The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Columnists

April 19, 2014

JIM SIEHL | Music to my ears

— Seldom has $15 produced such a high level of entertainment as it did a few weeks ago when I found myself in the second row just left of center keeping back the tears once again during my third live performance of “Les Miserables.”

Three more dollars would have gotten a reserved seat, but there were only 500 of them and they were long gone at spacious Church McKee Arts Center at Potomac State College of West Virginia University in Keyser, W.Va.

Without the lavish and extensive staging and large orchestra one expects at a Broadway musical or a traveling professional company, nevertheless the nearly three-hour production reached the same emotional heights I previously enjoyed years ago in Pittsburgh and later on the Penn State University campus.

Besides the play itself, my favorite, there was no way I was going to miss the performance of friend Sonya Ooghe, who is finding latent success in the musical theater.

Fresh from her recent lead role in the “Music Man” with the Bedford County Players, Sonya was touching and convincing as the ill-fated Fantine, whose life is cut short as are so many in this French musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic saga.

In a play filled with one musical gem after another, Sonya met all expectations with her beautiful and haunting rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

She was joined by a superb cast with high quality voices and acting that put to shred editorial apprehensions in a Cumberland newspaper that the play might be too ambitious for the college company. (Keyser is just 18 miles south of Cumberland).

A 10-piece orchestra, with some musicians playing multiple instruments, generated unbelievable sound. Amazing, fantastic would not be exaggerations. And, the powerful choral numbers were wonderful and inspiring.

I wasn’t the only one praising the exacting work of a middle-aged percussionist. Stationed right before me, I couldn’t help focusing on him as he wheeled about with his long arms commanding a semicircle of kettle, snare and other beat-enhancing instruments.

“They call me the octopus,” he said with a smile and a laugh at intermission.

Sonya, mother of two teenage daughters, is a lead soprano in the Bedford United Methodist Church choir and has the same role with the popular Joyful Notes trio with Judy Wright and Julie Davidson. The other “Notes” and spouses along with accompanist Ellisa Henderson from Carlisle were present at the matinee among other church members from Bedford Methodist.

My same-day decision to take in the play turned into a bit of an adventure. What should have been a 45-mile, no more than an hour-and-15-minute drive, turned into at least an hour longer. I missed a Cumberland exit to Route 220 south and didn’t get back on track until I exited Route 68 at Grantsville, Md. (Is this a clue that I should seek another navigator?)

I can’t help contrasting my misadventure to Keyser with the smooth-sailing excursion back in February to Pittsburgh’s classic Benedum Theater with Johnstown’s Barry and Bonnie Warren and their two delightful young granddaughters. With Barry at the wheel, there was never a glitch.

The attraction was entertainer Tim Kazurinsky, my former colleague at The Tribune-Democrat back in the ‘60s and a Johnstown High School classmate of Bonnie. Gaining a breakthrough opportunity in a musical, Tim was beginning a nine-month, nationwide tour as the Wizard in the traveling company’s production of “Wicked,” taking over for John Davidson.

It was my first “Wicked” experience, no pun intended. And what a fabulous experience it was, ranking right up there with “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Mis” as far as pure enthralling enjoyment and spectacular theatrical moments on my part.

Seated around a restaurant table following the play, Tim said it required 17 trailer-trucks to transport the elaborate scenery. Jesting, he said his biggest concern in rehearsals was not getting run over during all the stage changings.

From our second-row seats overlooking the orchestra pit, we all agreed that Tim looked very much at ease among the highly talented cast, including demonstrating a lyric voice and comical striding not to be confused with dancing, according to Tim’s wife, Marcie, a former Broadway stage dancer.

Of course, any comparison between ticket prices in Pittsburgh and Keyser, W. Va., would be unfair, and really has nothing to do with the entertainment value. But for the record at slightly in excess of $100, “Wicked” was not wickedly overpriced.

As stated earlier in the column, seldom does $15 produce so much entertainment bang for the buck. The descriptive adjective “seldom” was chosen carefully.

Newlyweds Ron Siehl and the former Doris Leibfreid, my brother and sister-in-law, were starting public teaching careers living near New York City. Preparing for a visit, I was able to make a telephone call to a West End businessman with a reputation of securing tickets to Broadway shows. Emilio Grandinetti produced four tickets to a matinee performance of “My Fair Lady” starring a very young Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison.

It is a memory of a lifetime.

And the price per ticket for one of Broadway’s most decorated plays?

Seven dollars and 50 cents. Those were the days.

 Jim Siehl of Schellsburg, formerly of Richland Township, retired in 1991 after 44 years as a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat.

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