Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Proving once again he was capable of much more than playing Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy delighted audiences as Fagin in this 1972 production of OLIVER! (his first of three Melody Top appearances). Reading his impressive biography, it is easy to understand why his career has lasted over 60 years and earned him the title of a true "Renaissance man." In addition to his legendary television work, he appeared on stage in both plays and musicals, acted in movies, taught drama school, directed fellow actors, recorded several albums, wrote two autobiographies and always practiced his love of photography. Before singing the roles of the King of Siam, Fagin and Professor Henry Higgins at Melody Top, his other stage productions included Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (a three-month tour on the East Coast), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and A VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET. Photographs on this page were supplied by Sally Marks, Tim Knuth and Kevin Knuth.

Melody Top really whirls in those final 40 hours

(Published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Friday, May 26, 1972)

In the final week before a production opens, the Melody Top spins with activity.

Compared with the seven days preceding this summer's staging of OLIVER!, for example, the off-season flurry of preparations will seem like slow motion.

The OLIVER! that unfolds on August 1, opening night, will represent just 40 hours of intensive rehearsal. The spin begins slowly with the Milwaukee arrival of the production's star, Leonard Nimoy.

On the evening of July 25, Nimoy arrives, meets with reporters and goes over his script. At 10:00 the next morning (Tuesday) the first rehearsal begins.

Most of the day is spent with musical director Donald Yap arranging songs. Director Stuart Bishop commences staging scenes as the assistant designer, stagehands and apprentices construct the sets.

Wednesday begins with fittings at Barnes-Lorber Costume Co., 3800 W. Wisconsin Ave. Bishop, designer Jan Valentine and costumer Sidney Lorber make final alterations in the sketches and the frantic task of creating the wardrobe is underway.

The chorus, which will be fitted the next day, spends the morning with choreographer James Smock and his assistant Clyde Laurents, learning the dances. It's very likely a hot July day – even hotter in the tent. The dancers will lose pounds.

As the week progresses, the production's parts begin to mesh. Bishop maneuvers the actors with the stage manager, Jerry Rice, at his side noting light cues, while Craig Jacobs, assistant stage manager, times blackouts to see how long he will have for scene changes.

Oliver PlaybillJacobs also instructs his apprentices on prop placement and pickup.

Though rehearsals fill the day, few in the company have their nights free. They are appearing in the current production, LITTLE ME.

On Saturday, those not occupied with LITTLE ME rehearse OLIVER! for 8 hours, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Meanwhile, principals and chorus members bouncing between the two plays rehearse OLIVER! for two hours in the afternoon before putting on two evening performances of LITTLE ME.

In the hour between shows, a hot catered dinner is served backstage. When the second show ends about midnight, most of the company goes straight home, knowing that tomorrow promises another full day of rehearsal and another performance.

It's Sunday, July 30. Besides his rehearsals, Nimoy has been interviewed twice, appeared on television once and has been photographed at least three times.

The run of LITTLE ME closes about 11:00 p.m. Throughout the night, stagehands and apprentices dismantle the sets, storing what is salvageable. The stage is cleaned and repainted for OLIVER! and new lighting hung.

There is no show on Monday, but it's no day off. This is the cast's first chance to work with the orchestra, which runs through the score in two hours.

In the evening, costumes arrive, though many have not been finished. During the dress rehearsal, Lorber fills pages with notes on alterations and his assistants work on the spot at re-hemming, stitching and pinning.

When this rehearsal ends, Bishop spends 30 minutes pointing out flaws. Now out of costume, the company works until midnight to smooth rough edges.

At 1:00 p.m. on opening day, the cast is assembled for its last five hours of rehearsal. Dinner break comes at 6:00 p.m. Some head for nearby restaurants, others cook out on a grill behind the dressing room. A few won't eat at all.

For many, the two hours before curtain offer a last opportunity to practice lines and dance steps. By 8:00 p.m. the actors are required to sign in, though most have been present for half an hour.

Out front, tickets are filed for the performance. Producer Martin Wiviott searches the skies for the threat of rain and perhaps calls the weather bureau.

Champagne and flowers are delivered to dressing rooms where the stars are nervously getting into costume and applying makeup. The first night audience is arriving.

At 8:25 the stage manager calls "Five minutes!" and at 8:30, "Places!"

Conductor Yap is introduced. He raises his baton and another show begins.

Production Photos from OLIVER!

Oliver 1 Oliver 2 Oliver 3 Oliver 4 Oliver 5 Oliver 6

OLIVER! cast keeps Nimoy on his toes

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 2, 1972

While his performance failed to have the out-of-this-world quality of Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy at the Melody Top Theatre Tuesday night created a wonderfully warm and friendly portrayal of the master crime teacher Fagin.

The agile, lithe Nimoy, as good as he is, has to keep on his toes to stay on top of the production of Lionel Bart's OLIVER! director Stuart Bishop has put together.

With a cunning gang of 14 small fry and a cast that matches the youngsters' exuberance, OLIVER! whirled colorfully through its musical orbit.

Alan Crofoot, bulging in his scarlet beadle suit, could have served as a model for Cruikshank's illustrations for Charles Dickens' autobiographical novel and the Canadian singer fills the tent resplendently with his voice.

Young Kurt Ida, who will be a senior at James Madison High School next year, brings great charm and energy to the show-stealing role of the Artful Dodger.

The capable Dick Ensslen returns as the consummate villain Bill Sikes and the comely Jane Coleman wrings hearts as the hapless Nancy.

Donald Yap and his orchestra, which contains some of the city's foremost musicians, for this show realize Bart's score beautifully. Yap also has done wonders with the gang of ruffians who sing like veritable angels.

There is some room left for a modicum of nitpicking.

Eric Head again has created a multilevel, movable set that gives the stage dizzy capabilities. Happily, this Head contrivance has enough holes in it to open fields of vision.

In some kind of attempt to achieve a different atmosphere, Bishop has allowed his actors to paint their faces in a most distracting manner.

Nevertheless, the show's pluses quite outweigh the few minuses and it is well worth the record gross OLIVER! piled up for opening night.

Oliver in the Milwaukee Newspaper

A charming photograph, originally published in the Milwaukee Journal, of Leonard Nimoy (Fagin) rehearsing a scene with Kurt Ida (the Artful Dodger). The hot summer sun was shining on the orange and yellow tent when this image was captured.

OLIVER! gets a plus and minus on report card

By Michael H. Drew, the Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 2, 1972

In 1968, the movies turned OLIVER! into an Academy Award winner and, simultaneously, a difficult act to follow. Opening to another near capacity house Tuesday night, the Melody Top is making a brave, and generally successful, stab at it.

In its favor, the tent has Lionel Bart's Tony-winning score, some commendable – if not spectacular – performances and, sporadically, some of the film's and Broadway's rousing exuberance.

Despite artfully Dickensian costumes, elaborate makeup, revolving multilevel set and thick Cockney accents, a feeling of controlled style sometimes was missing Tuesday. Songs were rushed into, and the dialects and Don Yap's overenthusiastic pit band at times obscured the lyrics. A steady rain on the roof – through it in spots – didn't help either, though it contributed to a murky London mood.

Some premiere problems can be expected in tackling a tough period piece, a classic, no less, after a week's part-time rehearsal. Further, Bart's libretto sometimes glosses over "Oliver Twist's" social criticism in the rush to another hit tune. But that's understandable since they include "Where is Love?," "Consider Yourself," "As Long as He Needs Me," etc.

As Fagin, softened by Bart from a Jewish to a Cockney miser, TV's Leonard Nimoy is billed above the title. Never has a Melody Top star been less glamorously turned out, with teeth yellowed, costume of threads and patches and graying hair and beard covering those Mr. Spock ("Star Trek") ears. Nimoy skulks around snakily and sings in a commendable baritone.

Clarion-voiced Jane Coleman (Nancy) and Maggie Task (Mrs. Corney) were also fine, but Dick Ensslen (Bill Sikes) swallowed his one tune.

I was more taken with Alan Crofoot, recreating his Broadway role as the rascally Mr. Bumble. So wide that he can straddle the stage left and right simultaneously and with a baritone range from here to eternity, Crofoot strutted right off the pages of Dickens.

Milwaukee's Kurt Ida brought some of the same swagger, if not the vocal resources, to his Artful Dodger.

In the title role, Ric Cohen had better power and pitch. And, praise be, the tent didn't hire an under-grown rock star or midget tenor to belt his songs. Ric is just 14, and the 12-year old next to me beamed as if he were Donny Osmond.

Of course, she was similarly impressed with the dozen smudged urchins who were his colleagues in grime. As pick-pockets they were just petty thieves. But in scene swiping, director Stuart Bishop had them committing grand larceny, with malice aforethought.

OLIVER! Cast of Characters

Oliver Twist:Ric Cohen
Mr. Bumble, the beadle:Alan Crofoot
Mrs. Corney, the matron:Maggie Task
Old Sally, a pauper:Susan Rush
Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker:David Bates
Mrs. Sowerberry, his wife:Dorsey Vogt
Charlotte, their daughter:Jo Speros
Noah Claypool, their apprentice:Rod Keuper
Fagin:Leonard Nimoy
The Artful Dodger:Kurt Ida
Nancy:Jane Coleman
Bet:Jo Jean Retrum
Bill Sikes:Dick Ensslen
Mr. Brownlow:Clyde Miller
Dr. Grimwig:Dale J. Bellaire
Mrs. Bedwin:Joan Carvelle

Londoners: Steve Belin, Ralph Braun, David Britton, Kathryn Carter, Joan Carvelle, Dennis Dohman, Nancy Beth Falloon, Tracy Friedman, Connie Gillaspie, James Hamel, Rod Keuper, Clyde Laurents, Jo Jean Retrum, Susan Rush and Jo Speros.

Workhouse Boys and Fagin's Gang: Kevin Golliher, Bruce Goodrich, Jack Hanlon, Tony Imparato, Kevin Knuth, Tim Knuth, Andy Mueller, Scott Mulqueen, Peter Reilly, Mike Schaller, Hans Wegesser and Keith Zych.

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