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TV Review: 'Music Man' hits most of the right notes

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

The affectionate and determined new TV movie of "The Music Man" is all about Matthew Broderick, Kristin Chenoweth and how well the endearing musical by Meredith Willson (book, music and lyrics) survives transformation to the electronic box.

"Meredith Willson's The Music Man"

When: 7 tonight on ABC.

Starring: Matthew Broderick

But first, a historic sidebar.

Whatever the future of movie musicals - Will "Chicago" bring them back? Will "Rent" happen? Will the Phantom ever sing on celluloid? - they have generally found a more welcome home on TV.

Witness the upward march of the Pittsburgher Marshalls. Rob, who first went from dancer to choreographer to director on Broadway, cut his movie teeth by choreographing "Mrs. Santa Claus" and "Cinderella" before moving up to direct and choreograph "Annie," all three for TV. Then came his big screen directorial debut on "Chicago."

Now here comes his sister Kathleen, making her TV choreographic debut with "Music Man," having already made the same dancer-choreographer-director journey on stage. Remembering that both Marshalls have always said that choreography is all about telling a story - which is what a director does, too - notice how well the dance in "Music Man" does just that. So watch her career!

But back to the main issue - how well Broderick matches up to Robert Preston's revered portrayal of Professor Harold Hill, the singing and dancing con man who tackles ornery turn-of-the-century River City, Iowa.

He doesn't, but why should he? Still, he's unlikely casting. Professor Hill is a veteran of fly-by-night con and romance, but Broderick, who at 40 still looks 27, remains as fresh-faced as ever. He is effortlessly likable, of course, but perhaps they should have cut his "Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me" song, since it doesn't really fit either him or the delectable Chenoweth, his Marian the Librarian.

There is good potential in villainy's hiding behind sweet looks, especially when he eventually renounces villainy. Broderick does have a suspiciously sneaky smile. But for this cheery Professor Hill, conversion doesn't seem to cost anything. Bar a couple of moments of supposed introspection, I don't see any struggle in his eyes. This lessens the cynicism that should provide the salt to make the musical's sweetness appealing.

Broderick's best image is not worn womanizer but Pied Piper, teaching the town's kids to dance and setting the birds and the bees a buzzing. The choreography has him appearing and disappearing like a magician. An adequate singer, he is light on his feet - a charmer.

As Broderick, so "Music Man." Willson's salty lyrics about Iowa disappear in the adaptation's resolute good cheer and abundant smiles. The result is a slightly rouged version of a story that is apple-cheeked Americana to start with. It's a whipped cream treat without anything solid (cake? ice cream?) beneath the cream.

And the creamiest treat is Chenoweth, a pint-sized shipoopi of a heroine with a golden voice. Debra Monk supplies a touch of tart as her capacious mother, and Victor Garber handles the bumbling language of the Mayor with bewildered aplomb.

Production designer Stephen Hendrickson has a colorful hand, creating a Hallmark Card kind of town replete with fabulous hats, and director Jeff Bleckner and Marshall (whose credit includes "musical staging," meaning songs as well as dances) fill it with movement. I love the way songs slide easily through space, popping up in new mouths and new places. And through the technology of Steadicams, we get to enter right into the swirling heart of the dancing.

The assurance of the production is evident right from the start in the a capella salesmen's chant that replicates the movement of their train. A couple of fantasy sequences allow extra extravagance, but basically this world is one in which, when people feel deeply, they sing. After all, that's what a musical is all about.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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