Akron Watson as Glenn Holland and Angel Lin as Gertrude Liang in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Photo by Nile Scott Studios

Ogunquit Playhouse is celebrating its 90th anniversary with the world premiere of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” written and directed by Tony Award-winning stage and screen actor BD Wong. Wong has partnered with longtime friend and composer Wayne Barker to create a new musical that offers an imaginative and exciting retelling of the 1995 film starring Richard Dreyfuss.

The musical packs 39 years – ranging from 1969 to 2008 – into a run time of nearly three hours, with intermission. Glenn Holland, played by Akron Watson, reluctantly places his life-long aspirations as a composer on hold to take on a position as a music teacher at a high school in Sacramento, California. What starts out as a necessary evil to temporarily pay the bills becomes a life-changing career that affects not only Holland, but also the lives of countless kids.

It’s a complex story, filled with a roller coaster of highs and lows as Holland struggles to navigate a life of bombshells that include a deaf son, Cole, played by Deaf performance artist Joshua Castille. Castille delivers a heartfelt performance that captures both his character’s zest for life and frustration with not being able to connect with his sound-obsessed father. The Act 2 opener “Cole World” provides a fascinating alternative to a traditional song, featuring Castille singing via sign language. Several actors sign throughout the second act, providing dimension to the story.

In the musical, Holland draws from a wide range of musical styles to engage his students rather than relying on classical music from the prescribed curriculum. Wong and Barker have crafted a musical score that’s a clever ode to Holland’s rule-breaking teaching style, weaving in an eclectic score of songs that are inspired by a variety of styles and time periods. Diverse choreography by Darren Lee accompanies the score, incorporating classic steps reminiscent of the Charleston with more modern dance moves.

Watson handles with ease whatever musical style is thrown his way, delivering an ardent and energetic performance that drives the storyline and tugs at the heartstrings. Songs such as “The Babies Crying” and the climatic “Mr. Holland’s Opus” beautifully highlight his passionate vocals.

Joshua Castille as Cole with the cast of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” at Ogunquit Playhouse. Photo by Nile Scott Studios

There are strong vocal performances and character portrayals throughout the production. Anastasia Barzee is sassy as Holland’s wife, Iris, delivering gorgeous singsong soprano vocals. Her performance of “My Day” is particularly compelling as her character emotionally unravels under the pressure of her daily life.

Advertisement

There are plenty of light moments interwoven into the dramatic tale, with Veanne Cox and Timothy Gulan shining as Principal Helen Chae-Jacobs and Vice Principal Eugene Wolters. The rule-enforcing characters comically blossom as the musical progresses, with Cox tickling the funny bone in the second act, appearing to Wolter as a figment of his imagination. Cox and Gulan play off each other nicely.

Chris Orbach also stands out as coach Bill Meister, as do many of the students and secondary characters. Angel Lin is memorable as the initially shy student Gertrude Liang, and Kai An Chee as Rowena Moraga is a dynamic force to be reckoned with, particularly on the thoroughly entertaining spoof, “Kennedy High Presents Cleo-Popera.”

Songs like “Skin in the Game” perfectly showcase the talents of multiple primary cast members, as well as secondary ones like the soulfully voiced Napoleon M. Douglas as Louie. “Gone the Son” is another standout song, featuring moving three-part vocals by Troy Valjean Rucker, Louis Jannuzzi III and Maggie McNeil as the secondary characters Louis Rus Sr., Timothy Stadler and Stadler’s Mom.

Several actors provide musical instrumentation throughout the musical. They are quite a sight to see incorporated into the onstage orchestra in the powerful finale, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

As a brand-new musical, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” has already undergone countless revisions on its journey to Ogunquit Playhouse’s stage and will continue to evolve as it transitions to the next level. The musical is an opus in its own right, with great potential to grow in its future. It’s exciting to witness the birth of a new musical, and like its title character, it may not be completely perfect, but certainly has a way of capturing hearts in the end.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco.  Contact her at: [email protected].

Twitter: @ahboyle


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: