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"The Music Man" in Rhinebeck 

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"The Music Man" is classic 1957 Americana that has stood the test of half a century—the story of River City, Iowa, where they're "so by-God stubborn we can stand touchin' noses / for a week at a time and never see eye to eye?" the whole town is seduced by a smooth talking traveling salesman who sells those folks "a way to keep the young ones moral after school?"

"It's not fluff by any means," says Michael Berkeley, who's directing and musical directing the production slated for this month at the Performing Arts Center of Rhinebeck. "Harold Hill is a con artist, and then he gets to this one stuffy town and something happens to him."

Hill may not be a bona fide professor, but something transformative happens to River City too. The school board learns to harmonize on key, the gossipy society ladies become a dance committee. A little boy finds a voice.

Musical director Berkeley brings decades of honed craft to the production, and a musical apprenticeship that began in childhood. Growing up in Elmhurst, Illinois, he was surrounded by music and already in love with stories that burst into song. " I used to get all the neighborhood kids together to do shows in my backyard, with sheets on the clothesline," he says. "There aren't words to describe the excitement of the addition of the garage door opener."

His mother played classical piano, and insisted on lessons for all five kids. "Instead of practicing etudes, I'd deviate into Jerry Herman songs," he says. Both parents loved musical theatre ,too, and "The Music Man" was among the treasured collection of original cast albums. A tenth-birthday trip into the city to see Celeste Holm as "Mame" helped seal Berkeley's fate.

His long list of credits, both before and since becoming musical director at TriArts Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut, run the gamut from "My Fair Lady" to the "Rocky Horror Show" and beyond. "The Music Man" is his second venture in Rhinebeck; he was asked back for the production after producing his original Hudson Valley-themed "Rip! The Musical" there last summer. He's written two other shows specifically for teen casts, built a musical theater program at Connecticut's Region One High School, and served as artist in residence in a long list of places. He also offers private coaching, helping performers achieve the knack of acting, singing, and dancing on beat and in harmony.

It's his work with youth and developmentally handicapped folks that led the Huffington Post to name him Greatest Person of the Day back in 2011. "I'll never forget seeing a seven-year-old boy burst into tears at his first audition," he says. "He was shy, intimidated by the high energy of the first day of rehearsal for 'Gypsy.'" He nearly walked away until I gave him a smaller part just to keep him involved in the show. Several years later, he appeared on Broadway in "Annie Get Your Gun" with Bernadette Peters. There are countless stories of children and adults who find their lives transformed by the self-confidence that carries into all aspects of their lives."

Berkeley's in love with how this one's going. "The set starts as mostly earth tones, and more color starts to imbue itself. By the end you've got this town that has burst into life in red, white and blue," he says. "You need a very likeable Harold Hill, and a great singer for Marian—I have a wonderful Harold and a beautiful Marian with an operatic voice. We have an actual barbershop quartet driving up from Jersey to be our school board. Marian's mother is another find—gutsy and hilarious with a great Irish accent. I have a hilarious Mayor Shin and Mrs. Shin, a lot of young people who can dance and sing, and terrific support staff—I'm very impressed at the level of talent that auditioned. It's sounding great. You'll walk into a burst of color and light and hear that big sound. Theater should always be a big experience. Otherwise, why bother?"

"The Music Man" will be staged at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck January 8 through 31. (845) 876-3080; Centerforperformingarts.org.

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