The Olney Theater stars the deaf Harold Hill in The Music Man | Wender Mind Kids

The Olney Theater stars the deaf Harold Hill in The Music Man
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James Caverly was working as a carpenter in the scene shop at the Olney Theater Center about seven years ago when he laid the groundwork for an unconventional endeavor: a production of The Music Man with a mix of deaf and hearing actors.

At that time, the Gallaudet University graduate hardly found roles for deaf actors. Having recently seen Deaf West’s 2015 production of Spring Awakening performed on Broadway in American Sign Language and spoken English, Caverly thought the time was right for a DC theater to follow suit . When Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith encouraged staff to approach him with show ideas, Caverly spoke up.

“It’s like Frankenstein’s monster going to Dr. Frankenstein came and said, ‘I need a wife,'” Caverly said during a recent video chat. “It was me with Jason Loewith saying, ‘Hey, I need a production.’ (With the exception of Loewith, all interviews for this story were conducted with the assistance of an ASL interpreter.)

The sales pitch worked: Loewith greenlit a workshop to explore Caverly’s concept, then pitched the musical for summer 2021 before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. During the delay, Caverly’s profile came to a head: He booked a recurring role in Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Hulu comedy Only Murders in the Building, earning widespread acclaim for a near-silent episode that focused on his morally complicated character.

Armed with a newfound cachet, Caverly has returned to Olney – this time leaving his carpentry tools behind. Featuring deaf, hearing and hard of hearing actors, with Caverly starring as raunchy con man Harold Hill, a bilingual production of The Music Man marches onto the theater’s main stage this week.

“What [Caverly] has a presence and a charm and a charisma and a drive and a passion that in a way is Harold Hill,” says Loewith. “I mean, think about how he pulled off this production: He totally turned me into Harold Hill. But he’s a cheater that I like.”

In fitting Hill manner, Caverly was convincing despite initial skepticism. Though Loewith says his concerns centered primarily on the logistics of staging a traditionally sprawling show, he also recalled pushing Caverly on the artistic merits of the idea.

“I didn’t want to just do it like, ‘Here we’re included,'” says Loewith. “I wanted to ask, ‘What is a musical that needs this kind of storytelling?’ ”

It was at this point that Caverly Loewith reported the story of Martha’s Vineyard: In the 19th century, a genetic anomaly resulted in such a prominent deaf population – about 1 in 25 residents – that the island’s native sign language became ubiquitous and deaf people were fully assimilated into it the community.

So what if River City, the backwater town in Iowa where “The Music Man” is set, was like Martha’s Vineyard? Like many of his deaf colleagues, Caverly also learned to play an instrument in his youth – in his case the guitar. Hence the idea of ​​Hill, the traveling salesman, enticing locals to invest in a boys’ marching band with the intention of skipping town before teaching them a note.

“The beauty of this story is that Harold Hill never really teaches the kids music,” says Caverly, “so he doesn’t actually have to listen to music and he doesn’t have to play those musical instruments.”

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Caverly recalls being moved to tears when he first saw ASL added to the show during the 2019 workshop. At the time, however, he had no intention of playing Hill. Sandra Mae Frank – a star of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening production and Caverly’s former Gallaudet classmate – was recruited to play piano teacher Marian Paroo, with Hill as the hearing character and Caverly as his accomplice Marcellus Washburn.

“I didn’t care how I was going to be involved,” says Caverly. “I was like, ‘You know what? I build the sets. I’m working out front tearing off some ticket slips.” I really, really wanted this production to happen.”

But that plan changed when Alexandria Wailes, the deaf artist originally set to oversee the production with hearing director Michael Baron, was cast in Broadway’s For Colored Girls… Frank then left the cast and took the co-director’s chair, with Marian (played by Adelina Mitchell) reimagined as the listener and Caverly swapping into the role of Hill.

As co-director, Frank worked with Baron to further center the deaf perspective. While the Spring Awakening production in which she starred had every deaf cast doubled by a hearing actor – who voiced and sang their parts – extensive sections of “The Music Man” are performed entirely in ASL, with English surtitles emblazoned above the stage.

“You’ve seen ‘shadow’ actors, and people have called that a righteous experience,” says Frank, a series regular on the NBC drama New Amsterdam. “But I question this narrative. I think it’s completely different. I want viewers to leave with the idea that they have just been invited into a world of deaf and hearing people and experience authentically what it would be like where deaf and hearing people live and coexist in equal and balanced ways. ”

Assisting is Michelle Banks, the director of artistic sign language tasked with reinterpreting Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical in ASL. She says there are myriad nuances in not only translating the text, but also evoking the Midwestern accents and contemporary dialect. And teaching actors to perform some of the show’s fast-paced ASL lyrics — like those of the opening song “Rock Island” — has its own complexities.

“During rehearsals, we make sure the timing matches the way the hearing actors are speaking and the way the deaf actors are singing—we think about beats, count, pay attention to visual cues,” says Banks. “It takes a lot of practice and harmony within the deaf and hearing artists, and it’s a challenge in itself. But I have to say it’s fun.”

As several people involved in the production point out, there’s still room for more faithful revivals of musicals from the Golden Age – such as the lavish “Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman, which is now on Broadway. But Caverly notes that “the addition of deaf breathes new life into a classic musical.”

“We bring a completely different perspective,” adds Caverly. “There is a huge deaf artist population in and around Gallaudet University that has not yet been tapped as a resource. This is where I’m supposed to say, “Hey, we’ve been here the whole time and it’s about time you gave us your attention, included us in the conversation, and included us in the development of future shows.”

Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.