‘The Music Man’ reviews: Critics find trouble in Hugh Jackman’s River City in ‘cautious’ revival

It has been eight years since Hugh Jackman notoriously hopped his way into Radio City Music Hall to host the 68th Tony Awards and even longer since he won a Tony himself. But at long last, Jackman has returned to Broadway in a revival of the Americana classic “The Music Man” starring Professor Harold Hill. In this mounting, which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Feb. 10, Sutton Foster joins him as Marian Paroo.

This fourth production of the Meredith Willson musical on Broadway is directed by four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, who also helmed the lavish and adored remounting of “Hello, Dolly!” a few years ago. Zaks has assembled an impressive ensemble for his production, including Tony winners Shuler Hensley, Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, and Marie Mullen, plus Tony-winning creatives Warren Carlyle, Santo Loquasto, and Brian MacDevitt.

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Despite this immense star power, critics did not take a shine to this iteration of River City. Jesse Green (New York Times) calls the revival “an extremely neat, generally perky, overly cautious” take on the material that “only intermittently offers the joys we expect from a classic revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.” He writes that “this is not a star turn” from Jackman, who “mostly suppresses his sharky charisma” in a “smart but strangely inward performance.” He similarly thinks that Foster is “witty,” but “she works too hard to force the bloom when what’s needed is ease and exuberance.” He deems Zaks’ staging “two-dimensional” and “so old-fashioned,” but commends the “astonishingly good dancers” as well as Houdyshell and Mays, who “get all the humor out of their roles.”

More favorable is Helen Shaw (Vulture), who spotlights the quality of Willson’s material and of the star casting. Of Jackman and Foster, she writes, “Their celebrity and undeniable presence seem to have overcome any little concerns about fissures between the performers and their character – there are places where Foster’s mezzo strains in the high stuff and Jackman goes sour,” but they still “radiate Golden Age glamour.”  She deems the first act “undeniably thrilling,” even if the second act gives way to “pockets of emptiness in this production” where “Carlyle’s splendiferously go-big choreography starts to wear thin” and where “Foster’s voice grows stronger and richer, but Jackman’s tone narrows to a pinched, unlovely voice.” Despite this fault, Shaw writes that when Jackman “breaks character just a smidge,” he “dazzles and flatters the audience.” She saves her biggest compliment for Foster, who she calls “a true musical-theater miracle.”

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Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) is lukewarm on the endeavor. Giving the production three out of five stars, Feldman says the revival is “oddly lacking in self confidence,” a “solid and professional piece of work” from which “the hoped-for enchantment never arrives.” He critiques Jackman’s Hill as “too likable to take seriously and too patently slick to be believed,” and comments on the “half-hearted” romance between his Harold and Foster’s Marion. Punning on the con at the heart of the musical, Feldman concludes, “The show is fine; it hits its marks. But at these prices, the marks might be us.”

It appears, then, that lightning does not strike twice, as much of the magic of Zaks’ Tony-winning revival of “Hello, Dolly!” didn’t entirely translate to this similarly grand venture. It also means the Best Revival race at the upcoming Tony Awards will be a bonafide nail biter, with “Music Man” underwhelming while both “Caroline, or Change” and “Company” dazzled critics. With the Broadway return of “Funny Girl” just months away, too, this contest is now shaping up to be one of the most exciting of the awards season.

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If “The Music Man” faltered a bit out of the gate, then perhaps its title character could, too. At this point in time, though, Jackman still seems far out front in the race for Musical Actor. Despite the faults some critics found in his performance, Shaw pinpoints why he still leads the pack when she discusses his unparalleled magnetism on stage. It helps that the majority of his competition comes from varyingly underwhelming offerings, too, from Rob McClure (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) to Harry Hadden-Paton and Tony Yazbeck (“Flying Over Sunset”) and Myles Frost (“MJ The Musical”). His biggest challengers will likely be the non-singing Jay O. Sanders (“Girl from the North Country”), the equally charismatic movie star Billy Crystal (“Mr. Saturday Night”), and Jacquel Spivey from the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “A Strange Loop.” Jackman has a Tony already, winning for “The Boy from Oz” back in 2004, plus he received a special award in 2012.

For Foster to take home her third Tony – she won previously for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 2002 and “Anything Goes” in 2011 – she will have to best some acclaimed performance by the six performers from “Six,” Mare Winningham (“Girl from the North Country”) frontrunner Sharon D Clarke (“Caroline, or Change”), Katrina Lenk (“Company”), Carmen Cusack (“Flying Over Sunset”) plus Beanie Feldstein (“Funny Girl”). Her favorable but not universally glowing notices may not be enough to outpace the competition. As for the creative team, look out for Carlyle’s indefatigable choreography and Loquasto’s costume design to potentially both earn bids.

“The Music Man” has been on Broadway three previous times, and those outing have netted 17 Tony nominations. The original production from 1957 earned nine nominations, taking home prizes for Best Musical, Actor for Robert Preston, Featured Actress for Barbara Cook, and Featured Actor for David Burns, amongst others. “The Music Man” returned with Dick Van Dyke as Harold Hill for a month in 1980, and then again in the 2000 remounting that earned eight nominations including Best Revival and for actors Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker but no wins. Whether this year’s rendition goes home empty handed like the last revival will be a big question mark this Tony season.

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