Right here in River City

Meredith Willson's beloved "The Music Man," says Music Theatre of Wichita director Mark Madama, is just one of those perfect Broadway shows that doesn't require tinkering or reinterpretation to make it relevant for today's audience.

"It is so well-written that it just flows. Every scene makes sense," says Madama, whose version of the 1957 Tony Award-winning masterpiece will kick off MTW's 40th anniversary season Wednesday.

It will be the only encore of the season; the four other shows will be local and Midwestern premieres.

"The characters know what they want to say and how to say it. It's amazing how consistent it is," Madama says. "All you need to do is set it up and get out of the way. It all comes surging back."

The show is Willson's nostalgic valentine to the American heartland of 1912 and the bedrock family values of the sometimes too-straight-laced citizens of River City, Iowa. A handsome, fast-talking con man marches into town, promising them glory and civic pride in the form of a boys brass band, then finds himself being caught up in their wildest dreams before he can get away.

It's the show that turned a B-list Hollywood actor — Robert Preston — into a Broadway superstar after the role was turned down by the likes of Ray Bolger, Danny Kaye, Bert Parks and even Gene Kelly. The show won eight Tony Awards, including best musical and actor, and the successful 1962 movie version preserved Preston's indelible performance for all time.

Starring here are Edward Watts as Professor Harold Hill, the so-called music man of the title, and Jessica Wright as Marian, a no-nonsense librarian who suspects he is up to no good but desperately wants to believe in his fanciful promises.

Watts, who previously was Lancelot in "Camelot" and oldest brother Adam in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" for Music Theatre, is taking a month-long leave from "The Fantasticks" in New York to come back as guest star for this anniversary season.

And Wright, who appeared on Broadway in "Lovemusik," "Company" and "Sweeney Todd," is delighted to be "home." She began her musical theater career as a member of MTW's ensemble.

"I started here during the 25th anniversary season; now I'm back for the 40th. I hope that says a lot," says Wright, most recently seen here in "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Crazy for You."

Also in this cast is New York-based Justin Robertson, another who got his start here, back for his ninth MTWichita show as Marcellus, Harold's good-natured sidekick who wants to go straight since he met the girl of his dreams.

Wichita power theater couple Timothy and Karen Robu play River City's befuddled Mayor Shinn and his gossipy wife, Eulalie.

And Wichita veteran Deb Campbell plays Marian's very Irish mom, Mrs. Paroo, who tries to get her daughter to follow her heart sometimes rather than always her head.

The 23-piece orchestra will be under the baton of musical director Thomas W. Douglas, a faculty member at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, who is back for his 12th summer.

Choreography is by California-based Peggy Hickey, a frequent guest artist here, who has been honored for her work on network and cable television, movies, stage and opera.

Toe-tapping, eminently hummable show-stoppers that have kept theater-goers smiling for half a century include "(You Got) Trouble," "Till There Was You," "The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me," "Goodnight, My Someone" and, of course, the rousing "76 Trombones."

The pure Americana music, says maestro Douglas, is more sophisticated and challenging than most people think — particularly barbershop quartet sections foisted upon four supposed antagonists.

"A solo is the easiest because you can hide some indiscretions," Douglas says. "But when you require them to sing close harmony, there's no place to hide. It has to lock in sounding like one voice."

Wright, who will be playing Marian for the first time, said she jumped at the chance.

"I heard the invitation to come back before I really heard what the show was. I was ready to do anything," Wright says with a laugh.

"Fortunately, Marian is not a tragic character, like some I've played. She's more fun than someone who's needy. I like that she's intelligent and practical, but she is also a dreamer. The only thing I didn't count on is that she really dances. I mean she is lifted — and thrown!"

Wright doesn't worry about being compared to any past Marians, either Barbara Cook on Broadway's cast album or Shirley Jones in the movie.

"I'm one of those music theater people who doesn't watch the movie version because I don't want to inadvertently mimic someone else. I don't want to be an accidental copy," she says. "I want it to be true, so I invest in the character, not the way it is performed."

Watts, who will be playing Harold Hill for the third time, says his best review came from a critic who wrote that "If you're coming to see a Robert Preston impression, don't bother. But if you are coming to see a fresh new take, this is it."

"It's very difficult not to just step into Preston's role. It is what it is, and he was brilliant. And they say you should 'steal from the best,' " Watts says with a chuckle.

"But while it's all the same story and words, it will be Ed Watts' take on the character. What I love about him is that he does grow. He has a moment of realization that something enormous — love — has happened in his life. And he embraces it rather than shies away from it, even though it betrays everything he had done before."

Wayne Bryan, WTWichita's chief for 24 years, says that "The Music Man" — back for the fourth time in 40 years — will never feel dated because it occupies a perfect historical niche in the last innocent time in America.

"It's an ideal, like Walt Disney's Main Street in Disneyland," Bryan says of the first decade of the 20th century where technological change is rapid but the optimism hasn't yet been soured by the darkness of World War I.

"The people of River City are still protected from the outside world. The Wells Fargo Wagon's arrival is still a big deal because of what surprises it brings to town. The story could only happen during a small window of opportunity because within a few years, such a con probably wouldn't have worked," Bryan says. "It would have been too easy to check up on Harold Hill. It would be a whole different world."

If You Go: "The Music Man"

What: Kick-off show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita

Where: Century II Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $57-$22 evenings, $49-$20 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.mtwichita.org

Parking: Some reserved parking available in Main Street library/Century II lot but, because of overlap with Wichita River Festival, check www.mtwichita.org for additional parking areas.