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Hugh Jackman’s Indelible, Winning Con in ‘The Music Man,’ Just Unbeatable!’

Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster and the cast of The Music Man (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Historically, America is the land of con artists and showmen. Do you know the difference? As a relatable example there is David Hannum who in the 1850s bought the “Cardiff Giant,” a stone statue he unwittingly believed to be real (the giant fake was made in Iowa). As did its previous owner, Hannum charged admission for viewings. When P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman portrayed Barnum in The Greatest Showman) couldn’t purchase the Cardiff Giant for $50,000, he made his own plaster statue, called Hannum’s statue the fake, and charged more money, advertising his as the “real” one. Hannum sued Barnum and referring to Barnum’s patrons said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” not realizing he, too, had been duped. The suit failed when the originator of the hoax “came clean.” Interestingly, all three entrepreneurs probably kept the money “they earned” providing a thrilling show. In keeping with the great cons of America, history is silent about whether patrons got their money back.

This exploration of that type of con is at the core of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, which I’ve come to appreciate on another level with this revival at the Wintergarden Theatre, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. Along with these romantic leads are Shuler Hensley, Jefferson Mays, Jayne Houdyshell and Marie Mullen. All are Tony Award winners. All give humorous, memorable performances in this fanciful, exuberant, profoundly conceived production (directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Warren Carlyle), about small town America, its bucolic, “nothing is happening here” townsfolk, and the burgeoning love between two needy, flawed individuals, who grasp at hope in each other.

The cast of The Music Man (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

With book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson and story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, the great con is spun by a magic-making, uber-talented, artiste extraordinaire that all fall in love with by the conclusion (including the audience). That is all except non-believer, malcontent salesman Charlie Cowell (the excellent, hyper-caustic Remy Auberjonois who was in Death of a Salesman). He’s the “villain” who seeks vengeance to expose Hill as a wicked, flim-flam man.

Hugh Jackman is spot-on in his modern interpretation of the Professor Henry Hill “brand” of “music man.” He and Zaks really get this character, so that Jackman makes it his own, as he exudes the energy-packed, brilliant, larger-than-life, loving individual that you want to stay with, wherever he takes you. After seeing his performance, I believe in pied pipers, who don’t need music to make you theirs.

The criticism that he is not edgy is questionable. If Jackman’s Hill were sinister, few would believe his sincerity in a small town that prides itself on suspicion and being “Iowa Stubborn.” Would the women be so taken with his graceful, smooth, charmingly flirtatious manner? He is a swan among the ungainly, quacking mallards and especially his nemesis, the punchy, exasperated, malaproping Mayor Shinn (the always hysterical and exceptional Jefferson Mays), who gaslights the town with his own con. That this genius craftsman of BS has an irresistible delivery reveals Jackman enjoying expanding the graceful Professor in pure entertainment, with every precious breath and every savvy movement he expends, as he inhabits his refreshing version of Professor Harold Hill for the ages.

Sutton Foster, Benjamin Pajak, Hugh Jackman and the cast of The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Hill’s seductive, adorable, spirited demeanor is dangerously addictive. The happy-go-lucky showman is all about getting others to believe in and enjoy themselves. From that elixir, there is no safe return and the crash, if there is one, is emotionally devastating. How Zaks, Jackman, the cast and creative team spin this rendering is solid and logical throughout, giving this extraordinary revival a different feel, understanding and vision, that should not be underestimated or ignored.

Throughout the dance numbers, which are beautifully conceived with wit and substance, Jackman’s lead is ebullient, light, lithe. This is especially so during his convincing, playful seduction in the number “Marian the Librarian” (Warrent Carlyle’s ballet in soft shoe tempo is just great). Jackman’s sensual, boyish suppleness contrasted with Sutton Foster’s stiff reticence in Marian counterpoint are superb together.

For the song identifying the Iowan’s walled stronghold against strangers (“Iowa Stubborn”), Hill’s great challenge, Zaks stages River City citizens huddled together in a circular clump with stern looks and unsmiling determination. Initially, with Hill they pride themselves on being cold steel like Marian, who is even more icy remote than they are. However, because of Charlie Cowell’s challenge, that Iowa territory is impossible for salesmen, Hill takes the bait and rises to the occasion. He plies his delightful winsomeness with enough sincerity and great good will to surreptitiously penetrate their pride.

Jefferson Mays and the cast of The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Not only are the townsfolk splintered from their stubborn resolve because of his contagious enthusiasm, his youthfulness retains a sociability that is able to connect with young and old. Indeed, Hill offers them something that no one else who has come to their town has ever offered: happiness, hope, fantasy, the power to believe; to think something is so and it becomes so (the “Think System” re-framed from “the power of positive thinking”). Jackman’s Hill is a practiced master at human nature-buffeted by life’s heart-breaks, that create the foundation in the soul, that hungers to believe in something or someone. Of course, he is a master at this, because he, first and foremost, is starving, a clue to this Hill portrayal, upon which turns the arc of development and all the character interactions. It is also the theme of “Sadder But Wiser Girl,” that he sings in knowing “wisdom” with buddy Marcellus Washburn (the excellent Shuler Hensley).

The brilliance of this production is that Hill’s charismatic delivery of the dangerous idea is palpable, adorable and expansive. As apparently unrealistic as Hill’s disarming positivity is, it is like manna from heaven for these homely folks, who cannot resist just a taste. And Jackman’s Hill enjoys spoon feeding it to them like sugar, until they are hooked. Interestingly, he also is hooked…on their joyous response to him.

Sutton Foster in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

In his backdoor discussions with his comrade in arms, the affable and in love Marcellus, the winning Professor Hill has no disdain or ridicule for those he mesmerizes. He enjoys the challenge (more in the style of 110 in the Shade’s rainmaker Bill Starbuck), of instilling confidence in others and, in return, receiving what he needs, enjoyment, fun, affirmation. He is the antithesis of the bombastic, arrogant traveling salesman loudmouths like Charlie Cowell and the others in the rhythmically pounding opening train number “Rock Island.” (another superb staging by Zaks, et. al.)

Willson reveals the vital difference between them and Hill, as they ride the rails and complain about how hard their job is because of encroaching progress. What an incredible opening scene that gives the set up (costumes, staging, sets, music, sound, tone, tenor). Challenged by their comments that Iowa is an impossible territory, Hill shows himself up to the task, gets off the train, turns to the audience and presents Professor Harold Hill. Just looking at Jackman’s unabashed, open smile and shining spirit, we believe as Mrs. Paroo does, that he can do nearly anything, even if it is getting her very shy son Winthrop to speak, which he does, as Winthrop flows forth in a burst of excitement and emotion that never stops afterward in “Wells Fargo Wagon.”

(L to R): Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

His product, unlike Charley Cowell’s and the others, is intangible. Thus, taking folks’ money is done quickly, painlessly for much more is being given, including a loving manner and wish to spread joy. In this version of Hill it is his endearing vulnerability to love that Jackman makes believable in his deepening interactions with Marian, whose loving support he has, before the two of them realize it. Jackman and Foster construct this surprising discovery beautifully in the Footbridge scene (“Till There Was You,” and the melding of the relationship as they conjoin their singing of the double reprise “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-Six Trombones”).

The town’s seduction is inevitable after “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” an incredible dance number (and pantomimed instrumentation), that Jackman and the cast just kill. River City has “swallowed his line” (the fishing metaphor is used throughout), as does young Winthrop (Benjamin Pajak in a show stealing performance), who is thrilled when his mother, like the other townspeople, signs on for instruments, uniforms and instruction books to form the showy band Hill promises for the absolute thrill of it. That they must learn to play is subtly whisked off until “later,” the “will-o-the-wisp” magic Jackman’s Hill seamlessly performs.

Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster and the cast of The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Hill is gloriously, attractively spell-binding. He draws the town to him bringing togetherness and good will, that goes a long way to diffuse the backbiting of the women against Marian’s standoffishness (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”). He helps to mend the ladies’ divisiveness, which further draws Marian to them and himself. Humorously, he unifies feuding officials in the exquisite harmony of a barbershop quartet, that they can’t seem to get enough of, once he starts them off on the right chords (“Sincere,” “Goodnight Ladies,” “Lida Rose”). One by one each potentially thorny group falls under Hill’s flirtatious, delectable, gentle power and inspirational artistic encouragement. Talk about soft power flying under the radar, he hits folks’ hearts for a bullseye every time.

Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

In beautifully staged moments by Zaks, we see Hill’s influence on the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn and her friends, who create dance numbers and other entertainments. Jayne Houdyshell as Shinn is marvelous and LOL in her dancing and primping poses, after Hill’s maximum attentions. The costuming for these scenes is exceptional. Throughout, the costumes are a take-off of 1912 fashion but with the variety of patterns, in some scenes earthen tones, other scenes fun hats, shoes and accoutrements, thanks to Santo Loquasto, who also did the scenic design.

Marian’s costumes are straight-laced without frills by comparison; her hair (Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young Associates), like the other ladies is in fashion, an up-sweep like her mother’s, Mrs. Paroo (the wonderful Maureen Mullen). Attention in this detailed crafting reveals Marian’s restraint, her career and character, providing the subtext and interesting contrast to the other open-handed, more extravagantly dressed woman. Eulalie and her hens are encouraged to believe in themselves in Hill’s sincere admiration as they ooze his charm back at him and titter. In the case of Marian’s response to Hill’s starlight, she moves from grimace to smile to grin.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Importantly, the women are drawn into Hill’s net, however, it’s mutual. Jackman’s Hill is having a rollicking time becoming enamored of them. This portrayal makes complete sense. Because he is lured by their, acceptance and trust in mutual feeling, he is unable to escape when the love net closes around him. Jackman and Zaks have broadened that net to include the townspeople’s acceptance and love as well as Marian’s, her mother’s and Winthrop’s. Zaks shepherds the actors to forge that budding love and trust with specificity and feeling each time they share a scene (i.e. the fishing scene with Hill and Winthrop).

Fear has no place in Hill’s magical world. So when it attempts to enter in the form of Mayor Shinn’s grave doubts about Hill (though Shinn’s motives are financially suspect), he is misled by Marian and his officials, who by this point in time, understand Hill is bringing new life to the community. Thus, they allow themselves to be distracted away from Shinn’s mission to verify Hill’s identity. It’s apparent that with the exception of Mayor Shinn, whose agenda Hill upends by dunning his new pool table, the town’s spirited happiness is heartfelt. One wonders what their lives were like before his enchantments blinded them? Or did he give them a new way of seeing? And what was Hill’s life like traveling one step ahead of the sheriff before he hit River City, an unintentional stop on his route to anywhere U.S.A.?

Hugh Jackman and the cast of The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Clues are revealed in the large set backdrops of the Grant Wood style paintings (Regionalism, note the painting “American Gothic”), that are at once simplistic and complicated in their being two-dimensional, brimming with sub-text. These brilliantly reveal the time, place and characters with details of tone, tenor and color. This is especially so against the green rolling hills Grant Wood backdrop, where the tiny, animated, red, Wells Fargo Wagon races down a hill in the distance as it approaches River City. The audience gasped in awe at the ingenious contrivance. Then, they gasped even louder as the “larger-than-life” Wells Fargo Wagon materialized on stage. Pulled by a well-groomed, shiny-coated, smallish-looking “Clydesdale,” Hill beamed atop the wagon as it stopped, the cast sang “The Wells Fargo Wagon” exuberantly, and Jackman rhythmically tossed out the brown, paper wrapped “instruments.” Poignantly, Pajak’s Winthrop sings, lisp and all, completing the effect. Pure dynamite!

This is the show’s “Singing in the Rain,” moment. It is the still point in time that clarifies and represents the whole; action, event, music, symbolism, lighting and spectacle reveal the theme and its significance to the characters and audience. It is here that we understand the treasure that Hill brings, the heightened glory he coalesces in a happening that the townspeople and a now confident Winthrop, (whom we fall in love with along with Hill), will never forget. And for that reason, Marian destroys the evidence that can sink Hill. It’s a stirring, fabulous end to Act I.

Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster and the cast in The Music Man at the Wintergarden Theatre (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

By the beginning of Act II, Hill’s invested emotional interest in Marian is revealed in “Shipoopi,” the silly-grand singing and dance number with the entire cast, and colorful, striking costumes, led by Marcellus, who reveals his contentment with his wife. As friend and confidante Marcellus is also Hill’s foil. Living a fulfilled life in a small town, his life contrasts with the emptiness of Hill’s tired wanderings. This is underscored through Hill’s previous interactions with Marcellus, in their fine duet “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” and brief discussion of his former inability to settle down which Marcellus encourages him to do in River City because he can introduce him to a lovely girl. However, Hill has already met a lovely girl, who rejects him, but as we note at the top of the musical, Hill enjoys a challenge. Jackman nails Hill’s bravado with class, nuance and balance, never over-doing it. He will have Marian and she will have him.

Shuler Hensley in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Sutton Foster’s Marian is the challenge Hill finds stimulating. She falls in love, her hard-heart melting in attenuating stages: after Mother Paroo’s pressure in “If You don’t Mind My Saying So,” her own internal pressure in “Goodnight, My Someone” and “My White Knight,” in Hill’s sweetly, gorgeous “bad-boy” pestering in, “Marian the Librarian,” and most importantly, after she sees Hill’s beloved influence on Winthrop (“Wells Fargo Wagon,” the fishing scene, “Gary Indiana”). As Marian, Foster’s change of heart toward Hill is superbly wrought by degrees; her stance and body gradually relaxing as they dance in “Shipoopi.” And the relationship Foster and Jackman forge in its progressive development toward love is believable and touching. By the time the scene with the kiss arrives, their bond is manifest; the long kiss, wistfully enjoyed by Jackman fans, brought faint and not so faint audience gasps; the longing and hunger in the characters dangerously apparent.

For love’s reality is an obstacle to his “safety” that Hill acknowledges (“Till There Was You” reprise). Charlie Cowell intends to provoke the town to scourge Hill with a “tar and feathering.” It is at this point that Marcellus’ injunction that Marian is doing the conning and Hill has to leave or be damned, resonates. But he can’t leave; he must face the music or rather, lack of it.

Foster shines as she attempts to gaslight sexual predator Auberjonois’ Cowell with flirting and a kiss. And in the realistic fight scene (one punch is always sufficient), between Cowell and Hill, the professor vindicates Marian’s reputation that Cowell besmirches. I love how Foster sexually presents herself to Cowell, breaking the third wall and eliciting the audience’s encouragement; she twits the scene for all its worth.

Benjamin Pajak and Marie Mullen in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

But the con is over. Humorously and ironically, Hill is a victim of Mother Paroo’s use of his “Think System.” And of course, his own need to be loved traps him. Thus, he admits the truth to an upset Winthrop, who forgives him as does Marian. Brother and sister encourage Hill to quickly escape, not realizing the music man wants to stay despite the jeopardy. The sacrifice of the three for each other is perfection. When Hill is arrested, Jackman’s emotional response in the scene is smashing, as is the drama created by Pajak, Auberjonois, Foster and the other cast members. The question remains. Will the town forgive Hill, as Marian and Winthrop have? Will they acknowledge that he has given them something more priceless than a boy’s band? Perception is everything.

In this revival the intentionally “un-dangerous,” genius, entrepreneur professor, like those entrepreneurs of the Cardiff Giant, created a daily thrill. Specifically, Hill’s music man encourages the town to launch out on a new road. It turns into their own growth and ultimate benefit in merging community, good will and love. In exchange for instruments and uniforms, he has bestowed the citizens with an ineffable gift (that Marian and Eulalie Shinn encourage the others to stand for). As Mayor Shin sees their unity and hears his son play, Hill’s “Think System” catches communal fire. The joy and warmth that Hill gave is returned; he is loved and forgiven. And Charlie Cowen leaves a sadder and unrepentant man.

Jane Houdyshell in The Music Man (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

In the end scene as the perception of the townsfolk moves from what is to what each parent thinks/imagines Hill’s orchestral direction to be with love, the miraculous occurs. Hill is redeemed as the band emerges in sound and sensory vision. Announcing the Finale, Winthrop/Pajak blows a vibrant, bold horn. The cast emerges in full band regalia, sings, plays and dances, with Foster and Jackman front and center, leading the charge. Dazzling fun, profoundly realized.

The Music Man is a spectacle that is incredibly rich with visual movement and vibrancy, striking hues and emotional musical grist brought together with sterling performances that are divine brush strokes. The story is a faceted jewel, the characters inhabited by these multi-talented acting greats are uniquely American. The sound/music delivery-technical and vocal is as fine as can be. I heard every word, the glorious harmonies, spun out rhythms and witty lyrics in the compelling choral numbers (“Rock Island,” “Ya Got Trouble,” Shipoopi,” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” “Marian the Librarian,” Seventy-Six Trombones”). What a pleasure, especially in the large musical numbers; this has not always been the case on Broadway (post-pandemic and certainly not pre-pandemic).

The Smithsonian Institution ranks The Music Man as one of the “great glories of American popular culture.” When it premiered on December 19, 1957, it was a smash hit that ran 1375 performances. It won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. The original cast album held the number one position on the
Billboard charts and stayed on the album charts for 245 weeks. The recording won the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album.

In this amazing revival all of the main actors are Tony Award winners. Sutton Foster is a two-time Tony Award winner. Hugh Jackman is a two-time Tony Award, Grammy Award, and Emmy Award-winning star. Director Jerry Zaks is a four-time Tony Award winner and Choreographer Warren Carlyle is a Tony Award winner. The creative team is equally sterling and award studded. It includes four-time Tony Award winner Santo Loquasto (Scenic & Costume Design), five-time Tony Award winner Brian MacDevitt (Lighting Design), Tony Award winner Scott Lehrer (Sound Design), Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young and Associates (Hair, Wigs, & Makeup Design), Tony Award winner Jonathan Tunick (Orchestrations), David Chase (Vocal and Dance Arrangements), and Patrick Vaccariello (Musical Director).

This production with this cast, director, choreographer and technical team will never happen again in your lifetime. Considering what the cast, crew and production team went through to present The Music Man opening night this February 10th, 2022, it has been a labor of love that underscores every dance step, every note played, every trill, every laugh by the actors, the musicians, everyone. It is a one-of-a-kind revival that is breathtaking. Do what you can to see it. I will go again if I can get tickets. Here is their website for arrangements. https://musicmanonbroadway.com/

‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ a Family Musical Comedy That Is Present and Sorely Needed

Jenn Gambatese and Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire directed by Jerry Zaks (Joan Marcus)

It is to the credit of the producers and creative team that they have taken another approach to the iconic 1993 film Mrs. Doubtfire (starring beloved Robin Williams) by enhancing its vibrant situational humor with emotional musical resonance in an adaptation currently on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Thankfully, Doubtfire (music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick; book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell) reminds us of the vitality of timeless verities, unity despite division, love despite differences, compromise toward the best solutions possible. Mrs. Doubtfire reveals that with love and faith all things can work together. And a sense of humor helps.

How the actors, director, technical team configured the book and music to emphasize these themes is the focus of this reviewer. If you are looking to be entertained by Doubtfire opprobrium, stop reading now. I thought the production of Mrs. Doubtfire, shepherded by the always fine director Jerry Zaks, hits its mark. Audiences are loving it, if critics are twisting its worth unjustly and inanely to make it their footstool to appear “clever” and in vogue.

(L to R): J. Harrison Ghee, Rob McClure, Brad Oscar in Mrs. Doubtfire, directed by Jerry Zaks (Joan Marcus)

Based on the titular Twentieth Century Studios Motion Picture, the Broadway adaptation deepens the comedy and characterizations of Daniel, Miranda and the children with its musical numbers (“I Want to be There,” “What the Hell,” “Let Go”). In these we understand the emotional price and the grind that a family endures in the grip of a painful divorce when it is too arduous to work through the seemingly limitless difficulties.

Lydia, the eldest daughter, leads the ensemble, Miranda and Daniel to expose the conflict between her parents and indicate how it is derailing all of their lives. This happens during a photograph sitting Miranda has arranged in the hope of cataloguing the kids’ ages. Daniel upends Miranda’s wish for a family photo when his shenanigans, which are funny and endearing, work the opposite effect on Miranda and ultimately destroy the photographer’s camera, disappearing any chance for a photo. Lydia (the excellent, on-point Analise Scarpaci) and the others note the handwriting on the wall and imminent divorce in the opening song “What’s Wrong With This Picture.”

(L to R): Kaleigh Cronin, Casey Garvin, Brad Oscar, Erica Mansfield, Rob McClure, Jaquez Andre Sims, J. Harrison Ghee, Alena Watters, Cameron Adams, Aaron Kaburick, Calvin L. Cooper in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

The irony is that Miranda wants a reassuring picture of a happy family, and Daniel, despite himself, is not able to give that photo, representative of the family she wants. Both parents are disunited, not in sync, skewed. One is reminded of the Facebook photos people post of themselves, i.e. the “wildly loving couple” who behind closed doors, is completely miserable. Fronting on Facebook and inciting jealousy in their “friends” is the only modicum of happiness they can suck out of the relationship which is doomed.

Likewise, the symbolism of the scene and the song are clear; the differences between this couple run deep into life approaches and right brain, left brain schematics. Miranda is organized and ambitious, intending to be her own entrepreneur. Daniel, a voice actor is highly imaginative, creative, his own person and all heart. The kids are the bridge, but instead of being the way to cross over and make the most of each parent’s attributes to benefit the family dynamic, the “adults” exploit the kids who become the linchpin to make each other miserable, incapable of navigating productive “family” roles and interactions. Each sees the other as “obstructive” and wants the other to be more like their own perspective of a “Dad” and a “Mom.” Their inflexibility is ultimately self-destructive and as in many families makes divorce inevitable.

(L to R): Avery Sell, Jake Ryan Flynn, Analise Scarpaci, Jenn Gambatese, Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Lydia gets it; her parents and siblings are in denial; the ensemble concurs in the refrain. Daniel is belittled and made to appear unfit by Miranda who casts herself in the role of mother superior, a termagant. She ironically justifies herself, placing the blame on Daniel’s behavior, annoyed that “he” has made her into the woman she “swore she’d never be.” Clearly, both are revving each other’s engines and are at fault, but circumstance, Daniel’s fears and Miranda’s overwrought nature lay the brunt of the fault at Daniel’s door, and he accepts this, a clue to his heart and future flexibility to change.

When he breaks her rules by taking the kids out of school to have a birthday party for son Christopher (the appropriately gangly, awkward Jake Ryan Flynn) and a stripper shows up by mistake, Miranda is provoked beyond forgiveness. It will take a miracle for Miranda to ever compromise with Daniel again. Thus, the set up for the miracle of Mrs. Doubtfire is born after the divorce is finalized by the end of the song “What’s Wrong With This Picture.” However, the irony of Daniel’s wacky “picture” continues when unsuspecting Miranda hires him for the Nanny position and his appearance and gender is skewed but not his heart. The photograph metaphor which threads throughout (Daniel is even removed from Miranda’s photo wall) is finally corrected by the musical’s end (“As Long As There is Love”).

(L to R): J. Harrison Ghee, Brad Oscar, Charity Angel Dawson, Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Miranda (the lyrically voiced Jenn Gambatese who gives a nuanced performance showing Miranda’s growth in forgiving Daniel) remains unmoved when Daniel pleads his case in family court to receive joint custody in “I Want to Be There.” As Daniel, Rob McClure’s petition to the judge is beautifully heartfelt and stirring. Indeed, throughout, McClure’s skills (singing, voices, break dancing, dancing, rapping, looping, hand puppeteering) and exhaustive energy and enthusiasm in a role that requires he be present in season and out are incredible. He makes Mrs. Doubtfire his own, and as a result she is authentic and real.

This authenticity McClure conveys to the hilt so that you forget he IS Doubtfire and are surprised when he isn’t. This switcheroo becomes all the more hysterical when he uses the voice of Daniel, dressed up as the plump but extremely agile elderly Scotswoman and then reverts to Doubtfire’s voice when he is in the role of himself as Daniel. This occurs a number of times i.e. auditioning for Miranda on the phone, with son Christopher when he blows his cover and as he prepares for a surprise visit by court liaison officer Wanda Sellner (the extraordinarily voiced Charity Angel Dawson) who is checking his apartment to make sure it is fit for visitation with his kids.

When we see the transformations and costume (Catherine Zuber) wig (David Brian Brown) make-up and prosthetic changes (Tommy Kurzman) which occur in the twinkling of stage time’s eye, we are amazed at the “seamless” effort it takes. Kudos to the team for making it so. The switches are humorous and crucially revealing: each time McClure’s Daniel redeems himself being Mrs. Doubtfire, we know it is for the love of his children and to gain his self-respect. Though the deception is morally questionable, it is forgivable because his portrayal is award winningly brilliant and endearingly wise. Ultimately, it is the step which fosters understanding, allows Miranda breathing room to be her own person, and brings the family closer together.

Peter Bartlett as Mr. Jolly in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Humorously wonderful scenes occur throughout. One is when Daniel calls on his brother Frank (the hysterical Brad Oscar) and his partner Andre (the magnetic J. Harrison Ghee) for help to make him into the iconic Nanny that Miranda cannot refuse. After costumers and hair and wig designers Frank and partner Andre run through a roster of amazing women (female ensemble members show up as Cher, Jackie O., Donna Summers, Diana Spencer, etc.) that emerge from their talented fingertips in “Make Me a Woman,” Daniel avers that his role is a Scottish born widow past 60. Changing course, they produce versions of their perception of iconic women of a certain age who are the antithesis of the glamorous fashion icons that paraded across the stage minutes before.

Out come tall, diesel men dressed in the same outfit (a forerunner of Doubtfire’s) pronounced to be Janet Reno, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child and a masked Oscar Wilde in a farcical getup. The irony is hysterical: it twits Andre’s and Frank’s viewpoint and disdain of the unfashionable but formidably strong women as not being the “feminine” ideal. The idea of what constitutes a “woman” and genderism is turned on its head by Andre and Frank, which reveals lightening wit that certainly will offend some critics because it is daringly in your face.

Tragically, what is “politically incorrect” in one part of the country is searingly popular in another; so the criticism of the production being outdated in terms of genderism is slim-sighted, considering that culturally/geographically not even sections of New York City maintain the current “correct” views (i.e. Staten Island, Beach Channel, Breezy Point) related to gender. Many in these areas, including upstate New York (one of the supposedly most liberal states) take offense at “political correctness.” What to do?

Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

In another LOL scene when Frank and Andre visit Daniel to deliver an additional wig for his new Nanny role, Wanda Sellner (the coldly autocratic court appointed officer) visits Daniel’s apartment, interrupting Frank and Andre’s mission. What ensues is a fast-paced quartet of dramatic irony as Frank, Andre and Daniel try to front an increasingly suspicious Wanda Sellner about whose sister the elderly woman is and why Daniel as Doubtfire (who has lost his prosthetic device out the window) won’t look directly at Wanda Sellner, which he finally does with banana creme pie on his face that makes him unrecognizable.

That the audience has been let in on the truth about Doubtfire’s gender, his “losing face-out the window” and Frank’s shouting nervously to cover his lies, makes the scene all the more riotous. Dawson is superb in her fierceness which escalates the humorous tension that the men and the audience feel as they fear Sellner’s hound-like nose will sniff out Daniel’s deception.

Brad Oscar’s priceless screaming delivery is tuned to rhythmic sonority with assists by straight woman Charity Angel Dawson and J. Harrison Ghee to bring on the belly laughs. Their crack-fire delivery accompanies Rob McClure’s costume and voice switches portraying two individuals at once in split second lag time. The tension only subsides with the audience’s audible sigh of relief, when Andre (Ghee) posing as the FBI on a phone call to Sellner rescues Daniel from Sellner’s adversarial, witchy clutches which gain steam and develop in Act II.

Rob McClure in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Zaks’ direction to shepherd the quartet’s superb pacing achieves a rhythm that is glorious and pitched for gales of laughter. By this point the audience is rooting for Rob McClure’s Daniel, taken over by his incredible sincerity and loving father/mother, man/woman Mrs. Doubtfire. Indeed, men do well as women, a gender trope that one must not miss if one is “getting it all in,” “going with the flow” and not luxuriating and indulging one’s sensibilities in offense at the genderisms the writers play off of. Importantly, another theme underscored by Mrs. Doubtfire is that that rigidity (from the political right or the left) whether it be in forcing others to adhere to one’s expectations or deeming “the way one should be” provides no easy answers or road to compromise. It indeed takes time and openness and flexibility and kindness for compromises to be reached.

Daniel masters Miranda in an area of vulnerability by making himself invaluable as the Nanny and housekeeper assuming motherly roles, while Miranda stokes her entrepreneurial skill. Additionally, he attempts to satisfy his court requirements to maintain a job, securing one as a janitor for a TV station. It is in this scene that we are introduced to an outdated children’s program which steers us into hilarity provided by the exceptional Peter Bartlett as Mr. Jolly. As Jolly, Bartlett bumbles and fumfers telling time with puppets Ratty and Mousey. His producer boss Janet Lundy (the stone-faced, funny Jodi Kimura) groans about being fired unless the Mr. Jolly Show is updated to snap and pop. Bartlett’s pauses, musing and timing as the near doddering Mr. Jolly is smack down LOL organic. This scene is cracker-jack great!

(L to R): Jake Ryan Flynn, Analise Scarpaci, Rob McClure, Avery Sell in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

In attempting to bring order out of chaos at the Hillard home, as Doubtfire, Daniel sets the kids doing their homework (turning off their phones, etc.) and receives cooking lessons from Chefs Amy, Ann and Louis who appear from his tablet magically to show Doubtfire how to cook a “nutritious, delicious meal,” in record time, including how to spatchcock a chicken. In “Easy Peasy” Rob McClure and the ensemble in well coordinated, rapidly timed moves gyrate around the stage. He grandly catches a chicken and sticks of butter that fall from the ceiling as the ensemble sings and dances. During this wild cook-off, look for the hysterical pharmaceutical commercial break by a Rectisol Doctor (David Hibbard) complete with list of side effects including death.

The meal which smokes Daniel out (a take-off on the film when Williams sets Doubtfire’s breasts on fire) gives him an appreciation for Miranda’s home cooked meals. Failing once more, he orders take out which he then arranges in a finely set table for Miranda, the kids and her work partner Stuart who intends to be her beau. The hilarity ends in revelation; he lost his place at the table, and Mrs. Doubtfire won’t replace him there. He has the growing realization that he will never be back at that table as their Dad, and in fact Doubtfire is an encumbrance to what he really wants, back in Miranda’s good graces. The impetus becomes if he is to see his children at all as their Dad and not the character he has created, he must get a job that can pay an affordable living wage.

Analise Scarpaci in Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

The opportunity arises when beat box artist Loopy Lenny, a guest on the Mr. Jolly Show, leaves his “loop machine” which Daniel cannot resist playing with as he mops the area. In “About Time,” Daniel loses himself in remastering a cooler version of telling time with Ratty and Mousey that crackles with his exceptional voice skills. Upon hearing his genius at work Janet Lundy is impressed to offer him the possibility of a job on the show. With hope of this new job, Daniel digs in as Mrs. Doubtfire having reversed all he had contributed to making a disaster as their Dad. In “Rockin’ Now” Mrs. Doubtfire leads the ensemble in Daniel’s self-affirmation, lifted out from Miranda, his kids and Frank and Andre’s perception of him as a loser. He sees himself as a brilliant fixer and vital, purposeful individual.

A number of points are made during this hysterical number where McClure’s mobility with 30 pounds of rubber dancing and twirling Doubtfire’s plaid skirt is beyond funny and delightful. One is that Daniel could only change and express his loving heart with a wall of rubber separating him from those who saw him negatively and didn’t know how to encourage his goodness (a shortcoming of theirs). Secondly, as a character he is able to do that which he resisted as Daniel, who continually provoked Miranda. Conning her and the kids is a weird kind of payback proving he is as superior as she presented herself to be. However, when Lydia and Christopher discover who is under the rubber, the question remains, how long will Daniel be able to front Miranda and Sellner who hold the power of his rights as a father?

In Act II the risks of discovery become greater as Lydia and Christopher watch their father pull off Mrs. Doubtfire as a plus size model, showing Miranda’s sportswear line as he and the Ensemble models sing and dance in “The Shape of Things To Come” for an audience of buyers and store representatives. Dressed in a colorful skimpy outfit revealing a sports line for “all shapes and ages,” once again Daniel’s phenomenal talents save the day and get deep pocket customers for Miranda kicking off her entrepreneurship. In the song’s lyrics, the shift from actors with BMI 20 figures proud to look in the mirror to Mrs. Doutfire’s 30 BMI figure that can do extraordinary moves is a telling slap in the face to the guilt inducing diet and weight loss industry: a great irony.

The cast of Mrs. Doubtfire (Joan Marcus)

Mrs. Doubtfire has made a world of difference for Miranda who is beginning a relationship with Stuart (“Big Fat No”) and resolving the end of her relationship with Daniel (“Let Go”) who is miserable (“Clean Up The Mess”). In a conundrum obstructed by having to be Mrs. Doubtfire as he grows invisible with his children, he faces a reckoning with Sellner who puts together the viral Doubtfire sports model video and other information she receives from Miranda about Daniel. The reckoning begins in Sellner’s office when Daniel is supposed to appear with “his sister” Mrs. Doubtfire and turns into a surreal scene with Sellner as a magical, witchy type spirit proclaiming his doom in “Playing With Fire.”

Charity Angel Dawson pulls out all the stops wailing retribution for him in a shimmery red/orange dress against a fiery backdrop as a chorus line of Doubtfires send off Lydia, Chris and Natalie (Avery Sell) away from him presumably forever. Then the ensemble Doubtfires close in on him, singing the refrain, “The Truth Will Make You Free,” while sweeping their brooms in a haunting dance as Sellner sings her glory. And eventually the power of Sellner’s presence and voice along with the Doubtfires circling, engulf him dressing him in the hated Doubtfire costume and persona. The backdrop and set returns him to Miranda’s house where the final arrangements are set in motion for his big reveal that ends the charade once and for all (“He Lied to Me,” “Just Pretend”).

However, the truth with his reveal results in his redemption and Miranda’s acknowledgement that his true heart had to masquerade as Doubtfire for a time to show her and him what he was capable of. Additionally, with his new job on a TV Show starring Mrs. Doubtfire, the family is reminded of Daniel’s goodness. With the help of Sellner who shows her true colors and acknowledgement of Daniel’s love for his children, Miranda is convinced that Daniel must see and take care of Natalie, Christopher and Lydia with a joint custody arrangement (“As Long As There is Love”).

I have nothing but praise for Mrs. Doubtfire which is a whirlwind of emotion, comedy, farce, genius pacing, singing, dancing and crisp dialogue acutely directed and performed by the prodigiously talented Rob McClure who is breathtaking, as the other actors shine equivalently in their roles to assist him. The music, a combination of pop, hip hop, ballad and more functions to raise the emotional stakes at each turning point and grows from Daniel’s and Miranda’s struggle with each other. Mrs. Doubtfire’s book is well adapted by Kirkpatrick and O’Farrell and runs deep in this production because of the songs (Kirkpatrick and Kirkpatrick) their symbolism, the hybrid comical farce and continual pushing of the envelope to embrace Daniel’s guilt and imagination (“Playing With Fire”) (“Easy Peasy”).

Kudos to Ethan Popp for musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations. Special kudos to Lorin Latarro for her choreography. Both bring a myriad of new elements to Mrs. Doubtfire and make it shine greater than the film.

The technical aspects (movable sets) are well devised for speed, and are well thought out and wrought for the quick scene changes and farcical, magical moments mentioned. Kudos to David Korins (scenic design) and Philip S. Rosenberg (lighting design) and Brian Ronan (sound design) as well as aforementioned Catherine Zuber, David Brian Brown and Tommy Kurzman. I loved the lighting and outlines of the cityscape, the Hillard household and touches needed for the success of various scenes (“Easy Peasy”).

The production is a superb adaptation combining the known and the new. It should be seen a few times because inevitably, there is so much to glean you will miss the symbolism and the profound characterizations which appear stereotypical initially, but are resonant and vital as are the themes mentioned. For tickets and times go to their website: CLICK HERE.

‘Nantuket Sleigh Ride’ by John Guare, Starring John Larroquette, Directed by Jerry Zaks

Adam Chanler-Berat, John Larroquette, Grace Rex, German Jaramillo, Clea Alsip, Douglas Sills, Will Swenson, Jordan Gilber, Tina Benko, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare, Jerry Zaks, Mitzi E. Newhouse,

(L to R Downstage): Adam Chanler-Berat, John Larroquette, Grace Rex (upper level L to R): German Jaramillo, Clea Alsip, Douglas Sills, Will Swenson, Jordan Gilber, Tina Benko in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride,’ by John Guare, directed by Jerry Zaks, Mitzi E. Newhouse (T. Charles Erickson)

Sage, pithy, philosophical quotes taken from the stories in Jorges Luis Borges’ Labyrinths serve as the humorous grist that flavors and drives the witty and complex Nantuket Sleigh Ride by John Guare, currently at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse. The delightful hybrid play (mystery, comedy, fantastical dream-like elements and wonderful “come to life” Rene Magritte painting ‘La Durée Poignardée’ [‘Time Transfixed’]) has an adroitly crafted, labyrinthine structure beautifully clarified with sets and projections by David Gallo and costumes by Emily Rebholtz

Jerry Zaks shepherds the ensemble with an impeccable sense of comedic pacing and precise staging to elucidate the characters and maintain a humorous, coherence throughout, while unraveling the mysteries. The artistic designers with Guare’s and Zaks’ prodigious collaboration help to make Sleigh Ride a whopping, helluva journey through the mind and life of the one-hit playwright Edmund Gowery, during the summer of 1975, a monumental time which changed the course of his life, seemingly forever. From then until the present, Gowery suppressed his artistic sensibilities, left playwriting and sought the empirical, material world of making lots and lots of money.

John Larroquette portrays Gowery with relaxed authenticity and a droll, witty moment-to-moment presence. As Gowery Larroquette navigates remembrances of the summer of 1975, with aplomb. And noting that memory is a filter of age, wisdom and a myriad of emotions, Larroquette deftly filters these-the surprise, upset, fear and concern as he steps from narrator back to the past as actor in his memory. Guare’s vehicle of conveyance using present, filtered memory and past is striking, and Laroquette manages to bridge the changing time referents believably.  His older narrative persona channels his youthful self with wry, pointed irony.

Stacey Sargeant, John Larroquette, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, Jerry Zaks, John Guare, Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center Theater

Stacey Sargeant, John Larroquette in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride,’ directed by Jerry Zaks, written by John Guare (T. Charles Erickson)

We easily accept these filters and joyfully follow Edmund (Mundie) on his madcap, convoluted adventures into the past as he introduces us to a “wicked” cast of characters. These include his mistresses, one of whom cheats on him with her husband (Tina Benko), insidious husbands (Douglas Sills, Jordan Gelber) an earnest, heartbroken lover (Will Swenson), a betraying and betrayed actress wife/lover (Clea Alsip) two kids Poe and Lilac (Adam Chanler-Berat, Grace Rex) the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges who wafts in and out of Mundie’s dreams with salient quotes (German Jaramillo), a cryonically challenged Walt Disney (Doublas Sills),  who braves the summer heat of Gowery’s dreams to discuss a venture with him…and a few celebrities.

During the process of remembrance (the events enacted), Larroquette’s Gowery processes the mysterious circumstances of 1975 and grasps the opportunity to blossom into a caring individual who is sensitive to all forms of the truth, especially if it brings peace to others. By the play’s conclusion, through Gowery’s evolution, we understand that some nightmares (reference Borges) can work to one’s advantage, if we are flexible enough to learn from them. With enthusiasm Gowery experiences a resurrection of the artistic and imaginative part of himself. The younger persona which demonstrated a selfishness and self-dealing nature has been drowned reliving the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”  (No spoiler alert here about what this means. See the play; it’s super.)

Clea Alsip, Will Swenson, German Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Tina Benko, 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride,' Jerry Zaks, John Guare, Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center Theater

(L to R): Clea Alsip, Will Swenson, German Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Tina Benko in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride’ directed by Jerry Zaks, written by John Guare (T. Charles Erickson)

How Guare effects this plot structure of present, to flashback past, to dream sequence, to flashback past, to present tweaked with Borges’ tropes and quotes, contributes to the humor and entertaining zaniness of this play with a purpose. The dynamic begins at the top of the play and segues with a usual  device which Guare makes more intriguing. Edmund Gowery finishes a congratulatory phone call about his reference as a playwright in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. The symbolism is smart. He’s a clue in a crossword. But who indeed is Edmund Gowery who left off the stresses of success after his first and last Broadway hit Internal Structure of Stars, a “luminous memory play” influenced by Borges?

When his secretary (Stacey Sargeant) brings in his own lost copy of Borges’ Labyrinths (one of the most influential books of Gowery’s life) two frantic adults come into his office: Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex). Both are pale-faced, limp and emotionally squeezed, but they demand that Gowery tell them about the summer of 1975, which was a time in their lives that was fraught with trauma so severe that they cannot remember what happened to them. For Poe and Lilac it is a “time transfixed.” Their lives cannot resume unless the darkness of the past is lightened with the truth from Gowery’s lips.

The irony is that the summer of 1975 for Gowery also is a “time transfixed,” a disaster which he never worked through, but just circumvented by emotional suppression. If he helps the desperate Poe and Lilac, he must dredge up the nightmares which contributed to the death of his playwriting career and forced him on the unenlightened, yet lucrative path of “convincing people to sell things they love to buy things they don’t want.”

John Larroquette, Will Swenson, 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride,' Jerry Zaks, John Guare, Lincoln Center Theater

(L to R): John Larroquette, Will Swenson in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride,’ directed by Jerry Zaks, written by John Guare (T Charles Erickson)

Running from himself and Poe and Lilac by escaping into the bathroom, Gowery considers. Out of his memory comes Guare’s inimitable, wacky flashback of Gowery’s summer with Poe, Lilac and the others. By the time he decides to give Poe and Lilac what they want, he emerges from the bathroom a more contented man. He has reconciled himself and brought us along as his understanding and empathetic companions. Now, he is able to initiate Poe’s and Lilac’s understanding of their past and move them off the immobilizing still point of trauma.

I enjoyed Guare’s writerly memes and ironic quips, and his use of Borges’ quotes for humor, plot development and revelation of themes. The production is a farcical, mystery romp, but it is also a profound look at reconciliation, second chances, working through trauma and evolving beyond pain if one has the determination to do so.

The two tiered staging as a focal point of elucidation is excellent and the Magritte room, clever. I loved how German Jaramillo’s blind Borges (a truthful metaphor of his inner sight) escorts the chugging locomotive (an element reflective of Borges’ magical realism) off stage as Mundie’s journey moves toward closure of one labyrinth and heads off to lead Gowery into another. The final labyrinth which restores us to the present and Gowery’s lovely reconciliation with Poe and Lilac.

From acting to direction to artistic design (see above and Howell Binkley-Lighting) (Mark Bennett-Original Music and Sound) Nantucket Sleigh Ride delivers. Thanks to the balanced and vibrant work of the ensemble, Larroquette’s wry likeableness, Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex’s humorous transformation from kids to thirty-somethings and the wonderful, stylized German Jaramillo as Borges, this is a must-see for its grace, humor, depth and ironies all of which should not be underestimated.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride runs with one intermission at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

 

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