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Meredith Willson's The Music Man

As a rule, people aren't all that fond of change. That's why, when it comes to filmmaking, few things are riskier than remaking a beloved classic; fans of the original inevitably come to this 2003 version eager to find fault in every frame. Such is the fate of director Jeff Bleckner's made-for-TV take on Meredith Willson's The Music Man: A perfectly entertaining movie musical in most respects, it still can't hold a candle to the 1962 big-screen classic. The reason can be summed up in two words: Robert Preston. Preston's unforgettable performance as shyster salesman Harold Hill — who comes to small-town River City, Iowa, just after the turn of the century and dupes the locals into paying him to start a wholesome boys' band — is one of the benchmarks of musical theater. He was cunning, smooth, endearing, charismatic, knowing, and utterly believable as the kind of man people (especially misunderstood librarian Marian Paroo, memorably played by Shirley Jones) can't help but fall for. So Matthew Broderick had his work cut out for him taking on the role. To give the erstwhile Ferris credit, he's a good song-and-dance man: His enthusiasm for the show is obvious when he's singing about trouble in River City or trying to woo his own Marian (Kristin Chenoweth, who has an excellent voice, but plays Marian a little too much on the brittle side). And when Hill has to flatter or trick the locals into ignoring his lack of credentials, Broderick's natural Puckishness shines through and is quite effective. But in the end, he just doesn't have the same kind of presence as Preston — when Broderick sings about wanting the sadder but wiser girl, for instance, he never seems as wryly knowing or suggestive as his predecessor. As a viewer, you end up wanting Broderick's Hill to succeed because, well, you know he's supposed to; Preston's Hill seduced his audience just as he seduced the good folks of River City. The supporting cast mostly suffers by comparison to their 1962 counterparts as well. Victor Garber (Alias) gives it his all as self-important Mayor Shinn, but he lacks Paul Ford's comic bluster; and as his wife, Eulalie, Molly Shannon can't quite get "Balzac" to roll off her tongue as majestically as Hermione Gingold did. Debra Monk is charming as Mrs. Paroo, but she looks far too young to be Chenoweth's mother, and — sorry, Cameron Monaghan — no lisping, red-headed tyke could ever be as cute as a young Ron Howard. All that said, Bleckner's Music Man is entertaining: The costumes and sets are excellent, the songs ("76 Trombones," "Ya Got Trouble," "Marian the Librarian") are just as clever and catchy as they always were, and the choreography is good. If you pop it in the player with an open mind, chances are you'll enjoy it … as long as you can get Preston's ringing voice out of your head. Buena Vista's full-screen DVD offers a nice transfer and strong Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, plus a brief behind-the-scenes featurette (5 min.) and footage of Chenoweth singing "Till There Was You" on stage. Closed-captioning, keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech



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