BENNINGTON -- This Friday, Oldcastle Theatre Company opens its long-anticipated maiden season at its new home in downtown Bennington following a year-long transition from its former facility on the town’s outskirts. Supporting the celebration is longtime Broadway and Hollywood stalwart Carleton Carpenter, a Bennington native, who has written the music and lyrics for the musical "Northern Boulevard," based on the book by Kevin Brofsky.
"This is the thrill of a lifetime, and to do it in my hometown just makes is extra special," Carpenter said recently between rehearsals of the show’s numbers. "It’s difficult sometimes to not want to get right in there with the actors and mix it up. But Eric (Peterson) is directing the show, so I stay quiet and observe and I send my input through him. In show business, you have to respect that."
Native son; big break
Carpenter knows something of the business’ ins and outs, having stumbled upon his big break during World War II, just before enlisting in the Navy and being sent to the Pacific Theater. There, as a Seabee, he participated in the capture of Tinian, the island from which the Enola Gay launched its mission to Hiroshima in 1945.
"I already had enough credits to graduate from high school, so in the spring of 1944, my senior year, after having gone to Rutland with a few buddies to enlist, I headed to New York City for a visit," Carpenter said.
But Carpenter said he was called back after the audition and landed the part of Shake in David Merrick’s first production, "Bright Boy," which bombed after two weeks.
However, as a result, Carpenter had joined the Actor’s Equity Association, signed with an agent, and was drawing the union minimum $57.50 per week for his efforts. He also read for a won a part in another show, "Career Angel," and after that also ran for two weeks, Carpenter said he returned to Bennington for his high school graduation and to head into the Navy.
"How do you like that?" Carpenter, now 86, grinned. "Graduated high school, joined the Navy, and acted in two Broadway shows, all before I turned 18."
Peterson, standing nearby and hearing of Carpenter’s break into show business, was quick to round out the context of the latter’s career.
"So many people over the years, since the 1940s, grew to know Carleton through his acting, but aren’t as aware that he was also a magician, songwriter, dancer, and a very successful mystery novelist," Peterson noted. "This is his hometown. He’s appeared in a number of Oldcastle productions - and is always ready to give back to the community. Audiences have had a long love affair with him, and he is bringing all his talent to bear on this particular show."
The show’s the thing
Indeed, "Northern Boulevard" is developing as a blend of author Brofsky’s story, Peterson’s direction, and Carpenter’s melodic versatility. Peterson described the show as "a good old-fashioned musical," which tells the story of Jerry and Roslyn, a couple living in Queens who buy and run a deli from 1941 until the 1980s.
Through their marriage and the connection to family and friends, Jerry and Roslyn live with love, betrayal and hard times. But the two persevere with hope and optimism for the future. The score is full of heartfelt songs which are evocative of the different time periods throughout the play.
"Northern Boulevard’s" cast includes several Oldcastle favorites: Richard Howe and Christine Decker. Some newer faces from the New York stage also grace the set, several with Oldcastle experience, and a few making their first appearance. These players include Gil Brady, Cotton Wright, Jessica Raaum, Cheryl Howard, Patrick Spencer and Bennington native Amanda Garcia.
Directed by Peterson, the play’s choreography is by Ron Ray, and its musical director, who will play numbers live on the piano, is Jeffrey Buschbaum.
Oldcastle’s director of marketing Elizabeth Stott said the show’s songs are lively and infectious.
"Rehearsals are ongoing in the basement, but I can hear them up here on the second floor," Stott said. "I spend entire numbers tapping my feet to the catchy tunes coming up through the floor."
Carpenter has ceded his copyright on the show’s music and lyrics to Oldcastle, so the Equity company can benefit from any future royalties. He prepared to return to rehearsals, adding he had one overarching wish.
"I hope the audience leaves with a big smile, and maybe humming something they just heard and saw," he said.