By SASHA PAULSEN, Register Features Editor
Thursday, November 10, 2005
John Philip Sousa became the first millionaire musician in this country by following a simple philosophy: Give the people what they want.
In the ongoing search for what audiences in Napa want, one might want to take a close look at the sold-out audience and the thunderous applause that greeted "Oh Mr. Sousa!" in its premiere at the Opera House Sunday. Not to mention the toe-tapping that accompanied the renditions of some of Sousa's famous pieces.
This tribute in the form of a musical biography premiered on an auspicious day: Not only was it the 151th anniversary of Sousa's birth, but it was exactly 100 years after the March King himself appeared on the stage at the Opera House.
"His ghost is somewhere here, I'm sure," Evy Warshawski, opera house director, said, introducing the show.
"Oh Mr. Sousa!" is the brainchild of Ken Malucelli, producer, writer, arranger and director of the work, which intersperses a range of Sousa's music with vignettes from the great band leader's life.
A 22-member concert band, conducted by Lester Lehr, did a superb job of performing 24 pieces that ranged from some of Sousa's most stirring marches to numbers from his less successful operettas and a lively "Turxie" medley of "Turkey in the Straw" and "Dixie." Works by Scott Joplin and Gilbert and Sullivan are also included, conveying the spirit of the times.
Indeed "Oh Mr. Sousa!" brings home the point that although he gained worldwide fame and a lasting place in American music for his spirited marches like "The Washington Post," "Semper Fidelis" and, of course, "Stars and Stripes Forever," Sousa regretted that audiences never got as excited by his operettas. Listening, however, to the dirge-like "Sweetheart, I'm Waiting," from El Capitan (his most successful operetta), one understands the audiences' predilection for "Stars and Stripes."
A nine-person cast slipped in and out of 37 roles, narrating Sousa's colorful life, beginning with his birth in Washington, D.C., covering his romance and marriage to the 16-year-old Jennie, and his long, successful career, concluding with his death at age 77, just after conducting a rehearsal of "Stars and Stripes Forever."
The dialogue provides interesting insights into Sousa, as in the amusing encounter between young Sousa and the proprietor of the Washington Post who persuades Sousa to write a march for a special event in three days for the enticing sum of $35. The result was "The Washington Post" march which started an international dance craze, according to program notes.
Playing Sousa are Peter Matthews as young Sousa and John Hutchinson as Older Sousa. Both are equally effective at conveying the spirit of the musical prodigy who in his productive life wrote 136 marches, 15 operettas, 70 songs, 28 fantasies, 24 dances, 5 overtures, 7 books, 138 magazine and newspaper articles and 27 letters to the editor -- and of a man who reportedly said, "A horse, a gun, a dog and a girl, and a little music on the side. That is my idea of heaven." One hopes the girl he meant was his wife, Jennie.
Cheryl Blalock, a veteran performer with Lamplighters Music Theater, makes a charming Jennie. Other performers include Kathi Brotemarkle, Bob Matteucci, Michael Morris, Catherine Sheldon, Susan Taylor Nitzberg, and Todd Schurk, who gives a fine impression of President Chester Arthur, among his other roles.
All in all, it's an engaging, thoroughly enjoyable show, that builds to a rousing grand finale, with "Stars and Stripes Forever" -- complete with flag-waving cast. It brought the audience to its feet. This combination of sentiment, patriotism and really fun music was just what the people wanted on a rainy afternoon in Napa.