Of all the lovable con men in the American canon, Harold Hill might be the most ingenious. With breathtaking ease, he lulls a prickly Iowa town into willing submission, entices the local children into carrying out his bidding like a brilliantined Pied Piper, and then escapes unscathed by reinventing himself as a turn-of-the-century self-help guru. So eager are the River City denizens to throw off their dowdy duds and embrace glorious technicolor that they blithely forget the self-titled “professor” has actually stiffed them.
Suspending disbelief is largely necessary to enjoy Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, and it isn’t hard to do in Molly Smith’s utterly charming production, currently playing at Arena Stage. But that’s mostly due to Marian the librarian (Kate Baldwin), who’s so nuanced and engaging that we end up figuring if she’s okay with Harold Hill (Burke Moses), we may as well be, too. Baldwin, who was nominated for a Tony in 2010 for her role in Finian’s Rainbow, is quite spectacular as Marian, elevating every note she sings. Yes, it’s unlikely that a leopard as pock-marked as Hill could ever change his spots, but if anyone has enough charm to reform him, it’s this red-haired, wide-eyed lady of the library.
Originally set in 1912 Iowa, Smith has given the show something of a modern makeover. The boys, led by local tearaway Tommy (played endearingly by Will Burton), wear jeans, and Marian—a modern heroine in the bookish, doesn’t-need-a-man sense—wears trousers. The townsfolk’s costumes, designed by Judith Bowden, are nightmares in beige when Professor Hill first arrives (“I couldn’t be any plainer if I were a Quaker on his day off,” says one character), but as he starts to weave his magic, flickers of color creep in here and there—a nice visual metaphor for the way Hill’s influence takes over. And the 1950s feel of it all conjures up images of that other great small town game-changer: the hip-swiveling Kevin Bacon in Footloose.
As Hill, Moses is as oily as a gameshow host: His prolonged, alliterative “MMMMs” as he croons Marian’s name in the library remind one more than a little of the hypnotic python Kaa in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Moses’s rubberized, expressive face has a cartoonish aspect to it (which is presumably what made him a brilliant Gaston in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway), and in the first act, he oozes faux sincerity so generously that at times he’s positively unlikable. But in act two, Moses pulls off Hill’s reformation quite brilliantly, aided by Willson’s tremendous book. “I hope, I pray, for Hester to wear just one more A,” sings Hill in the first act about his love for bad girls, but it doesn’t take long for Marian to change his tune.
Smith’s cast, which includes veterans (Lawrence Redmond, Donna Migliaccio, and John Lescault) along with newsboys (an adorable cast of children, many discovered at Arena open castings) is uniformly strong, and the scenes that incorporate the whole chorus are among the most powerful. The rousing finale is as cinematic and thrilling a number as any in Smith’s record-smashing Oklahoma!, and even the supporting players are charismatic enough to steal scenes, particularly Burton and Katerina Papacostas as Ethel Toffelmeir. Smith and choreographer Parker Esse use the Fichandler’s in-the-round space brilliantly, so there’s barely a moment when you feel like you might be missing out.
There are a few sound issues that could be ironed out—at time Moses is hard to understand, and some characters sound tinny, which doesn’t do justice to the outstanding 16-person band hidden beneath the stage. But this is largely an old-school musical, expansive in scope, heavy on nostalgia, and utterly winning by the time it wraps itself up. Hill might be a fraud, but this show is solid to its core.
The Music Man is at Arena Stage through July 22. Running time two hours and 20 minutes. Tickets ($45 and up) are available through Arena’s website.