Feeling blue or feeling fine? Like to learn fascinating facts that are steeped in history, tickled by love and put to tunes that make your feet stomp hip hip hooray? Then you'd better pull up a seat to "Oh Mr. Sousa!" Conceived, written and directed by San Francisco composer Ken Malucelli (ASCAP) to mark last year's 150th anniversary celebration of Sousa's birth, "Oh Mr. Sousa!" is a banquet of a musical that played this past Saturday night at Pacifica's Sanchez Concert Hall. This was a sneak preview of a national touring concert that features 9 actors in 37 roles, 24 musical numbers and, as of November 6 (Sousa's actual birth date), a 22-piece concert band. At all preview performances piano 4 hands fill in for the concert band and fill in they do.
With keyboard charisma, excellent coordination, sweet talking tempi and flavorful extravagance, pianists Paula Dreyer (on bottom piano) and Lucy Hudson (on top piano) gave us a Sousa that a Sousa would be proud of. As to the nine singing actors, each one a tip of the hat to Sousa's penchant for perfection, they were: Ann Assarsson (soprano) Cheryl Blalock (Jennie Sousa); Karen Carle (mezzo-soprano); John Hutchinson (elder Sousa), Peter Matthews (younger Sousa); Michael Morris (bass); Nicholas Patton (tenor); Todd Schurk (baritone) and Susan Taylor Nitzberg (soprano). All were well résuméd, and each singer was quite capable of melting hearts beneath their own stage starlight. Topping the performance, the cast (as well as producer Malucelli) had just as much fun as the audience, which frankly was considerable.
Wonderfully acted out page turners from the prolific composer's life played between and within the 24 musical numbers. A small sampling of what we learned: Sousa played violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone and alto horns; he composed at a very early age, and was outraged to the 20th power when one of his instructors told him his compositions were "Bread and cheese"; and at age 13 he planned on running off to join a circus band until his father nixed that near historical fate changer and enlisted him in the Marine Band.
After his discharge he went on to conduct various theater orchestras and made the crowd go wild with his baton leadership of Gilbert & Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" on Broadway. He met Jennie, his future wife, during "Pinafore" rehearsals and married her in December of 1879. He would eventually assume leadership of the U.S. Marine Band and conduct as "The President's Own" under presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur and Harrison. When President Arthur expressed annoyance over hearing that same old "Hail To The Chief," Sousa responded by writing "Semper Fidelis."
"The Washington Post" march (you'll know it when you hear it and your feet are stomping to it) was written by Sousa in three days, to publicize a school essay contest sponsored by the newspaper. A co-founder of ASCAP, Sousa composed 136 marches, 15 operettas, 70 songs, 28 fantasies, 24 dances and 5 overtures, and in his spare time penned 7 books and 138 articles.
His Sousa Band would travel to Europe many times and his would be the first American band to make a tour around the world. His composition, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which is the official march of the United States, was also the last piece he conducted. He died in his sleep at age 77, after conducting a rehearsal of the Ringgold Band in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Ribboned by jubilation and equal parts sweetheart sashay, Ken Malucelli and his talented cast gave us a Sousa that was full of dreams, love of country and even wonderful silliness. Come and hear again the magic, the legend that is Sousa. For more information type into www.ohmrsousa.com.