by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & eople who say they hate musicals are usually thinking of shows like The Music Man. All that mid-century Golden Age stuff, they scoff, with its flimsy conflicts and complacent view of the good old days, its warm fuzzies and break-into-song moments.

Unlike all those chirpy, peppy shows that hammer you with their false feel-good optimism, however, The Music Man doesn't shy away from darker concerns. Several characters are grieving a death; parents don't care to know their own children; deceptions, small-minded rumors and censoriousness abound; con men demonstrate that the public is an ass.

The Civic's Music Man (through June 18) makes a solid if not stellar attempt to refute that kind of "pick-a-little, talk-a-little, cheep-cheep-cheep" cynicism.

With Danae Lowman's beautifully sung Marian the Librarian, Michael Rhodes' skillfully danced Harold Hill, Melody Deatherage's inventive direction and -- especially -- Meredith Willson's classically honed book, lyrics and music, this Music Man makes a case for the union of entertainment and actual thought. Because Willson himself spent most of the 1910s living among stubborn Iowans and brass bands -- and because he spent most of the 1950s writing and rewriting this show -- The Music Man has some genuine claims to make amid all its tuneful nostalgia.

Far from validating fundamentalists' family values, The Music Man makes fun of them, opting instead for a kind of moral relativism. Sometimes, people employ questionable methods to arrive at worthwhile goals. Harold Hill may dupe people, but he also scoots them along the path to self-realization.

Michael Rhodes is likable in the title role, but he dances better than he sings. Granted, songs like "Trouble" and "Marian the Librarian" require rapid-fire delivery; but even in the relatively slow pace of "Sincere" and "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl," Rhodes didn't have good breath control. Often he seemed winded. Perhaps, however, that's because he's so light on his feet. Particularly in the library scene -- gliding past the checkout counter, leading kids up and over the library tables, rolling along on the bookshelf ladder -- Rhodes danced deftly. If he doesn't have the slick persuasive appeal or sheer exuberance of Robert Preston, Rhodes is a better dancer, and he's still convincing in the later stages' aw-shucks, puppy-dog courting of Marian the Librarian.

In the central couple, the better singer is Danae Lowman as Marian Paroo, the repressed local librarian. With impossibly cute Meghan Sias as Amaryllis seated beside her on a window seat, Lowman spins "Goodnight, My Someone" into a magical vision of love-longing shared by the little girl who's too young for a boyfriend and the old maid who may have missed her chance at having one. Then, in the dream-sequence dance fantasy that pops up in the stacks of the Madison Library, Lowman suddenly reminds us that librarians like to dance, too. Lowman negotiates the transition from being skeptical about Harold Hill to falling in love with him. I wish all Spokane County librarians could dance and sing and act just like her.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & eatherage has directed with care. Alternating lights in the traveling salesmen's passenger car punctuate the locomotive surge of "Rock Island"; the bustle of "Iowa Stubborn" makes time for a Grant Wood quotation; townspeople scurry in from every direction; the dancing housewives swoon in the background as the barbershop boys harmonize. Moments of beauty pass over the prairie, and Deatherage makes it all seem natural. Meanwhile, the foursome of bickering city councilmen transform themselves into a barbershop quartet, strolling about River City and dousing argumentative fires with their sheer harmoniousness. It's a vision of what music and community participation can do for squabbling small-town people.

There are miscues, of course. Gary Laing's six-piece orchestra was off-key in the overture and entr'acte, compounding the errors by overloading "Till There Was You" with a swelling, then swollen crescendo. Pauses between jokes slowed the pace unnecessarily in early numbers like "Rock Island" and "Trouble." Some of the chorus dancers spend too much time looking at the feet of the next person in line.

On the other hand, Susan Berger and Jan Wanless contribute their usual flotilla of colorful costumes; Marian's gowns and the primary-color bloomers of the dancing housewives were particularly catchy.

And for a play with 17 scenes in half a dozen distinct locales, designer Peter Hardie creates versatile and colorful sets. The footbridge under a starry sky created a romantic, even moving look for "Till There Was You" -- and the effect was enhanced by Lorna Hamilton's balletic choreography, with dancing couples promenading to make way for the main couple.

Among the supporting cast, Doug Dawson stole scenes as Harold Hill's ally Marcellus Washburn: a beanpole in a bad plaid suit, hippity-hopping with his knees bouncing impossibly high, manically leading the townspeople in the nonsensical love song, "Shipoopi," and partnering Rhodes in the vaudeville two-hander, "The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl." Maria Caprile shines as the mayor's wife. When Hill tempts her with visions of terpsichorean fame, Caprile blends her yearning to dance with the irritation of this bunion that's developing... into a lesson on how to do comedy.

As the traveling salesguy and con man, Harold Hill's repeated tactic is to appeal to people's vanity: Oh, Mrs. Shinn, you have a foot made for dancing. Olin, your voice could anchor some four-part harmony. And so on. He's deluding them, but in a nice way.

In somewhat the same way, community-theater productions of classic musicals, thrown together with the equivalent of tinsel and chewing gum, shine distracting lights in our eyes. But by bringing us together, the illusion is actually constructive. Attending my umpteenth production of The Music Man, you see, was like going to church: I groused and grumbled all the way -- but once I arrived, I got that good old-time religion once more.

Oskar Eustis' production at Providence's Trinity Rep introduced entire, actual high school bands into the finale's reprise of "Seventy-Six Trombones," as if to underscore how The Music Man makes the case for arts education in America. Even if the Civic can't muster those kinds of resources, Deatherage's production still reminds us of the formative influence of music -- of performance in general. Bowling alone -- or watching DVDs at home alone -- won't help us bridge our differences. But showing up for a musical like Willson's brings us together, and America still needs shows like The Music Man.

Golden Harvest: Flour Sacks from the Permanent Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 15
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