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Music Man at the Arena

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At the Arena Stage’s current production of “The Music Man,” Prof. Harold Hill doesn’t stand a chance. That’s not because actor Burke Moses delivers anything less than an excellent performance. He joins a strong voice with commanding charisma. Nor does director Molly Smith distract with modern tricks in Meredith Willson’s clever plot. Huckster Hill alights from a train in River City, Iowa to beguile the otherwise “stubborn,” distrustful locals about the imperative to purchase his expensive band instruments and uniforms so as to save the town’s youth from the evils of pool. Moses delivers Hill’s signature “Ya Got Trouble” tongue-twisting exercise with perfect execution, embellished with dancers flying –with a capital “F” and that stands for fabulous.
But when Kate Baldwin appears as Marian “the library” Paroo, her flashing eyes and wonderfully rich soprano flays the slick salesman. Then she melts the production with her love paean “Till There was You.” Willson would be happy with this reprise of his timeless 1951 hit; he fashioned Marian after his own mother, who set him on his storied musical career. (He scored Chaplin’s “Great Dictator,” composed “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and gave the University of Iowa its fight song.)
Buttressing Baldwin’s climatic song are fine performances throughout, including the troupe of energetic dancers, inventively choreographed by Parker Esse. In the opening number, where travelling salesmen reveal Prof. Hill’s con game, Esse crowds a sextet in six facing chairs as they sing “Rock Island” and bounce from the jerks of the implied train. Esse and Smith skillfully manage clearly gifted actors of a wide age range, from near-toddlers Heidi Kaplan, who precociously plays the precocious Amaryllis, and Ian Berlin as shy Winthrop, to a very spry 52-year Moses. (FYI, Moses’ brother is Mark Moses, aka Paul Young from “Desperate Housewives.”)
“The Music Man” suffers no saccharin, but thrives on nuance, even moral ambiguity. Prof. Hill traffics in fraud, yet the audience cheers him. We don’t meet Iowans as rubes, but skeptical, sniping gossips. And Marian the librarian proves far from a bookish worm; she decides that Hill’s conniving may be worth the deceit if it empowers the town, especially her speech-challenged younger brother. And in the end, when the band demonstrates skill well below what Prof. Hill promised, we join their relatives in praise. Here’s a play for modern morals, worthy of Goldman Sachs.
For the last several seasons, Arena director Molly Smith’s best successes have come through musicals. Many runs have been extended. No doubt Smith feels obliged to deliver a range of productions to her greater Washington audience. But these musicals succeed so immensely that she should consider adding more to her program. With a capital “P” and that stands for please.