Viewpoint: Taking Stock of Summer
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock, 1950
© MGM/Photofest 2013
I don't know the exact date of the first summer-stock performance that I attended. When I was growing up, my family spent summers on Cape Cod, where summer-theater activity was in swing pretty much from late June until Labor Day Weekend. Presenters such as the Falmouth Playhouse (now gone, alas) and the Cape Playhouse in Dennis (still active, and celebrating its eighty-sixth season this year) offered New York actors and television stars in everything from The Mousetrap and Mary, Mary to The Corn Is Green and The Millionairess.
My memory is that my first summer-theater experience was a children's matinée of Heidi, a stage version of the Johanna Spyri novel cast with the college-age apprentices from the Falmouth Playhouse. I was nine or ten and found the whole experience deeply dissatisfying. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I was just as hard to please then as I am now.) The actress playing the orphan girl Heidi looked ancient to me — she was probably all of nineteen — and I positively sneered when I saw sunburn marks above the neckline of the ugly plaid dress worn by the character of the rich girl Clara, Heidi's crippled friend. (A ten-year-old's interior monologue, abridged: "How could Clara get a sunburn? She can't go to the beach — she can't walk.") Now I realize that the poor Clara was an underpaid apprentice who cleaned dressing rooms and swept the stage but still played the matinée despite having a sunburn so bad that it was clearly visible from the middle of the orchestra, which is where I was sitting, my arms folded and my jaw set, unwilling to suspend disbelief and eager to go home.
There were several other childhood summer-theater trips. A children's matinée of Robin Hood at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, which presented all of its shows in the round, had all entrances and exits staged as mad dashes up and down the aisle. I remember a strapping Robin Hood shouting "Lower the drawbridge, Marian!" as he galloped past me. (Interior monologue, continued: "Lower the drawbridge? She's going to lower the drawbridge by herself? Oh, please.") And so it went, until I saw the show that won my surrender — the Oberlin College Gilbert and Sullivan Players in H.M.S. Pinafore at Highfield Theater, in Falmouth. (Highfield Theater, which is still very much in operation, has been the home of the College Light Opera Company since 1969.) I was thirteen, and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen: Barry Busse, as Sir Joseph Porter, made me laugh until I cried. By the time the show was over, I had fallen in love with the theater — not just the building, where I would eventually work, in a variety of capacities, for more than a dozen very happy summers, but the whole idea of show business. In the 1950 MGM film Summer Stock, when Judy Garland can't quite believe the crazy life that her sister's actor friends lead, Gene Kelly replies, "Show business? There's nothing else in the world."
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
CORRECTIONS: Dawn Upshaw leads the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at the Bard Conservatory of Music, not Bard College, as stated in our OPERA NEWS Award tribute to the soprano (Apr.).
The Frankfurt Opera does not offer a subscription series of five revivals, as stated in "The Main Event." (May).
The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.
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