Teens’ talents bring ‘Music’ to the ears

By Doug Snover

There’s trouble brewing at Kyrene Middle School these days, but it’s a kinder and gentler sort of trouble, the kind of trouble that makes folks nostalgic for the good ol’ days.

Professor Harold Hill is coming to KMS and bringing along his imaginary marching band, complete with 76 trombones.

On a rainy afternoon, after most students have gone home for the weekend, Director Dave Mittel opens the green curtain in KMS’ multi-purpose room opens and suddenly it’s River City, Iowa, circa 1912. Eighth-graders Ben Scolaro, Lauren Johnston and Anna Stough are staying after school to work on their “blocking” for several scenes in the musical stage-play, The Music Man by Meredith Willson. There are only a few weeks before opening night.

Mittel is working with Stough on her lyrical Irish accent. Stough plays Mrs. Paroo, who is all in favor of “Professor” Hill’s proposal to start a boys band as well as the elusive professor’s overtures to her daughter, Marian.

Mittel exhorts Stough to let her voice dip and soar as she portrays the excitable Iowa matriarch. Johnston, meanwhile, works on the finer points of Marian Paroo, a prim, but romantic, Iowa librarian. Mittle’s advice: Be firm, but not shrewish, in rebuffing Professor Hill’s advances.

Scolaro, of course, plays the likable con man, “Professor” Harold Hill, a fast-talker out to swindle River City’s families by collecting for a non-existent boy’s marching band complete with mail-order instruments and uniforms.

With only a few weeks before opening night, Scolaro has mastered Professor Hill’s glib sales pitch and is working on his fancy footwork.

Mittel, an eighth-grade advanced English teacher, and Julie Hackmann, the KMS music director, have collaborated on nine productions since Mittel started the KMS after-school theater program 14 years ago. Before coming to Arizona, Mittel worked in the Boston Children’s Theater and directed plays at Bowdoin College in Maine.

He and Hackmann produce both winter and spring shows. The fare tends toward light classics. Past productions include Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady.

About 45 students are participating in The Music Man. Their parents are likely to be a lot more familiar with each play than the students--at least at the beginning of rehearsals.

“Julie and I sit down in September and October, look at who she has (in the chorus) this year (and) look at the maturity level of the kids,” Mittel said of picking the year’s shows.

“I think it’s nice for the kids to be introduced to it,” he said of the mainstream theater productions that KMS puts on.

Players rehearse for seven weeks. “It’s pretty much five days a week,” Mittel said. “I think they are great. Coming to see a production like this, people are pretty impressed.”

But how does the director help the young actors get a grip on characters far-removed from their own experiences? Guys and Dolls is about gangsters in New York City. Fiddler is about as Old World as it gets. And even The Music Man is set in 1912 Iowa.

“We do a lot of character development,” Mittel said. He talks to the players about the trends and lifestyle of the day, the technology and the language. In Music Man, for example, the residents of River City, Iowa, lead such an isolated existence that the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon and its cargo of mail-order goods is cause for celebration.

The students “rise to the occasion,” Mittel said. That includes managing the stage themselves during performances while their director paces in the background. “There’s nobody there but the kids. I think they take a lot of pride in that.”

“It think it’s about finding out about self-worth,” Mittel said of The Music Man story. “About finding love, settling down, realizing you can’t be running away your whole life.”

“Harold Hill transforms the town. I think everybody’s self-esteem rises because of the music.”

Being a musical, there must be musicians. No recorded music here; Hackmann and several other teachers anchor the pit orchestra with help from parent volunteers, Mittel said.

Among The Music Man’s best-remembered songs are “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Good Night Ladies,” and “Till There Was You.”

The Music Man opens March 3, with performances scheduled March 4-5 and 10-12. Showtime is 7 p.m., with tickets priced at $6. Kyrene Middle School is at 1050 E. Carver Road, Tempe.