The Music Man
"You really ought to give Iowa a try," sing the River City residents ironically, as they describe their home town's culture as prickly, narrow-minded, and aloof. But the cast of Arena Stage's "The Music Man" is far from any of these descriptors, and the lyrics, acting and song and dance numbers of the show are as inviting and refreshing as lemonade on a hot summer night.
The 1957 play, written by Meredith Willson and directed by Molly Smith, centers around the swindling Professor Harold Hill, a two-bit salesman who hawks musical instruments to unsuspecting Midwesterners, and promises to not only educate their children to play in a boys' band, but also to simultaneously keep them safe from worldly temptations like gambling and cursing.
Hill (Burke Moses) with his tailored suits and slicked-back hair, sees himself as a little too sharp for these country folk, but he can't help finding them honest and engaging.
Smith has a fine supporting cast with whom to work, and Moses is a likeable protagonist, whose charms easily outweigh his tricks and ploys. Hill's perfect foil is Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin), the too-serious, too-smart red-haired librarian and music teacher who catches his romantic attention. He falls for her sagacious restraint, her subtle sarcasm and her ability to see through his lies but appreciate his noble intentions just the same.
The supporting cast is careful to play the surrounding townsfolk as innocent but to stay away from caricatures of country rubes that could easily let the story slide into cloying sweetness. Mayor Shin (John Lescault) keeps his potentially buffoonish character from losing his dignity, as he welcomes a smooth-talking snake into his little Eden.
The set design also helps build the sense that this sleepy little burb is a bit of an under-appreciated paradise. Decked out with Fourth of July banners like a Middle American Main Street in the midst of a parade, the town opens before Hill invitingly.
The four-sided stage is used to great effect during dance numbers choreographed by Parker Esse like "Trouble," and "Shi-poopie." The cast kicks and spins together in rotating formations that gives all four sides of the audience a perfect view.
As it turns out for Professor Hill, and also for the audience, River City might just be a little slice of heaven. It could make Arena Stage's jaded Beltway viewers stop, tap their feet to the music and change their skeptical big city ways. After a play that is this upbeat, humorous and spirited, what audience member wouldn't want to actually "Give Iowa a try?"
"The Music Man" runs through July 22 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. For tickets or information call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.