Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" is a fairy tale of redemption writ large. It's set in the Neverland of a bucolic 1912 Iowa, where the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon is the big news of the day, crime comes in the form of well-timed firecrackers and even a slippery flim-flam man can be transformed by the power of love.
Improbable, yes, but the sheer dazzle and sweep of Willson's music makes a sales pitch any con artist would envy.
Artistry's bold and brassy production at Bloomington Center for the Arts affirms that power from the opening moments of its lush overture. Joel Sass' delightfully homespun set, dominated by a large picture frame that alternately displays such iconic images as cornstalks, a picket fence or an American flag, firmly locates the work in an evocatively imaginary place. Against this palette, Angela Timberman directs in broad strokes, eschewing subtlety for showmanship.
She's aided in this task by Michael Gruber, who brings a salesman's charm to the role of Harold Hill, with a commanding presence, mile-wide smile and sly wit that effortlessly enlists the audience into complicity. When he rolls into town hawking musical instruments and pipe dreams, he transforms it into a beehive of creative activity. His shady scheme proceeds according to plan until he discovers his own heart has been stolen by the town's most eligible spinster.
Jennifer Eckes' Marion is convincingly upright and prickly, determined to resist his wiles at all costs. She brings a lovely voice to the role as well, delivering a beautiful rendition of "Goodnight My Someone" in particular. The tangible chemistry that she and Gruber create as their unlikely courtship proceeds from a delightfully comic staging of "Marian the Librarian" to a final revelation of love adds to the effectiveness of the production.
"The Music Man" boasts a wealth of infectious and rousing tunes, including "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Shipoopi" and "Gary, Indiana," and Anita Ruth's crisp music direction, complemented by Gruber's choreography, presents them to their best advantage. One of the more inventive numbers is "Rock Island," a "speak-song" that uses the rhythmically staccato exchanges of a group of salesmen to conjure the movement of the train on which they're traveling. This production's sharply delivered version, led by Paul Reyburn, provides one of the show's highlights.
The world of "The Music Man" may be more wish than reality, but Artistry's effervescent production revels in the sheer power and panache of its salesmanship and demonstrates why Willson's musical has such enduring appeal. Would that redemption could always be so easy and so hummable.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.