I know summer is a-comin' in when I see a musical at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, about 45 minutes outside of Boston. It's a theater I've attended almost annually since July 1964, when I first sat under its canvas tent and saw Milk and Honey in the round. The following year brought Mickey Deems (Mr. Pinchley's son in the original Little Me) as a sensational Pseudolus in Funny Thing, and 1966 yielded New Faces of 1966--which eventually wound up on Broadway with a slightly different title, New Faces of 1968. (It took the show two years to get to Broadway; for today's musicals, that seems like no time at all.)
In the '70s, North Shore offered such commercial comedies as Send Me No Flowers starring Jess Cain, a local deejay who'd appeared on Broadway in Stalag 17 and who liked to say that his daughter was born the night Silk Stockings opened. The theater also produced faded hits like Where's Charley? (with Rex Harrison's son, Noel) and fresher hits like Hello, Dolly! with Molly Picon as Mrs. Levi (presumably without the Gallagher). Such diverse attractions as Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope and Company played here, too, but the 1974 season showed that North Shore was learning how to handle an audience. While it presented many of the same ole tired hits that we musical enthusiasts had seen since year one, it also offered a three-play subscription package of shows most of us hadn't encountered: two vintage musicals (Gershwins' Lady Be Good, Porter's You Never Know) and one new one (Jones and Schmidt's Philemon). I signed up for that deal, believe me, and applauded North Shore's savvy in catering to a cult crowd.
Many years ago, North Shore tore down the canvas, walled in the structure, got rid of the merciless mosquitoes, and installed heat and air conditioning--but it kept its in-the-round configuration. Cole Porter wrote how the movies give us "Stereophonic Sound" but you really get it at North Shore: The actors stand not only on stage but also in the aisles, surrounding you with music. They barge up and down those aisles, too, and old-timers fondly tell the tale probably apocryphal) of the theatergoer at Finian's Rainbow who got up for a bathroom break just as the actor playing the senator was going up the aisle to have his face sprayed with black paint for the transformation scene. As the story goes, the techies instead black-faced the theatergoer.
Now, under Jon Kimbell's savvy leadership, North Shore Music Theatre is an almost year-round operation. March and April bring concerts (Linda Eder, George Carlin) and musicals play May to December. Though there were many other "tent operations" in Massachusetts during the '60s, North Shore is one of very few still around and is now clearly at the head of the pack. "Dedicated to the American musical," proclaims a square sheet that totally covers the side of an administration building; I don't know if the building should be landmarked, but the sheet sure should.
Ragtime, which closes this coming Sunday, works well in the round. Case in point: During the opening, actors pour down the aisles but Booker T. Washington is standing at the top of one aisle, literally and symbolically above. Director Stafford Arima intersperses his blacks, Jews, and WASPs along the perimeter of the round stage, which looks wrong--until he has each character suddenly notice that there's an "outsider" next to him. That's what makes them all move into separate groups.
Of course, in-the-round operations aren't known for their ornate scenery. At first glance, it looks as if this Ragtime will only offer us a pair of door frames and a steel balcony/fire escape unit on which Maria and Tony could sing "Tonight." But, once the show starts, up come the people from beneath the stage on three hydraulic lifts, and a turntable begins to turn as Father and Tateh journey on. Positioned carefully around the auditorium are four movie-sized screens onto which slides are projected, sometimes with piercing results. ("Success!" the Jews sing while tenements are shown.) And North Shore really comes through on the most difficult assignment, giving Coalhouse a Model T of which he can be really proud.
One of the wonderful benefits of seeing Ragtime is that librettist Terrence McNally and lyicist Lynn Ahrens remind us how much we owe our forebears. Those people made the trip over the ocean and came to a land where they didn't know the language and had virtually no opportunities, yet made a go of it so that their children and grandchildren--us--could have better lives. We now have them, indeed, and seeing Ragtime is a way to honor our grandfathers and grandmothers. Composer Stephen Flaherty sure honored them with his semitic-tinged melodies for the Jews, his four-square music for the WASPs, and his real-sounding ragtime for the blacks.
The cast at North Shore honors the material. Ann Van Cleave does a stirring and elegant job as Mother, one of the great female characters in musical theater. (Those who say that women should rule the world can point to her as a great role model.) Joel Briel, who did a thousand performances of Cats at the Winter Garden, bats a thousand with Tateh--though I guess I should save the baseball imagery for "What a Game!" (Leave it to a female lyricist to notice that baseball fans spit a lot.) As Sarah, Nikki Renée Daniels sings beautifully. When Tracey Moore's Emma Goldman tells Perry Ojeda's Younger Brother "I have been waiting for you," she gives it a reading full of genuine respect and admiration for the fact that the guy is taking the plunge. Jimmy Dieffenbach is so winning as The Little Boy that I suddenly thought of the kid who was so impressive in Damn Yankees here years ago and would later become the noted actor Richard Thomas. Allan H. Green isn't ideally cast as Coalhouse (he doesn't have the gravitas for the role and he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Harpo Marx), but he does sing it well. As for Shannon Hastings' Evelyn Nesbit, I say, "Whee!"
Now, they're all part of the North Shore family, which is very proud of its alumni and which, in its newsletter, celebrates those who are now on Broadway (there are seven each in 42nd Street and Millie). Usher Susan Cassidy told me that when Carousel played here last year, one of the cast members spent much of his free time twirling a rope. He was Justin Bohon, whom Broadway, the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and the Theatre World Awards now know as rope-twirling Will Parker in Oklahoma!
One tiny problem: North Shore does so well attendance-wise that getting out of the parking lot at the end of the night takes an inordinate amount of time. I didn't mind; it gave me plenty of extra time to look at the sheet that says "Dedicated to the American Musical."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]