'Music Man' gives glimpse of innocence

July 24, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - In Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," con man "Professor" Harold Hill sells the residents of River City, Iowa, 76 trombones and the belief that he can teach the boys of the town to become a magnificent marching band by means of his "think system."

Although the townspeople catch on to the scam and want Hill's hide, the instruments arrive and the band plays.

Musical magic happens.

For six weeks, more than 60 kids ages 8 to 18 have been involved in a "think system" of sorts at Apollo Civic Theatre's Youth Summer Workshop.

The magic of their production of "The Music Man" will be presented tonight and this weekend.

The Apollo "think system" is many hours of hard work. There were audition, set-design, costume and makeup workshops. There were hours and hours and hours of rehearsals.


Thirteen-year-old Michael Weber portrays Mayor Shinn and describes his character as a "grumpy old man." It was hard to remember his lines in the beginning, but he's having fun.

"I'd definitely do it again," he says.

Greta Harman, 11, who plays Zaneeta, is experiencing her first Summer Workshop. "I just thought it would be neat. I wanted to give it a try."

Fiona Wilkes, 14, a workshop participant since age 8, dances and plays a coquette in "The Music Man." She likes interacting with the other kids and is looking forward to the performances when there's no stopping to redo a scene. She likes having the lights, costumes and an audience. "Seeing everybody out there makes a big difference," she says.

Abby Holmes, 16, plays Mayor Shinn's wife, Eulalie. This is her fifth Youth Summer Workshop, and she plans to stay involved until she's too old.

Of course there is music in "The Music Man." There will be two trombones - not 76 - in the Apollo's orchestra pit. Music Director Lani Thomsen-Grigsby will play piano and lead the 11-piece ensemble.

She held auditions for the roles of the barbershop quartet. The young men not only had to be able to sing in four-part harmony, their voices had to blend. Thomsen-Grigsby made CD recordings of their individual vocal parts, and they listened and learned during the times they weren't rehearsing on stage.

Kids who are too old to be in the production often come back to work behind the scenes as "techies," says Debra McCauley-Tokach, one of the workshop producers. Her daughter is in the production, and they have driven the 90-mile round trip from Virginia five or six days a week.

"This is, without a doubt, the most professional young persons' theater I've ever seen," McCauley-Tokach says.

Director Stephen Levi may be part of the reason for that. The published playwright from California has more than 30 years of experience in film and television.

This is his second season at the Summer Youth Workshop - the Apollo's 20th annual.

There's a corollary between the innocence of 1912 Iowa in "The Music Man" and the innocence of the kids in the production, Levi says.

Children today have too many bad influences, he says. He likes that they are learning something about American culture in the early part of the 20th century. "The Music Man" has an innocence. "It's a sweet musical," he says.

Levi also likes that the young cast and crew are learning more than songs and dances.

"I think theater is so invaluable for children," Levi says. "They learn a sensitivity to the work of others," he says.

During a recent rehearsal, Levi leaped on stage to provide his young actors with a little motivation. He strode, shouting lines, telling the characters to "be specific."

Some of the young performers are "naturals." For others, acting and singing is a foreign experience. It's hard for young people to get over their embarrassment - especially in front of peers, Levi says.

Levi recently directed Paige Miller, who plays the part of a flirty girl, to give Hill a peck on the cheek.

"Do I have to?" she asked, quoting a line from the play.

"Yes, you have to," Levi told her, and she did.

"What's wonderful for me is to see such tremendous growth in six weeks," he says.

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