- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

The new Hollywood musical has tended to involve either wholesale reinterpretation of the genre, like Baz Luhrman's "Moulin Rouge" or the casting of major movie stars with previously hidden musical talents like Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger in "Chicago."
In these terms, "The Music Man," the new remake of Meredith Willson's classic musical airing tomorrow night on ABC, is modest and old-fashioned. Adapted directly from Mr. Willson's Broadway production, it preserves intact the original show's now-classic songs, including "Till There Was You" and "76 Trombones." Handsome and unabashedly square, this remake won't eclipse the enduring 1962 movie version starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, but it's as easygoing, earnest and agreeable as its star, Matthew Broderick.
Mr. Broderick is professor Harold Hill, the duplicitous bandleader hoping to hoodwink an entire town. The actor cannot match the iconic performance of his predecessor, Mr. Preston and he's smart enough not to try. Mr. Broderick's still-youthful face brings a new innocence to the professor, lending added credibility to the con man's smooth talk. Fresh from his triumph in the Broadway smash, "The Producers," the chipmunk-cheeked actor sings well enough; about what you'd expect from a dramatic actor of his generation still getting the hang of this newfangled genre, the musical.
Little effort is made here to modernize the turn-of-the-century tale, and that's good, because its original theme of manufactured morality is as timely as ever. The story remains a simple one, that of a roving huckster looking to fleece another town with promises of musical glory.
"Professor" Hill (Mr. Broderick) turns up in River City hoping to sell the citizens on instruments and uniforms for a proposed marching band. Raising the specter that the town's new pool hall will corrupt the flower of its youth, he reasons that only a proud marching band will keep the youngsters on the straight and narrow. Never mind that this professor wouldn't know a note if it fell out of his oversized suitcase and said, "Hello, professor, my name is B-flat."
But he can afford to be ignorant of music because, after all, he's peddling dreams, not trombones, and the citizens most of them, anyway are all too eager to believe. A few, however, aren't so easily swayed. Mayor Shinn (Victor Garber of "Alias") smells a rat. And town librarian and piano teacher Marian (Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth) isn't buying the professor's soft soap.
Dancing with a light, unlabored step, Mr. Broderick is an engagingly casual presence. Buying him as a soulless conniver, however, is a tougher sell, a deal he never quite closes. Mr. Preston's rascally edge made him more convincing as an amoral snake oil salesman.
Vocally, the cast is a cut above standard TV expectations. Leading the parade is Miss Chenoweth, with her ship-in-a-bottle voice: How did they squeeze that big sound into such a tiny woman? Her face, a collection of somewhat stern angles when viewed separately, melts under the wattage of that powerful voice. She's as feisty as the role demands and more than a match for the professor.
A few "Music Man" sets smack of soundstage convenience we are talking television, not a major motion picture. Still, director Jeff Bleckner maximizes his modest resources to recreate the sights and sounds of small town America.
The stellar supporting cast includes Molly Shannon ("Saturday Night Live") as the mayor's warbling wife and an appropriately red-cheeked Cameron Monaghan in the role Ronny Howard inhabited four decades ago.
This "Music Man" has its slow stretches, but whenever the action sputters, another grand song such as "Gary, Indiana" comes to the rescue. Still, the three-hour running time may discourage the younger set a shame, since they would be delighted by the movie's many jaunty numbers.
Will today's viewers embrace an old musical that doesn't waste a lot of effort trying to adapt itself to new sensibilities? They will if they give it a try.

WHAT: ABC's "The Music Man"
7 p.m. tomorrow, ABC-WJLA

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