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"The Music Man' has enough praises to sing

For fans of old-school American musicals, there's nothing quite like the twinge of anticipation that comes with the arrival of Professor Harold Hill's train.

You hear the first rumbles of Rock Island, the opening number in The Music Man (and arguably the first rap song to enter the mainstream), and you get geared up for one of the best musicals ever. You're going to spend a couple of hours in Rockwellian River City with sly Professor Hill, irresistible Marian and befuddled Mayor Shinn. You're going to hear rousing songs that will stick in your head for days.

St. Petersburg Little Theatre's production of the Meredith Willson classic doesn't disappoint. Fine singing and clever stagecraft help pull off a demanding show and leave the audience smiling and humming.

But this production doesn't exceed expectations, either. A lax atmosphere dogs it and keeps it from transcendence.

The score's not easy to sing, and director A. Paul Johnson seems to have chosen his cast mostly for its singing rather than acting.

It's a reasonable approach, and Johnson has succeeded in assembling performers who meet the musical challenge. Ronald DeBeck, as Harold Hill, has a smooth, pleasant baritone, and Amy Kisner (Marian) has a lovely soprano that reaches the show's stratospheric notes.

Unfortunately, the performances aren't magnetic enough to cast a spell over the audience. For example, it's difficult to believe that a whole town has been captivated by Professor Hill as he's presented here.

That's not to say the acting's bad, at least not in the main roles. Some of the most enjoyable moments come from the highly entertaining nonmusical performances of Michael Kinney and Judy Peterson as Mayor Shinn and his pretentious wife. But overall, the acting is lackluster.

One major drawback on opening night was the seven-piece band, which played loosely and at times even sloppily, a real problem considering one of Willson's themes is the inspirational power of music.

It's likely that much will improve as the show proceeds through its run. Rehearsals were interrupted several times by hurricane evacuations.

Still, there's much to recommend: the songs and the singing, the inventive abstract set Johnson conceived.

The set is essentially four phone booth-sized elements that are wheeled around to define spaces and suggest changes in setting. It's a clever, unusual and effective way to present the town on a community theater budget.