One of the leading summer theaters in the country is The Ogunquit Playhouse in the town of Ogunquit, Maine. According to the history of the theater, “it was the first, and remains the only, summer theatre from the summer stock era built exclusively as a seasonal theatre.” Opening in 1933, he theater is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2015, the listing was raised to National Level of Significance “in consideration of the significant contributions made by its founder Walter J. Hartwig and the Playhouse to Performing Arts Education throughout the nation.”
This summer’s productions have already included The Cher Show and a rebirth of the musical The Nutty Professor, based on the 1963 Jerry Lewis film comedy. Currently playing through September 10 is the world premiere of the musical Mr. Holland’s Opus, based on the 1995 film of the same name that starred Richard Dreyfuss. With this production, the actor, B.D. Wong, has written the book, lyrics and directed the show. Here is a review.
The musical Mr. Holland’s Opus, receiving its world premiere at the Ogunquit Playhouse, is problematic at best. Based on the motion picture of the same name, the production follows the narrative of the film, but needlessly adds an element to the story (not in the movie) of the Vice Principal’s repressed gay feelings. By incorporating such a plot point throughout the show, as well as a few others, the two main foci of the musical are not as fully developed as they could be. These are Mr. Holland’s teaching and mentoring of generations of high school students and his relationship with his deaf son.
As the show begins, we are introduced to a young couple, musician Glen Holland (Akron Watson) and his photographer wife, Iris (Anastasia Barzee). Mr. Holland is working on his “great american symphony,” but with money tight he agrees, for a short time, to teach music at John F. Kennedy High School. The temporary position eventually becomes an odyssey that ends up lasting 30 years.
At the beginning of his journey we meet the tough, but fair-minded Principal, Helen Che-Jacobs (Veanne Cox); the prickly Vice Principal, Eugene Wolters (Timothy Gulan); and Bill Meister (Chris Orbach), the gym teacher who becomes Mr. Holland’s lifelong friend. Throughout his years in the public school we witness his tutelage of challenging students as he also inspires and imbues life lessons. Unfortunately, the demands at school leave little time for his family, which now includes a son Cole (Joshua Castille). Cole, much to the heartache of Mr. Holland, is deaf.
As time passes, the plot continually shifts between Mr. Holland’s two worlds. The high school responsibilities receive more attention, much to the resentment and unhappiness of his growing son and wife. However, by the show’s conclusion there is an affectionate rapproachement and understanding between father and son.
The musical, as with the film ends with Mr. Holland losing his position due to budget cuts. There is an outpouring of gratitude to the elder statesman of JFK High School from generations of his students and colleagues. This culminates in a presentation of his finally completed symphony at an overflowing school assembly.
The actor B.D. Wong performs a trifecta with the show. He wrote its book, the song’s lyrics, and directed the musical. As librettist, the story comes across as a solid first draft. The show would be hugely strengthened if a couple of subplots were jettisoned. These include the ongoing angst over the Vice Principal’s sexual orientation and the recurring ghost-like presence of a childhood friend turned Top 40 artist. The second act high school musical could also be shortened. This would allow more time to enhance the various relationships Mr. Holland has with his students, family, and colleagues. Certain scenes could also have a more satisfying resolution as when Mr. Holland’s wife confronts him about a possible liaison with a student. After a big build-up it is just matter-of-factly resolved.
The musical could benefit by Director B.D. Wong infusing the production with more of an impassioned core. The show should be one of joy and disquietude that tugs at our emotional heart strings. I didn’t feel much tugging. Choreographer Darren Lee enlivens the set with a few timely dances numbers, most notably in the production numbers for “Angels Getting Their Winds” and “Cole World.”
The score by Wayne Barker and B.D. Wong is straightforward and occasionally tuneful. It serves the purpose of exploring the character’s inner feelings and moving the action forward. The highlight of the production, the song that energies the show, is the Act II opener “Cole World,” where the audience is greeted by the teenage son of the Holland’s as he introduces his view of the world.
The cast is led by Akron Watson as Mr. Holland. He has a marvelous singing voice and, within the confines of the book, ably expresses the pride, hopefulness and overall elation in working with his high school charges. The actor also shows his range in the relationship he has with his son, from initial regret to eventual acceptance and celebration.
Anastasia Barzee gives a convincing performance as the harried, worried wife of Glen Holland. Veanne Cox is superb as Principal Che-Jacobs. The actress commands the stage with her presence. She is proper without being priggish, deftly straddling the line between tartness and winsome. Ms. Cox is also in good comedic form as a femme fatale in the imagination of the Vice Principal’s mind. Timothy Gulan’s character of VP Wolters needs to be reexamined. The performer does a very credible job of portraying the second in command as a complete jerk, but there is no nuance or redeeming quality to the role. He can be an adversary, but doesn’t need to be so off-putting.
The breakout performance of the show is Joshua Castille as Cole. He literally bursts onto the stage with exuberance and charism that adds a liveliness to the production. The deaf performer brings a passion to his character and realism to the musical. If the show does have an afterlife once its Ogunquit engagement has ended, I would hope he would be part of it.
Lex Liang’s Scenic Design is serviceable, but needs more to signify the passage of time. B.D. Wong states in the program notes that securing the rights to music of the decades covered in the show were not possible. However, projections of historic moments in time along with specially composed thematic music of the era would suffice.
Mr. Holland’s Opus, playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse through September 10. Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.