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Stage review

At WTF, ‘June Moon’ plays a familiar but charming tune

Nate Corddry plays lyric writer Fred Stevens and Rachel Napoleon is Edna Baker, a dental assistant Fred meets en route to New York in “June Moon” at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

T Charles Erickson

Nate Corddry plays lyric writer Fred Stevens and Rachel Napoleon is Edna Baker, a dental assistant Fred meets en route to New York in “June Moon” at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

WILLIAMSTOWN — It’s one of the oldest stories in the book: An innocent arrives in Gotham and is immediately seduced by the bright lights of the big city, a fish out of water suddenly forced to contend with sharks.

To that well-worn formula Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman added doses of their wised-up wit and a snapshot of the hypercompetitive songwriting industry in “June Moon,’’ their 1929 play about the misadventures of an aspiring lyricist, based on a short story by Lardner.

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Directed by Jessica Stone, “June Moon’’ is serving as the curtain-raiser for this season at Williamstown Theatre Festival. While the play feels padded and the production is not yet a well-oiled machine — there were some hiccups on opening night, as cast members stepped on each other’s lines at a few points — WTF’s “June Moon’’ is on balance a treat, especially if you like your treats with a sardonic flavor.

It can’t really be called a top-drawer comedy, but “June Moon’’ is an enjoyable artifact from Broadway in the ’20s, directed with brio by Stone. Having previously helmed acclaimed WTF productions of Neil Simon’s “Last of the Red Hot Lovers’’ and an all-male version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’’ Stone seems to enjoy the challenge of tackling potentially dated material. There’s not much the director can do, however, with the stereotypical good girl/bad girl depictions of the female characters in “June Moon.’’

Lardner and Kaufman clearly relished the chance to satirize the conventions of Tin Pan Alley songs — skull-implodingly obvious rhymes, gratuitous salutes to states, protagonists who always seemed to be returning to or sentimentally thinking about dear old home — and the hectic, assembly line environment that produced those tunes.

You can sense the tension between their worldly, grown-up cynicism and the commercial imperatives of their day, which required that good triumph over evil — in this case, more like naughtiness. This comedic parable about the price of success abounds in snappy patter, and Lardner and Kaufman spread the wealth around enough that much of WTF’s “June Moon’’ ensemble gets to showcase their skills, including Weymouth’s own Nate Corddry, who plays lyric writer Fred Stevens.

When we first meet Fred, he is on a train to New York, having left his job at a GE plant in Schenectady. The earnest and ambitious Fred fully expects to take Tin Pan Alley by storm. In the parlor car he meets the winsome Edna Baker, a dental assistant whose golly-gee, pure-hearted ingenuousness, as portrayed by 25-year-old Rachel Napoleon, is matched only by Fred’s. Napoleon’s charming performance here suggests she may join the long list of performers who got a boost at Williamstown and went on to have illustrious acting careers.

Sparks fly, in a demure sort of way, between this endearing couple. Fred appears to have met his muse. Ah, but temptation awaits in Manhattan. Fred teams up with composer Paul Sears (Rick Holmes), whose last hit, “Paprika,’’ was years ago, and who fervently hopes that a new lyricist will help him end a lengthy dry spell. It’s clear that Paul’s glamorous, dissatisfied wife, Lucille, won’t wait much longer: She’s fed up with the impecunious life they’re leading. Kate MacCluggage plays Lucille to jaundiced perfection; even her body language speaks in a sneer.

But Lucille is Snow White compared to her gold-digging sister, Eileen (Holley Fain). Eileen wastes no time in getting her hooks into Fred, and soon he is footing the bill for costly nights on the town with her, Lucille, and Paul. Meanwhile, Edna is languishing on the sidelines. Will Fred eventually make his way back to Edna’s arms, or will he remain locked in Eileen’s viperish embrace?

While we wait with not-especially-bated breath for the answer to that question, several actors in smaller roles deftly pocket a few scenes. They include David Turner as a wisecracking pianist, Diana DiMarzio as a gruffly formidable music publishing house employee, and especially Christopher Fitzgerald (Stone’s husband, a cast member in “Forum’’ and the original Boq in “Wicked’’), who is hilarious as a manic songwriter desperately fighting for attention. Jason Bowen, so riveting two years ago in the Huntington’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ makes the most of his minor role as a window washer.

The female cast members are the primary beneficiaries of the knockout costumes by Gregg Barnes, who gives the Williamstown audience a taste of the skill that earned him Tony Awards for “Follies’’ and “The Drowsy Chaperone.’’ Also doing stellar work is set designer Tobin Ost, who compels the eye with his design of the Searses’ sleek apartment (they must have furnished it with royalties from “Paprika’’) and especially the large music publishing house where much of the play’s second half takes place.

The production is dedicated to Nicholas Martin, who died a little over two months ago. When he was artistic director at Williamstown (from 2008 to 2010) and at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (from 2000 to 2008), Martin placed a high premium on how productions looked and how they moved. It’s likely he’d approve of this “June Moon’’ on both counts.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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