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Huntsville’s the Music Man runs on homemade baking and community spirit
By Gillian Brunette
Four Muskoka residents – an engineer, a music teacher, a high school student and a former furniture maker – might well have never met, but for the fact they share a common passion.
Love of the performing arts.
They also have a strong sense of community and for that reason the four, along with dozens of other likeminded folk, come together periodically to put their talents to work for the benefit and pleasure of their fellow citizens.
Currently their focus is on the Music Man, a new musical production that will take the Algonquin Theatre stage in April. While everyone involved – directors, actors, costumiers, technicians and backstage crew – play vital roles in the success of any production, at the outset much depends on the people who design and build the stage sets.
Set designer Helena Renwick works closely with Ross Kirwin, the head of the set construction team. “Helena is incredibly talented. She does the set design and then we consult to see what is feasible,” Kirwin says, adding that Renwick can be very persuasive and usually accompanies her demands/requests with some homemade baking.
“For two chocolate chip cookies and a butter tart, we can do anything,” laughs Kirwin.
The musical is a collaborative effort between the Huntsville Festival of the Arts (HFA), the North Muskoka Players and the Huntsville Rotary Club, of which Kirwin is a member.
Kirwin’s skill with wood comes from 35 years of fabrication and manufacturing experience in Toronto. After retiring about eight years ago, he and his wife made the move to Muskoka.
“We had a cottage in Bala,” he says, “but we specifically chose Huntsville to live because we felt it was a year-round community.”
Once settled Kirwin quickly became involved in his adopted town, joining the economic development committee, Rotary, and the HFA. It was while serving on the HFA board, that the decision was made to re-introduce the Huntsville Rotary annual musical after a hiatus of 16 years. That production was the Wizard of Oz and Kirwin took on the responsibility of building the sets.
Of course a musical would not be a musical without an orchestra, and that’s where music director/conductor/performer Neil Barlow comes to the fore. Barlow juggles his time like a magician. He conducts two concert bands and two jazz bands in Ontario and the Oakland Brass Band in Michigan. He is also a performing member of several chamber music groups, and a member and frequent cornet soloist with the Metropolitan Silver Band of Toronto, of which he is also the assistant conductor.
A self-employed engineering and marketing consultant, he still finds the time for community theatre. Having just finished directing the orchestra for the Bracebridge Rotary musical, the Drowsy Chaperone, and fitting in some rehearsal time for the Music Man, Barlow was back in Michigan for a week, working with the Oakland Brass Band.
Barlow estimates his musical interests take up about 30 hours a week and his consulting work another 30. “But I’m having fun every single day, so to my mind that’s retirement,” he says.
Born and raised in the United States, Barlow spent a large part of his career managing a series of high-tech companies in Canada and around the world. He eventually settled in Muskoka in 1999.
Barlow quickly became involved with the Bracebridge Rotary shows. “I played in the orchestra and then in ’05 or ‘06 I was asked to conduct the orchestra for Leader of the Pack at the Gravenhurst Opera House,” he says.
His participation with community musicals in Huntsville began with the opening of the Algonquin Theatre and Jesus Christ Superstar. Since then he’s been involved in every musical production at the theatre.
Music plays a large part in Barlow’s life and while he has no preferred genre, he admits to a soft spot for musical theatre, particularly Broadway shows. “I love the interaction of drama, singing and instrumental music. I’ve been involved with that since I was 13 or 14 and it’s always been a love of mine,” he says.
Music builds a sense of community and brings people together, says Barlow. “I’m a great fan of that. Most of the music stuff I do is with people who are not pros. They are from across the district and beyond and just want to get together and make music. To my mind that is building bridges across an area where people wouldn’t normally come together.”
And the one area that most engages the audience is the stage, where cast members strut their stuff. Among the very large and talented cast of Music Man is Jillian McDougall, who plays Marian Paroo, the town librarian and part-time piano teacher.
Music plays a significant role in McDougall’s life, whether it’s playing the piano, singing, teaching or directing choirs. A mother of three youngsters, managing her time between family, students, directing the Huntsville Community Choir and the instrumental and vocal ensembles at Faith Baptist Church, is a balancing act. Nevertheless, she still finds time and energy to sing with local ensemble groups, as well as performing solos at a variety of events.
While at university in Vancouver, McDougall took a Drama 101 class in her final year and discovered she loved it. “As it happens, the song My White Knight from Music Man was the first song I sang in that genre while participating in a musical theatre workshop at the Vancouver Academy of Music.”
Her first acting role in Huntsville was as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, followed by the part of the good witch Glinda, from the musical Wicked, which she portrayed in Nights on Broadway.
“I’m very comfortable on stage,” says McDougall. “Performing, whether it’s acting or singing, is about what you are communicating – a mood, a sentiment or an important idea. It comes through either way.”
A large number of cast members in Music Man are young people and the role of Tommy Djilas belongs to Huntsville High School Grade 10 student Daniel Murphy.
A relative newcomer to both the area and theatre, Murphy took up acting in elementary school because he thought it would be “cool” to be on stage. After a couple of school plays Murphy found that it wasn’t quite what he expected. “My voice was changing and I’d lost my upper range, so I couldn’t really sing. It was difficult. I didn’t like the whole make-up idea either,” he says.
However, when his mother had a chorus role in the musical Annie, Murphy found his interest in acting stirred once more. “That was very cool watching her doing that and she told me how exciting it was and how much fun.”
When he heard a couple of friends talking about all the fun they had as cast members in Wizard of Oz, Murphy decided he wanted to participate too. “I auditioned for the part of Wendy’s brother Jonathan in Peter Pan, but I killed the audition so got the part of a pirate instead.”
His first rehearsal was memorable. “I wondered how such a ragtag group of people could be pirates, but after the first practice we had one song almost perfectly. I was amazed.”
After the show closed Murphy had made new friends and was hooked. He waited the year out wondering what the next musical would be and was happy to hear it was the Music Man.
Rehearsals are a blast. “We’ve got some crazy, amazing people working with us and everything will come together in the end. It always does,” he says.
Barlow believes the performing arts bring people from all walks of life closer together. McDougall agrees. “I draw a parallel of our community coming together for this show with the community of River City in the Music Man, where Harold Hill stirs up a lot of hope and excitement with the promise of a boys’ marching band.
“Even the whole audition process is a stretch and brings people out of their comfort zones. It’s a journey we take together and when the show closes we still have the friendships we’ve made along the way. And that’s a wonderful thing.”