Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre Alumni Are Back For More In ‘The Music Man’

Familiar faces in the first show of the SMT season will include Broadway star David Masenheimer, opera singer Lauren Curnow

Allentown, Pa. (May 25, 2011)—Harold Hill, the central figure in Meredith Willson‘s classic “The Music Man,” is a con artist—a stranger in town. But when the musical opens this year’s Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre season, the man playing Hill will be anything but a stranger. In fact, the production will be a homecoming of sorts for several of Muhlenberg College‘s best-known theater alumni.

This year, in its 31st season, the college’s popular summer theater festival will welcome back two alumni with international reputations as performing artists: Broadway star David Masenheimer as Hill, and opera singer Lauren Curnow as Hill’s love interest, Marian Paroo. Also joining the cast are MSMT veterans and Muhlenberg alumni Neil Hever and Gabriel Martínez.

 “The Music Man” runs June 15 through July 3. Charles Richter, Summer Music Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director, will direct the show; Karen Dearborn and Ed Bara will provide choreography and musical direction, respectively. All three are Muhlenberg faculty members.

“It will be wonderful to have some familiar folks—some very talented folks—joining us for this production,” Richter says. “There will be some serious star power on stage. We’re very fortunate.”

Masenheimer, a 1981 Muhlenberg graduate, starred in more than 1,000 performances of Broadway’s “Les Misérables” as Inspector Javert. Other Broadway credits include “Ragtime” and “Sideshow.” Curnow, a 1996 graduate, has appeared on opera stages around the world, including The Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Teatro Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy, the Wolftrap Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera. A lyric mezzo-soprano, Curnow holds master’s degrees from The Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.

 “The Music Man” tells the story of Harold Hill, a fast-talking con artist who comes to River City to make a fast buck, selling his phony dreams of a splendiferous town marching band. But then he meets the town librarian (and her kid brother), and finds himself transformed by the power of love. The score features several of Broadway’s best-known songs, including “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “Till There Was You,” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” The production won five Tony Awards in 1957, including Best Musical.

“In fact,” Richter points out, “this is the show that beat out ‘West Side Story’ for Best Musical. Willson did some incredibly innovative things with the score, and it took him five years to develop as a result.

“This is our third production of ‘The Music Man,’ and I believe our most exciting,” he says. “It is the first in our very intimate Baker Theatre, and that space will be very well suited to this talented cast.”

DAVID MASENHEIMER: A RETURN TO THE STAGE

David Masenheimer’s career as an actor began before college, when he spent vacations in summer stock productions. He acted regularly at Muhlenberg, arriving just a year after the opening of the Baker Center for the Arts, in the first days of the Theatre Department, arriving at the college a year before department founder Charles Richter.

Masenheimer started as a science major, but soon realized he had other interests to pursue. He got the lead in the student musical his freshman year, playing the Emcee in “Cabaret,” and that pointed him in a different direction—in a couple different directions, actually.

“I had some carpentry skills thanks to Muhlenberg,” he says. “I was a work-study carpenter and eventually was the technical director for the MTA,” the student-run Muhlenberg Theatre Association, which produced the plays. “I was not very popular in my fraternity, because I basically lived in the Center for the Arts.”

After graduation, Masenheimer went on tour in a number of shows, including “Les Misérables,” then in 1995, took on the role of Javert in the Broadway production. Other Broadway appearances have included the original cast of “Side Show” (1997) as well as roles in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1999), Ragtime (1999), and “The Wild Party” (2000).

For the most part—give or take a concert or two—Masenheimer gave up performing professionally about seven years ago. He now mostly pursues that other direction, building custom furniture and merchandising fixtures—and the occasional piece of theatrical scenery—with his carpentry company, Rampart Productions. He says the life of the performer got to be too much.

 “I’m so glad I did what I did when I did it,” he says. “But while I was packing up to come to Allentown, it occurred to me, if I was really in this business, I’d be packing up and going on tour for a year, and that’s just completely unappealing to me. I wanted some control over what I was going to do and when I was going to do it.”

Masenheimer says “The Music Man” is among his favorites. He played Harold Hill in high school and feels a connection to the show and the character. After 34 years, he still remembers the lyrics to “(Ya Got) Trouble,” the show’s notoriously difficult patter song: “… right here in River City, with a capital T, and that rhymes with P and that stands for ‘pool.'”

“The show is a really well written piece of Americana,” he says. “The music is lovely, and I just love all the characters; it’s such a great ensemble piece.”

So does “The Music Man” signal a possible return to the stage for Masenheimer?

“No, this is it,” he says. “This is about Muhlenberg, and being back at Muhlenberg. I’m really looking forward to this whole process, though. It’s kind of a vacation.”

LAUREN CURNOW: A RETURN TO ROOTS

“The Music Man” marks Lauren Curnow’s first foray into Broadway-style musical theater since her student days, when she starred as Laurey in a 1995 Muhlenberg Theatre Association production of “Oklahoma!”

Since graduation, she has concentrated strictly on opera. She got a job in an opera chorus right out of college, then a paid apprenticeship at the prestigious Lyric Opera Company of Chicago, then graduate-level study at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute. Since then, she has worked consistently as a performer, with opera companies around the world.

In a way, “The Music Man” marks a return to roots for Curnow.

I started out being musical theater all the way,” she says. “But from the time I started at Muhlenberg, I was taking lessons with Jeremy Slavin,” A Muhlenberg faculty member and MSMT co-founder, who just retired this spring. “And he started training me classically. So I started thinking about myself as a singer in a different way.”

Curnow said the biggest adjustment for her as an opera singer will be to incorporate dialogue in her performance.

“Going back and forth between singing and speaking is something I’m not as used to as I was,” she says. “You really have to pace yourself. You have to think about how you’re projecting on the stage, so that when it’s time to sing, you’re ready to go.”

This role will be unusual for Curnow in another way, as well. As a mezzo-soprano, she says she gets to play mostly supporting characters—the “compremario” roles. “The Music Man” gives her an opportunity to play the romantic lead for a change.

“I don’t often get to be the ingenue, which will be fun,” she says. “In opera, the lovers are usually more in the soprano range, for some reason. We mezzos get to be the best friends and funny maids.”

A SUMMER THEATER HOMECOMING

Neil Hever, Muhlenberg Class of 1982, played alongside Masenheimer, back in that first Summer Music Theatre season, 31 years ago. He has been a fixture on the MSMT stage ever since—most recently starring in last season’s “The Mikado.” He will play Charlie Cowell in “The Music Man.”

“I’ve seen MSMT grow and evolve into a very professional and high quality program over time,” Hever says. “The adult actors and Muhlenberg teaching staff I worked with as a student at the very beginning were a great source of inspiration. I hope that now, as an adult, I am helping today’s students grow and improve as actors by example.”

Another familiar face, of a more recent vintage, is Gabriel Martínez, the 2010 grad who played William Barfée (rhymes with “parfait”) in last season’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Before that, he appeared in 2009’s “Forever Plaid” and 2008’s “A Year with Frog and Toad” and “The Who’s Tommy.” This year, he’ll play Marcellus Washburn.

The production will also welcome another MSMT prodigal: conductor Donald Spieth, best known locally as the conductor of the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, although he has conducted numerous ensembles in the Lehigh Valley region and beyond. Spieth conducted the orchestra for MSMT’s first season, 31 years ago, and returns to the orchestra pit for “The Music Man.”

Prominent cast members who are not Muhlenberg alumni include two longtime members of the Lehigh Valley theatre community: veteran MSMT performer and director Bill Mutimer, as Mayor Shinn, and Arts Ovation Award winner JoAnn Wilchek Basist, as Eulalie Shinn.

The show will feature scenic design by Campbell Baird, whose last MSMT assignment was the east-meets-west costume design for last season’s “The Mikado.” “The Music Man’s” costume designer is Kevin Thacker. Lighting designer is MSMT veteran John McKernon.

“The Music Man” runs June 15 through July 3, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.

Tickets for June 15-18 are $32; seniors age 65 and up, $28; students and children, $18. Tickets for June 19 through July 3 are $38; seniors, $35; students and children, $20.

Sundays are Family Matinee day; tickets for children ages 5-18 are just $10 when purchased with a full-price or senior ticket. (Limit two discounted tickets per full-price ticket.) Discounts are available for subscriptions to “The Music Man” and “Godspell” and for groups of 15 or more. More information online.

The rest of the MSMT season for 2011 will feature “Godspell,” July 13-31, and “Cinderella,” a movement-theater production for children, June 22 – July 30.

Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/SummerMusicTheatre.

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