Berkshire Theatre Group's "Music Man' celebrates community

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PITTSFIELD — In Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," Harold Hill arrives in River City, Iowa with plans to carry out his typical con: posing as a music teacher and convincing a town that it needs a marching band of youngsters before making off with the money handed over for instruments and uniforms.

Consequently, while the powers of change, community and love are at the fore of this classic musical, the play also raises questions about education and the people entrusted with teaching children.

But if "The Music Man" highlights education's vulnerability, those involved in the musical's staging at The Colonial Theatre this summer exemplify its strength. The Berkshire Theatre Group's 12th annual community production — which began performances Thursday and runs through Aug. 6 — will showcase more than 100 young performers who have received guidance from more seasoned actors and staff, moving them to greater levels of theatrical understanding and empathy.

"These community actors rise to the occasion and end up on the same level as Rylan [Morsbach] and Haley [Aguero] in their dance, in their acting on stage, in the way they prepare off-stage. They become actors, and they get to have these incredible sets and professional lighting people, so it's really, I think, just creating an educational opportunity," said director Travis G. Daly during a group interview with actors Morsbach, Aguero and Hayden Hoffman.

Though the Berkshire Theatre Group has been staging a summer community production for more than a decade, this year's play represents a marked expansion. In all, there will be 37 performances, following 13 last year and as few as four just five years ago, Daly estimated.

"The belief that [artistic director and CEO] Kate Maguire has in these productions and how they keep just giving opportunities for these actors like Hayden and some others who have done five, six, seven or up to 20 shows with us and are just in high school, is pretty remarkable," he said.

Daly, 34, said the organization recruits actors who not only exhibit great talent but also demonstrate strong leadership qualities, such as Morsbach and Aguero.

"I do feel a real sense of responsibility on this show both as a performer but also in terms of kind of leading the charge and being someone who sets a good example for the younger folks in the show. It's a real privilege to be in that position," said Morsbach, who plays Hill. The 28-year-old actor and Pioneer Valley native is a Berkshire Theatre Group veteran, having performed in previous productions such as "Mary Poppins," "The Homecoming" and "Fiorello!," the last of which was transferred to Off Broadway. He also interned at the organization and contributed to "Atlantis, Lost!," a BTG PLAYS! educational touring production that exposed Morsbach to the impact mentorship can have on children.

"Rylan's an absolutely wonderful performer. And he's not only a fabulous performer, but he's a wonderful friend, and he's inspiring people like Hayden," Aguero said. The 20-year-old from Valdosta, Ga., is also a regular at the Berkshire institution, interning and playing Lefou in last year's "Beauty and the Beast." She was excited to be cast as a woman — Marian Paroo — in this year's production. Paroo is a librarian who almost immediately detects Hill's duplicity but becomes increasingly smitten with him.

"She's very much a secret romantic. You only get to see that romantic, kind of lovey-dovey side of her when she's singing her big songs," Aguero said.

Another reason Paroo doesn't report Hill to the authorities is because the band has given her shy brother, Winthrop, newfound confidence. Played by Hoffman, the younger Paroo is supposed to represent Willson's perspective as a little boy, according to Daly.

"The show for me really comes from his eyes," the director said.

Hoffman, a 10-year-old Lenox resident, has managed to gain some significant acting experience during a short period of time. Daly first cast him as Tiny Tim in the organization's "A Christmas Carol" production in 2015. Before that, Hoffman enjoyed performing for a different audience.

"I loved putting on shows for my family," he said.

Now his professional colleagues get to appreciate and provide feedback on his work. Aguero stressed that this mentorship has been a reciprocal process: While young actors like Hoffman have undoubtedly benefited from their elder peers' instruction, the more experienced ones learn from their younger colleagues, too.

"You have these wonderful 10-year-olds running around who are inspiring you and giving you life, so it's just a wonderful environment to be around. I'm the happiest here that I've ever been," she said.

Hill eventually finds himself having similar feelings about River City, which has embraced him, leading to surprising triumphs. For Aguero, BTG's recruitment of actors who hail from different parts of the country means the show's influence will stretch beyond the Berkshires.

"It's affecting a lot of lives all over this country," she said.

Ultimately, the audience in Pittsfield will be the judges of this year's show. For Morsbach, the play's ability to move young people to become more involved in theater will define its success.

"My hope is that at least one kid who sees one of these 37 performances really gets inspired and says, `I want to do that,'" Morsbach said.


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