By PAM HARBAUGH
In a world consumed by politics and fraught with fear, it’s hard to think of a time when one child’s disappointment could change hearts. So bring in “The Music Man,” please, and let us recall a simpler time.
Set in 1912, the musical tells the story of Harold Hill, a con man who convinces the townsfolk of River City to spend their life savings on expensive band uniforms and instruments. Eventually, the naivety and sweetness of the town touch Hill and change his heart. Yes, there are the big numbers like “76 Trombone,” “(Ya Got) Trouble” and “Marian the Librarian,” but the dramatic key to the story is the character of Winthrop, the little boy with the lisp.
And Titusville Playhouse found the right person for the role in 9 year-old Cooper Mangini, who was one of about 30 children auditioning for parts in the musical which runs through Dec. 3.
“Winthrop affects Harold Hill,” said co-director Niko Stamos said. “He is Marian’s brother, their father has passed away and they are living with their mother. Harold brings to Winthrop a father figure who believes in him. It makes the ending a little more heartbreaking.
“Winthrop needs to go from a shy, reserved child to someone who can talk to a stranger, and someone who has the confidence to sing the ‘Gary, Indiana’ song.”
And for Mangini, playing Winthrop has been a boon to his determination to perform on stage.
“I hope I’m in another show like this,” he said.
Mangini, who is home schooled, has participated in Titusville Playhouse’s children’s program, which is directed by Stamos. Other than children’s shows at theater camps, he’s been in “Shrek: The Musical” in which he played Little Shrek and Grumpy.
“He was pretty persistent about it,” said his mother, Ashley Mangini. “I love musicals so I always let them watch them. He started imitating them (and became) obsessed with ‘Newsies.’ I finally signed him up for a camp. Niko encouraged me to let him try out. He got ‘Shrek.’ This was his second audition so he got this one.”
For the five-week rehearsal period, Mangini would be at the theater until 10 or 11 p.m. He has to show up a well in advance of curtain for each performance. That means adjusting home schedules and other activities.
“In addition to this, he does competitive wrestling,” his mother said. “Today I’ll pick him up at 4 p.m. when the show ends, take him home to take a nap, grab a bite, he’s requested Japanese, then back to the theater at 6:45.”
His biggest challenge has been staying focused on cues and lyrics, especially his long “Gary, Indiana” song.
“He loves the costumes, that’s his favorite part,” she said. “He’s going to try out for ‘Gypsy’.”
His other favorite part is working with adults, especially Patrick Ryan Sullivan, a professional actor who plays Harold Hill.
His mom’s favorite part, other than seeing her son blossom, is the nurturing and safe environment she observes at Titusville Playhouse.
“The people there are encouraging him like we are,” she said. “They let us come sit in at any time, plus they are always communicating with us.”
Another young person in a featured role is Amaryllis, played by Ryanne Itani.
Like Mangini, she showed a lot of “spunk and energy” at her audition, Stamos said.
“She’s a little spitfire,” he said. “She’s not shy with her words.”
Amaryllis is the mayor’s youngest daughter who, early in the show, teases and flirts with Winthrop. She chides him for having a lisp and says “You won’t say my name because it has an ‘S’ in it.”
While Itani has been in a lot of children’s productions, “The Music Man” marks her first mainstage show.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “Rehearsals run really late sometimes on school nights and I have to make sure I’m always ready and know all of my cues.
“But, I love it. The show is so much fun. I love all of the songs and dance numbers. The adults have been really nice and helpful to me too. I’m learning so much and have made a lot of new friends.”
In working with both Mangini and Itani, Stamos says you have to treat the adults and the child actors pretty much in the same fashion, except not as forcefully.
“You have to be more patient with children,” he said. “You can’t be completely negative, you have to tell them what works as well as what doesn’t work.”
He also has to teach basic stage language, like “upstage,” “downstage,” remind them to speak loudly, to face the right direction and not to look at the audience.
Mary Henderson, who plays Marian the Librarian, and who becomes Harold Hill’s love interest, finds working with the children in “The Music Man” to be a real treat.
“This is my second time working with Cooper and I couldn’t have chosen a better little brother for myself,” she said. “Offstage and on he is funny, precocious, and kind, and I genuinely enjoy spending time with him. Ryanne is wonderfully talented and spirited, and her dedication shows through in every performance.
“And I have to say, the old adage is true: kids steal the scene every time they walk on stage, and I think that’s just as it should be.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Music Man” runs through Dec. 3 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia Street, Titusville. Tickets start at $23. Call 321-268-1125 or visit TitusvillePlayhouse.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in the Melbourne Beachsider.