A creative life lives again on stage
MSA presents 'Charles Henry's Final Curtain'
Edited: matinee times are 2 p.m., not 2:30 p.m.
SAXTONS RIVER — As a history buff, I'm drawn to stories of the ordinary people who lived their ordinary lives, especially here in Vermont.
Such a person was Charles Washington Henry, born in Guilford in 1850 but destined to live all over the Green Mountain state as his parents moved around while he was growing up and then continuing that pattern as an itinerant vaudeville performer with his wife and five children.
As an 8-year-old living in Brattleboro, he suffered a broken arm that laid him up for a year. Out of boredom, he began sketching the soldiers parading outside his window — probably on the parade grounds where Brattleboro Union High School now stands — and discovered his talent for art.
Father George wanted him to learn to be a machinist (leading to a stint in a sewing machine factory in Florence, Mass.), but Charles had other plans. And aren't we the lucky beneficiaries.
Fast forward to the hundredth anniversary of Charles' death in 1918 to the stage of Main Street Arts in Saxtons River. But, wait, have we really moved forward, or are we experiencing a time warp? This is the same venue, the Odd Fellows hall, where Henry actually performed. And those are the same curtains he painted as backdrops for his shows: a winter scene glistening with mica, a fairy tale Alpine scene with coach and four, a woodland scene complete with babbling brook. I'm in historic heaven!
Earth to heaven: No, this is real.
I'm about to witness history come alive as MSA presents the world premiere of a musical that captures that moment in time in 1915 when Charles is nearing the end of his vaudeville career and must give up something he loves, that wistful, bittersweet time we all face when making big changes in our lives.
Cass Morgan and her collaborators Sarah Knapp and Steve Alper have captured that moment in the aptly titled (in all its meanings) "Charles Henry's Final Curtain," opening Friday for two weekends.
Here are Charles, his wife Mattie and their children, Arthur, Percy, Ella, Florence and little Grace, strutting their stuff ("We Come to Entertain You") while World War I looms in the background ("When the Lusitania Went Down," "I Want to Play My Ukulele in the Army") and a hint of women's suffrage hangs in the air ("Who Wears the Pants in This Family?")
Meanwhile Mattie exhorts Charles to retire and "Come Be with Me in Vergennes," where he would go on to manage the opera house while they lived in Ferrisburgh.
Morgan captures Charles' ambivalence beautifully in the nostalgic song "Daylight and Darkness," which is also the title of one of the plays he wrote, and "My Past," in which he comments on how he is "a gypsy and a traveler" who has brought the world to many audiences even though his own travels are limited.
In a play within a play, Charles tries to stall time by reenacting a short scene from his play "Battle of Wits" while his family urges him to realize they have grown up and are also ready to move on. Percy wants to join the Army and Florence announces her marriage and pregnancy in a rousing "I Married the Piano Man."
Interspersed in the Henry family saga are lighter moments with Woodrow "Woody" Woodknot the stage manager keeping Charles on task and managing the raffle of a painting that Charles did at every show, as well as dealing with patrons who pay with live chickens and goats (yes!). And then there are the singers and dancers of the local Miss Fiona's fine arts academy, the bane of every traveling troop.
For all its relevance to Vermont history, "Charles Henry's Final Curtain" is no mere amateur production. Indeed, Morgan and her co-creators have all the necessary Broadway creds (think multiple Tony nominations) that will keep this play going for another 100 years.
And, to repeat, aren't we the lucky beneficiaries.
"Charles Henry's Curtain" will be performed this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 9 and 10, and on Nov. 16 and 17, at 7:30 p.m.; and this on Sunday, and Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River. Tickets at mainstreetarts.org or 802-869-2960.
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