Hugh Jackman does not get a thunderous ovation on his entrance in the new Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s ”The Music Man” — he’s on stage through the whole opening number, hidden among the chorus of traveling salesmen riding a train car into River City, Iowa. But when he emerges from the crowd as the con artist/salesman extraordinaire Harold HIll, the applause begins and his natural charisma takes over and kicks everything up a notch.
While this glossy but uneven revival of the 1957 classic, which opened Thursday night at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, is clearly intended as a star vehicle for the Tony-winning showman, Jackman consistently cedes the spotlight to allow the ensemble to shine. And shine they (mostly) do, particularly in group numbers like “76 Trombones” and “Marian the Librarian” that showcase Warren Carlyle’s often athletic choreography.
Jefferson Mays is appropriately flustered as the tongue-tied mayor of River City; Jayne Houdyshell hams it up as his wife, an easy mark for Hill’s flattery; young Benjamin Pajak is a charmer as the stuttering boy Winthrop; and the accidental barbershop quartet formed by the town elders (Eddie Korbich, Phillip Boykin, Daniel Torres and Nicholas Ward) are scene-stealing delights.
The one major casting misstep may come as a surprise: Two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, saddled with an unfortunate wig, does not seem to have settled into the role of Marian, the spinster who falls for Hill despite his shortcomings. She plays the role broadly, like a sitcom archetype rather than a character — and you might get whiplash trying to follow her second-act encounter with rival salesman Charlie Cowell (Remy Auberjonois) and then her all-too-rapid reconciliation with Hill. Foster also sings about an octave lower than previous Marians and bizarrely begins the ballad “My White Knight” as if it’s a patter song. She’s on surer vocal footing on “Till There Was You,” belting the number beautifully, and matches Jackson’s dance moves in numbers like “Shipoopi” and a tap finale just before the curtain.
Director Jerry Zaks’ production is a throwback in just about every sense, for good and for bad. There are elaborate sets (by Santo Loquasto, who also did the costumes) with backdrops that suggest the work of Grant Wood — at one point, two chorus members even re-create “American Gothic.” There’s an orchestra of two dozen musicians and a cast of 40 that sometimes seems as crowded upstage as one of those high school productions that accepts everybody who auditions. Disconcertingly, there are also six principals — Tony winners all — who reinforce the glaring lack of diversity in 21st-century Broadway revivals as much as in 1912 Iowa. Could producers have not found even one nonwhite performer for any of these roles?
There are some acknowledgements of contemporary mores, including a complete rewrite of the Act 2 opener “Shipoopi.” Gone are the lyrics about how a girl who kisses on the first date is “usually a hussy.” Instead, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman have written new lyrics reframing the song for a fella who must win over his woman: “the boy who’s seen the light…to treat a woman right.”
But for the most part, this is very much “The Music Man” you remember — perhaps from the 1962 movie starring original Broadway star Robert Preston, perhaps from the endless amateur productions that have been mounted worldwide for more than six decades. And while he might not seem very convincing as a huckster, Jackman once again proves to be a ringleader in the best sense: commanding the spotlight when he wants our attention, and then giving his marks the slip and retreating into the shadows to allow other lights to glisten.