Oxford Hills as River City

When the Oxford Hills High School puts on its biennial musical, the whole town gets involved. This year, it's Meredith Willson's ``The Music Man,'' and townsfolk are saying the show does for the town what Professor Hill did for River City. The casting process reaches far into the community: Prof. Harold Hill, the confidence man who ends up doing good in spite of himself, is played by a public relations director. The ``heavy'' is actually the high school principal. The stage manager is a hospital nurse.

And in the matter of attendance, the town is more than merely interested. ``People started requesting tickets around Christmas,'' says one cast member.

About 10,000 people live in the South Paris/Norway area. With the show's attendance at around 2,800, it's claimed to be the area's largest-drawing event. Norway being a full hour away from the nearest cultural center, Portland, there is much local support for the musicals. Over 120 people auditioned this year, including entire families.

``People will come up to me and say, `I've watched five shows, and this year I want to be in it,' '' says Cynthia Wescott, music director and chief sponsor.

One of the show's strengths is its unusual blending of students and townspeople, according to director Benny Reehl. ``You need community members to play the older parts; blending the two makes for good working relationships between the two age groups.''

There's something else that makes these musicals generate interest: They are professionally directed and choreographed. The producers are able to hire director Reehl and choreographer Nancy Salmon with the help of a matching grant from the Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Those in charge managed in eight weeks to pull into shape the cast of 65, plus 30 backstage workers, and the on-stage school band, as well as an orchestra comprised of students and amateur and professional musicians from the community.

While some sour clarinet toots and too-earnest acting indicate that this is not professional theater, there is some surprising talent. The barbershop quartet singing ``Lida Rose'' is a district champion. And Jane Engle, who plays Marian, the librarian, was one of five talented contenders for the role.

Some of the students have a glazed look from many nights of rehearsing till 11 p.m. Martin Lescault, who plays the free-spirited Tommy, says that being in the show doesn't detract from his homework, ``but it does from my free time and my work at our store. Luckily, my parents are very understanding.''

``I love seeing the kids doing things they never thought they could,'' says David Dexter, an English teacher at Oxford Hills, who wears a loud plaid jacket as Professor Hill's antsy sidekick. ``And the students get to see me in a different role.''

Oxford Hills started doing these collaborative musicals in 1972. Past shows include ``Fiddler on the Roof,'' ``Guys and Dolls,'' and ``Oklahoma.'' But they've used up most of the music that plays well in rural areas, says Reehl, who is on his sixth show.

Another problem, he adds, is that ``people are becoming too busy to do this. It was very hard this year to work the rehearsals in around the schedule conflicts. We may be talking about a dinosaur here.''

That's hard to believe when you see Oxford Hills High School band, dressed in their snazzy green uniforms, burst through the doors at the back of the auditorium. They march to the stage playing ``Seventy-Six Trombones,'' proving that Professor Hill has indeed performed magic in this town as well as River City.

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