Friday night, July 23, 45 Islanders with a median age of about 62, many of whom hadn’t done much singing outside of a shower stall, with little aptitude for dancing, came together to present a musical comedy entitled, “A Hill of Beans,” to the delight of an opening-night audience that had no idea what to expect.
Writer/director Lisa Shaw and her collaborator and husband, Tom Hashagen, who played Dan, weren’t sure what to expect either. The show was a benefit for the Shelter Island Historical Society, and Society Director Nanette Lawrenson was hoping as many as 350 people might want to attend.
By the end of Sunday night’s performance, 800 people had been entertained, moved and delighted by this production, thanks to strong word of mouth, and the donation of hundreds of folding chairs from the Shelter Island School, courtesy of Superintendent, Brian Doelger (aka Bennie the barber).
By the time of the final performance on Sunday, the audience was singing along with the cast on the rollicking musical numbers written by Lisa, particularly the stirring finale, “We’re ready, ready enough,/ Cause we’re Islanders, and that’s enough.”
The history told in ”A Hill of Beans” demonstrates that Shelter Islanders once knew how to cooperate with each other. But cooperation has been in short supply here this summer. Some of the town committees and even Town Board meetings dissolved into sniping, threats, and the kind of recalcitrance that stymies effective government.
Meanwhile, down at the Historical Society’s barn, Islanders of all stripes were working together to create something great.
Marie Bishko (Phoebe) has lived full-time on Shelter Island for about a year after 20 years as a summer resident, but her portrayal of Phoebe, a worker in the beanery — particularly her delivery of the line, “Don’t open the door!” when the power dies during a hurricane — earned her an instant spot in Island history. She worried about how her son, who has no experience of community theater would react to seeing his mom up on stage.
“The only other show my son has been to is ‘Hamilton,’” she said. “I told him, ‘This is not Hamilton.’”
Peter Waldner (set painter) was in the audience on opening night, the better to see in action the two-piece, two-sided scenic backdrop he painted for the show. A syndicated cartoon and illustrator who has lived on the Island full-time for 30 years, Peter has painted scenery for 15 Shelter Island high school musicals.
His composition was on point — lima fields and Bug Light on one side, and a commercial freezer on the other — and he was satisfied to see the plywood walls skillfully flipped several times during each performance by a team of four. The panels have now taken their place as part of the Historical Society’s archive.
Michelle Marks came from Sag Harbor five times a week for six weeks to bring Edna to full-throated life, and her charming coral linen dress was just one of the period-appropriate costumes created by Julia Brennan, who made Edna’s dress with vintage fabric donated by Susan Cincotta (Vera). The fabric belonged to Susan’s mother.
Schuyler Needham’s wife and toddler son were celebrating with him backstage after the show, when the cast learned that Lisa and Tom had begged him to play Shermie so earnestly that he felt he couldn’t refuse, even though his participating meant six weeks of missing dinner with his family. Direct descendants of his character sat in the first row, visibly moved by the recreation of an important chapter in their family history by a young man who grew up on the Island.
In every performance, Bruce Leggett-Flynn and Jenifer Maxson’s brilliant song and dance rendition of “Bei Mir Bis Tu Schon” was a showstopper. A Yiddish song originally composed by lyricist Jacob Jacobs and Sholom Secunda in 1932, it was later a hit for the Andrews Sisters.
The sound of Nelson Bogart’s trumpet in the second verse of the song made sitting still impossible. Wardrobe maven Linda DiOrio, dancing around the props table on the second night, suddenly looked up, and said, “I know the words to this in Swedish!” and sang along backstage.
The making of “A Hill of Beans” created a web of trust and responsibility so complete that the cast and crew seemed to be moving like a single animal. One scene shift, between the hurricane wiping out the beanery and the town gathering to move forward, was backstage magic. Inside of a minute, stagehands John D’Amato, Katie Flanagan, Martha Pichey, and Heidi Neurator moved walls, furniture and tables as Linda DiOrio, Sharon Donno and Kathy O’Malley silently positioned props and adjusted costumes.
The cast, still in character, stood in the wings stage left and right, watching for Kelci McDonald (Edwina) to wave her bar rag stage left, triggering Chris DiOrio (Ernie) to count down five, in turn triggering the entire cast to roll into the Gag & Puke bar for the penultimate scene of the show.
The triumph of “A Hill of Beans” is the way, with humor and tolerance, it looked at a hard time in Island history, and used it to redefine what it means to be an Islander. The people who made this show and this Island were a motley crew; hotheaded and phlegmatic, recent residents, and direct descendants, but with Lisa Shaw’s inclusive vision and some very catchy tunes, they reestablished the character of this place.
Now we have to live up to it.