The likes of Professor Harold Hill teams up with the likes of Little Orphan Annie in this musicalization of the 1973 Peter Bogdanovich film “Paper Moon.” This time out, the amiable con artist sells Bibles with imprinted names to gullible widows in Alabama hamlets while bound for Missouri to deliver a precocious orphan to kin.
Their episodic adventures provide an acceptable framework for a pleasant musical journey, with a first-rate cast, a few jaunty songs and a picturesque setting, buttered up with Depression-era flavor. A cumbersome second act stalls the flow of an otherwise engaging Broadway prospect.
Expository songs open the show with the funeral of the tot’s mother and the subsequent pairing of Moses Pray (Gregory Harrison) — duping the survivors of the deceased — with 9-year-old Addie Loggins (Natalie DeLucia), who quickly discovers her chaperone’s irreverent con game and even more quickly proves to be equally proficient in the scam.
The musical shifts into high gear once the artful dodgers ease on down the road in the wonderfully recreated vintage jalopy that serves as a centerpiece for their travels. Composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh provide the principals with a breezy road song, “Someday, Baby,” and the show’s most infectious moment as the unlikely duo join forces in “Entrepreneur” (lyrics by Carol Hall).
Musical peaks with the entrance of Miss Trixie Delight, a carny hooch dancer played with gilt-edged extravagance by Christine Ebersole. The actress has a knockout turn with “I Do What I Can (With What I Got),” investing her role with the kind of sympathetic ditzy camp that earned Madeline Kahn an Oscar nomination in the film. She also gets a great deal of giddy mileage out of weak-bladder gags.
The second act opens and grinds to a halt with an overlong, hand-clapping gospel song and sequence that replaces the suspenseful bootlegging portion of the film. Little Addie is enlisted by an unscrupulous evangelist as a “miracle girl” faith healer. It’s a mawkish touch of Sinclair Lewis’ tent tabernacle. In an allegorical pantomime, Addie, white-robed, winged and wearing boxing gloves, spars with the devil to a TKO. Unfortunately for the musical, it becomes a cringing TKO.
Alan Johnson’s choreography is spare, limited to a touch of soft shoe with carnival freaks and some sporty prospective buyers in a Cadillac showroom. Harrison is an amiable con man who sings and moves with vaudevillian spirit, and DeLucia successfully steals hearts and sings with big lump-in-the-throat heart and conviction. Chandra Wilson as Miss Trixie’s deadpan maid gets some of the strongest yaks with the same well-targeted one-liners that garnered the film’s best laughs.
“Paper Moon” ultimately inches to a satisfying finale, bolstered by the charm and appeal of DeLucia and Harrison in the neatly resolved closer by Grossman and Hall, “Turns Out.”
There is a varied balance of energy under Matt Casella’s direction due to the shifting focus of the narrative. Michael Anania’s attractive settings, framed with old general store advertisements, are backed by a sky full of clean, white puffy clouds, the kind that would make Dorothy Gale feel safe at home.