Manhattan musicmanonbroadway.com. Working time: 2 hrs 45 minutes.