By Marcie Miller
There is a soft buzz of conversation and rustling of paper as the 38-member cast of the latest Ovation! production prepares to sing their parts “off book” for the first time, just three weeks into rehearsals. The spacious basement studio on Erickson Avenue is lined with posters from the 21 previous productions presented over the last 10 years: “The Sound of Music,” “Brigadoon,” “Pirates of Penzance” and more. A handwritten poster proclaims: “TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves Magnificence.”
Music director Todd Hulet plays the opening minor chords on his keyboard, and a chorus of men launch into the prologue: “Look down, look down, don’t look ’em in the eye. Look down, look down, you’re here until you die.” Artistic director and founder Ron Milton sits to the side, making production notes, while co-founder and production manager Marijane Milton melds into the cast as Madame Thernardier. Theater buffs will know by now that the landmark musical Ovation! has chosen to mark its 10th year of professional-quality musical theater on Bainbridge is…“Les Misérables.” To further add to the celebration, this will be the Northwest’s first community theater production of the show, which premieres on June 21.
“It’s been restricted and was not available for 27 years,” Marijane said of the technically and musically complex piece, adding, “We’re not afraid of ‘hard.’ We’ve never shied away from challenging shows.” Besides wrangling a large cast, the production will feature a 15- to 18-piece orchestra. Although the music for Ovation! productions is always live, they’ve never had this many musicians in the ensemble. If anyone can take on this demanding show, it’s the talented Miltons. The husband-and-wife team co-founded the nonprofit organization a decade ago with the dream of bringing more quality musical theater to Bainbridge Island, the ambition to make it happen, and the support of the community.
Before the Miltons came along, the go-to place for musical theater on the island was Bainbridge Performing Arts, which debuted in 1956 as the Bainbridge Light Opera. While BPA still produces many musicals, including this season’s “A Chorus Line,” their varied programming now includes a theater school, symphony performances and an improv troupe. The end of a successful show is always a tearful time for cast members, but when Ron Milton directed “The Sound of Music” at BPA in 2002, many of the cast members, including Peter Denis, current BPA secretary and vice president, decided they weren’t ready for it to end.
“We felt like we wanted to keep doing something this wonderful,” he said. “We were a group of likeminded people who wanted to bring even more musical theater to Bainbridge Island, so we started our own company.” By founding Ovation! the group was able to not only choose their own material, but also realize their collective vision of educating community members in all aspects of theater from on stage to backstage. “We wanted folks to learn by doing,” Denis said. Their first offering was a revue of Broadway hits, staged in the basement of St. Barnabas church in July 2003. It was low on budget but high in talent.
“We did three other revues plus two radio dramas we wrote ourselves until we had raised enough money—and confidence—to mount our first fully staged production, which was ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ in June 2004,” Marijane said. “Raising funds was entirely a bootstrap operation,” Denis said. In fact, the first Ovation! fundraiser was a face painting table at the Bainbridge Island Grand Old Fourth festivities. While Ovation! has a board and a team of supporters, Tom Burt, Ovation! board president and a stage veteran who plays Javert in “Les Mis,” said, “Ron and MJ are the heart and soul of Ovation!. Without them there wouldn’t be an Ovation!.”
Royce Napolitino, who has been with Ovation! since the beginning and is playing Jean Valjean in “Les Mis,” said, “They set expectations high and create an environment that fosters achieving excellence.” Ron, bearded, soft-spoken and self-effacing, has a distinguished background in theater, with a master’s in fine arts from the University of Houston and more than 45 years in the business. He’s been everything from director and producer to set designer and actor—sometimes all in the same show. “I have conferences with myself,” he jokes.
He has directed every Ovation! production, as well as a few for other area theater companies. He also taught theater at several colleges and universities. “This is my retirement job,” he said. While Ron is the steady hand on the tiller, Marijane is the powerhouse of the operation. She calls herself “just a volunteer,” but Ron, married to her for 33 years, is quick to point out, “We couldn’t exist without her.” Marijane works behind the scenes as the production manager and is a tireless crusader for Ovation!. There’s not an arts writer or media outlet within a hundred miles that she hasn’t personally contacted to make sure they know about the latest Ovation! mainstage or show choir production. And this is just what she does when she’s not working at her day job.
For 11 years she was a senior executive at Entercom Communications, in charge of creating sales training and business and personal growth programs. In May she joined Multibrand Media International as head of the learning division. She has performed in every Ovation! show except “Hansel and Gretel,” which she stage managed, but said she doesn’t get special treatment—“I have to fight for a part like anyone else.” The Miltons’ daughter, Piper, soon off to grad school in California, has also performed in many productions and is assistant costumer for “Les Mis.”
In 2010, with the help of Todd Hulet, Ovation!’s director of music and education, the company added a new opportunity for budding singers on Bainbridge. They created a performing arts academy to offer classes in musical theater and perfoming arts. The academy started with just 14 teens comprising Glee, an advanced mixed youth show choir for grades six through 12. The subsequent round of auditions boasted more than 60 kids for just four slots. Next came Voce, an all-girl’s show choir for grades five through 12. The two groups present two major shows a year and perform at many area events. Following that success, Glee Jr., for youth in grades one through four, and an adult choir, Crescendo, were added.
All the choirs are tuition-based, and entry for Crescendo, Glee and Voce is by twice-yearly audition. Tuition assistance is available. And it’s not just about singing. “Our youth choirs teach poise and confidence,” Marijane said. “The skills they learn here carry over into real life.” Burt said the academy has enhanced musical theater education in a big way. “At a time when schools face serious budget cuts, Ovation! supplements music education that’s no longer available in public schools,” he said, “That’s been really heartening to see. At its core, this is an organization that cares about musical theater.” Napolitino, who studied vocal performance at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho, said the academy will benefit Ovation! in the near future. “Developing young people is crucial.”
With 10 years of community support, Ovation! is looking ahead to a bright future. At the top of their wish list is to see the theater at the high school, where they stage all their shows, replaced with a performing arts facility that could be used by a number of community groups, and perhaps where Ovation! could conduct a production from auditions to final curtain call. Marijane said they have spent about $60,000 just on the rental of the high school stage for their twiceyearly productions. “We operate like a touring company,” Marijane said. They rehearse in the studio on Erickson Avenue, then move to the high school stage just days before opening. Ron added, “We move in, do tech one day and rehearse the next.”
Ovation! is a member of One Call for All, an umbrella organization providing funding for Bainbridge Island nonprofits. Sponsorships and program advertising also bring in revenue. Marijane estimates “Les Mis” will cost $38,000 to $40,000 to produce, from royalties and stage rental to marketing, costuming, sets and more. But financing is only part of the equation.
The Miltons said Ovation! couldn’t have made it all these years without the support of the many, many community members it takes to put on a show, including parents who run kids to rehearsals for months, costume designers, set builders, stage hands, musicians, actors and, of course, the audiences. “We’re about creating art with and for the community that touches them and stays with them long after they leave the theater,” Marijane said. Here’s to the show at Ovation! going on and on!