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Jenifer’s Journal: A new Shelter Island musical is on the way

Theater is just magic-making as a team sport. J.E.M.

As a “has-bean” veteran of the Shelter Island Historical Society’s first theatrical offering, “Hill of Beans,” last summer, and having re-upped for this year’s show, “The Prospect Looks Good,” I was surprised when handed a poster hot-off-the-presses — a gorgeous cover shot of the Prospect Hotel beneath the title: “The Prospect of Summer.”

Well, whatever it’s called, I’m certain of two things. I’m always the last to know, and this show, the second Lisa Shaw original, has everything in it but lima beans, including tough guys, cop spies, shady ladies, larcenous lovers, bootleggers, hareleggers, and Mrs. Raynor’s 100 proof “tea.”

Set in the summer of 1932, the action takes place in the beautiful Prospect Hotel, the jewel of Shelter Island Heights, rebuilt after its first fire a decade before. As they await the arrival of their guests, Mr. Myers, the hotel’s general manager, points out to his less-than-enthusiastic staff, that they only have 75 days to make a year’s worth of income.

However, he’s not the only character interested in “means of income,” some means being meaner than others, gambling and bootlegging, among them — practiced by a rogues’ gallery of guests rubbing shoulders with temperance teetotalers, tipsy town leaders and nice, all-American families.

If it sounds like a trailer for a new TV series, rest assured that this central-casting setting indeed existed. Charity Robey, woman for all seasons including theatrical, provided me with a thumbnail sketch of the Prospect from the Society’s brochure on the subject: “The Prospect House was built in 1872 on Shelter Island on the hill [overlooking] the people as they arrived via the North Ferry. In 1922 it was renamed ‘The Pogatticut’ to honor the Sachem of the Manhanset Indians of Shelter Island. In 1923 a fire caused extensive damage. After a year of repairs, it reopened as The New Prospect Hotel. [It] was incredibly grand and featured a formal dining room, beach club, tea service on the veranda and a full orchestra in the ballroom. Tennis, dancing, fishing, swimming and sailing were among the many activities offered.”

Writer/director Lisa Shaw tells me she always wanted to do some kind of presentation about The Prospect. “It holds so many wonderful, funny, fascinating stories that just had to be told.” She swears that 95% of the names used in this show are those of people who absolutely existed on the Island during that extraordinary period. For instance, Dr. Petit was the director of a camp for girls at the Peconic Lodge (now The Perlman Music Center), Mrs. House, fund-raising pillar of the community, organized the “Silhouettes” dance program, and Mrs. Raynor, the Prospect’s head housekeeper, was also the mother of the Dawson in Dawson’s Market on Grand Avenue.

Also based on real-life characters are the aforementioned Mr. Myers, the Prospect’s general manager and Harold O’Hara, Long Island Railroad manager-cum-hotelier-cum-bootlegger, played respectively by the Gable and Cooper of last year’s offering, Bruce Leggett and Tim Purtell.

Lisa reports that there is, in fact, an approximately 80% return rate from “Hill of Beans,” including her husband, Tom Hashagen, playing the likely-apocryphal but nonetheless mesmerizing “culinary illusionist,” Chef Oscar.

There are, however, several intrepid newbies in the cast. I spoke to a few of them a couple of weeks ago, while the flush of enthusiasm was still on their cheeks. Nathan Cronin, who plays the porter-cum-magician, Walter, tells me that, “It’s been fun and a great experience, and I’ve learned a bit.” Playing Theodora, long-suffering daughter of a faux-socialite, Donna Emma reports that, “The community is very warm and welcoming, it’s been loads of laughs while learning about theater.” Dan Berner, the mysterious Marscapone, says that he realizes that “[Theater] is a team sport and it’s great being a team player.”

But perhaps it is Wendy Turgeon, who plays the redoubtable teetotaler, Mrs. Pitbalddo, who puts it most succinctly: “I enjoy being included, but it feels like I’m in ‘Waiting for Guffman.’” And the entire cast, veterans and rookies, all seem to be experiencing, to one degree or another, “Shaw-Awe.”

Little wonder. As with last year’s “Hill of Beans,” this, too, is a musical. Once again, Lisa has punctuated her original score with some period pieces such as “The Peanut Vendor” and “Crazy People.” And dancing? They’ll be rhumba-ing, fox-trotting, and camel-walking across the stage.

The word “prospect” has many definitions. The gerund “prospecting,” however, usually conjures up one image — panning for gold. If you find yourself at the barn at the Historical Society at 6 p.m. on July 22, 23 or 24, that’s what you’ll be doing, and I think you’ll find that you’ve hit the mother lode.

For tickets and information visit shelterislandhistorical.org. And, by the way, all of this is just in time to celebrate The Prospect’s 150th birthday!