Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

The gallery photos on this page were provided by Dan Shaheen, who played Julio Valverez in Melody Top's 1979 production of PAINT YOUR WAGON. Since performing in summer stock, Dan's career evolved to almost every facet of the entertainment industry: producing industrial films and commercials for well-known brand names, co-producing off-Broadway shows (BUYER & CELLAR) and national tours (PETER AND THE STARCATCHER), stage-managing Broadway productions (THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE) and investing in many current hits on the Great White Way. He is most proud of his long association with authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, having produced many of their works including THE FANTASTICKS (off-Broadway, Japan, Egypt and the national tour starring Robert Goulet). He serves on the Board of Directors of The Father Fame Foundation, which promotes theatre arts and education.

WAGON Rolls with Robust Vocals

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, June 20, 1979

When the men of Melody Top Theatre's production of PAINT YOUR WAGON grouped together and raised their voices Tuesday, the domed tent on W. Good Hope Rd. was touched with something not ordinarily found in summer musicals.

What happened, fleetingly, was a feeling of dignity and strength. The Lerner and Loewe classic about unwashed, roughneck miners took on a wonderful dimension.

This is the year of the voice at the Top, and this is the show that exemplifies it.

Leading the mainly male cast is Howard Keel, whose robust baritone is as much a joy to hear as it is to remember. Keel, in the role of the leading roughneck, also brings a great sense of humanity, and perhaps even history, to the frontier pageant.

In the juvenile lead, director Stuart Bishop has cast a tenor of tender years but no less accomplished musicality. Dan Shaheen's wonderfully romantic portrayal of Julio Valverez is a performance to mark the season.

Music director Donald Yap, as he did in the season opener MAME, has handled his musical material masterfully, creating a chorus of force and beauty.

This level of excitement, however, cannot be sustained. There is a story to tend to, and dignity and strength are two elements as short in supply as gold at the end of the vein.

The music is weighted down by the consideration of hundreds of males living without female companionship.

The idea is an easy laugh, and the production at hand plays it for what it is worth with obvious results bordering on burlesque. It is in this atmosphere the show's few women must make their play.

Jan Neuberger, with broadly shaped ideas of what a tomboy unfolding into womanhood is like, holds up her part of the doings with great energy and appeal. Susan Rush makes the most of the cartoon of a second Mormon wife looking for a way out.

When finally the mining camp attracts its ration of music hall charmers, the gloomy aspect of the production gains color and there is a lot of rowdy fun and frenzied action.

But it will be the music – the haunting "I Talk to the Trees" and the soulful "They Call the Wind Maria" and even the bouncy "Rumson Town" – that will be remembered.

PAINT YOUR WAGON, Dance 1

A rowdy dance number from PAINT YOUR WAGON (1979), with Nancy McCloud, James K. Seibel and Ann Arvia featured in the foreground of this image. Photo from the collection of Nancy McCloud.


Pilot Keel Chose to Fly High on Stage

By Brenda Chestnut, the Milwaukee Sentinel, June 18, 1979

Sporting a beard, wind-blown hair and clad in blue jeans and tennis shoes, singer-actor Howard Keel flopped into an easy chair with a deep sigh.

"Boy, I'm beat," he said as his soft blue eyes danced around the room.

Keel, 60, said he spends half of his time on the road and it's rough and demanding. "I don't mind, though, because I get my kicks 'on the boards,' as they say."

Keel, who once wanted to be a concert singer and could have been an aircraft executive, said he took a risk when he turned down a promotion with the aircraft firm to pursue a singing career.

"I haven't had a chance to regret my actions. I love my work very much and it's great fun. It's very hard work and requires tremendous concentration," said Keel, who has a private pilot's license. "But I get to do what I want to do and that's important to me."

Keel is here to star in the musical PAINT YOUR WAGON, which will be performed Tuesday through July 1 at Melody Top Theatre, 7201 W. Good Hope Rd.

He appeared here 15 years ago in KISS ME, KATE. Now he will play the part of Ben Rumson, an old illiterate gold miner in the play written by Alan Lerner. The music is by Frederick Loewe.

"I am looking forward to doing this play. It is so different from any role that I have ever played before," Keel said while rubbing his beard.

Keel said he doesn't normally wear a beard but grew one for his part in CAMELOT, which he just finished in Seattle. He is keeping it for his PAINT YOUR WAGON role.

"The play has a lot of marvelous music in it and the role will be fun. The exciting thing about this play is the fact that there are 400 men and only one woman in it, and she plays my daughter," he said.

The 35-year show business veteran has had leading roles in many musicals, including OKLAHOMA, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and CALAMITY JANE. He played roles in CAROUSEL and OKLAHOMA at the same time.

PAINT YOUR WAGON, Dance 2

Nancy McCloud, as one of the Fandangos, showing off her dancing skills – in a revealing costume – during a number from PAINT YOUR WAGON (1979). Photo from the collection of Nancy McCloud.


Keel's a Delight in PAINT YOUR WAGON

By Tom Smith, Waukesha Freeman Reviewer

PAINT YOUR WAGON scattered stardust throughout Melody Top Theatre last night.

The musical starring Howard Keel is easily the best directorial effort provided by Stuart Bishop in several years. Cast and play have been woven into an integrated and coherent whole.

The result is a delight to witness; crackling with professionalism, snapping with exuberance, popping with pride in accomplishment.

The musical isn't in the same memorable and legendary league as OKLAHOMA or CAROUSEL. But in Bishop's deft hands the action moves as one continuum with nary a dull moment to interrupt its flow.

While his rich voice may not have the luster it once did – and to prove that would take a subtle ear – Keel's singing remains a formidable asset.

More to the point is his ability to sublimate personality to stage character. This is the mark of an actor who is assured, self-confident and devoid of the egocentricity that clutters up the performances of other alleged "stars."

As important as Keel's presence is to the success of PAINT YOUR WAGON, the Top presentation is far more than a one-man show. Bishop has corralled talent that always complements, and several times threatens to steal, the main man's thunder.

Jan Neuberger is no less than dazzling as the miner's daughter who can't shake the gold dust from her feet. Her voice is clear and resonant; her manner is a pleasant mixture of naïveté and precocity; her behavior is impish but not imperious.

Like Neuberger, Dan Shaheen is making his debut at Melody Top. If initial responses are an accurate measure of acceptance, it won't be his last.

Tall, slender and handsome as a matinee idol, Shaheen is marvelous as the Mexican "outsider" jousting with a mixed bag of immigrants in a futile search for that "big strike" in the sky. His duets with Neuberger have the stamp of quality that's too often missing on the stage today.

Others who turn in entertaining bits are Susan Rush, John High and Mib Bramlette. The assorted miners who people the boom-and-bust town of Rumson are by turns radiantly happy or despondently gloomy.

James Smock's choreography isn't as studied as usual; some of his dances even have a glimmer of spontaneity. Jan Valentine's costumes are appropriate for time and place while Donald Yap's musical direction is filled with its customary zest.

PAINT YOUR WAGON will be at Melody Top through July 1. People who appreciate what the theatre is capable of in its better moments should hitch themselves to a ticket.

PAINT YOUR WAGON, Melody Top Magazine

Howard Keel's autograph on the cover of one of Melody Top Theatre's magazines. From the webmaster's personal collection.


PAINT YOUR WAGON Cast of Characters

Ben Rumson:Howard Keel
Jennifer Rumson:Jan Neuberger
Julio Valverez:Dan Shaheen
Elizabeth Woodling:Susan Rush
Jacob Woodling:John High
Sarah Woodling:Mib Bramlette
Salem Trumbill:Thomas Ruisinger
Steve Bullnack:K. David Short
Jake Whippany:Robb Alton
Cherry Jourdel:Diane Nicole
Dr. Newcomb:Robert Vincent Smith
Mike Mooney:James K. Seibel
Edgar Crocker:Clyde Laurents
Reuben Sloane:Warren Richman
Sandy Twist:Eddie Dudek
Sam:Jim Fredericks
Dutchie:Terry Lacy
Jasper:Robert Pachette
Rocky:Wayne Meledandri
Ray Janney:Warren Richman

Fandangos: Ann Arvia, Jill Deerey, Annette Griebl, Nancy McCloud, Victoria K. Ver Hoven and Jan Wahl.

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