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'Beautiful Dreamers' celebrates Stephen Foster's music

| Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Area theater audiences know Martin Giles best as an inventive actor.

But since moving here from Rochester, N.Y., 30 years ago, he also has been a director, a playwright and the moving force behind the now defunct New Group Theatre.

His skills as director and playwright move into the spotlight Thursday with the world premiere of "Beautiful Dreamers," a co-production between Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. The show is presented in conjunction with the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum and the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Beautiful Dreamers" showcases the music of Pittsburgh native Stephen Collins Foster with arrangements of Foster's music created by Douglas Levine, who also serves as the show's musical director.

Jonathon Eaton, the artistic and general director of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, had long wanted to create an opera around the songs of Foster, the 19th century composer who gave the world several enduring songs, including "Beautiful Dreamer," "Oh, Susannah," "Old Folks at Home" (aka "Swanee River"), "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" and "My Old Kentucky Home."

Giles learned of Eaton's interest while he was performing in the Opera Theater production of "Lost in the Stars" and offered his services as a playwright.

Going into the project, Giles didn't know much about Foster or his music.

"I started by listening to the songs to get an idea for the show," Giles says. Soon he found himself absorbed in the world of the mid-19th century -- not just biographies of Foster but the letters of his contemporaries, such as Emily Dickinson.

"I like the sound of the way people wrote and what they were concerned with," Giles says.

The result was "Beautiful Dreamers," which incorporates Foster's songs, both the familiar and the less widely known, into a story about a brokenhearted New Yorker, a young widow and a runaway slave as they journey across mid-19th century America and into an exploration of the American dream.

"It's basically episodic and almost Brechtian," says Andrew S. Paul, the producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. "It's a road trip across America, the land of dreams, a journey of discovery. They run into situations and crazy things happen. ... It reminds me of a cross between 'Showboat' and something very contemporary. The best of these songs are as good as (those in) 'Showboat.'"

The play also looks into the dark side of 19th-century America, says Paul, who explains that some of Foster's songs take an enlightened view of race at a time when slavery was still a hot-button issue.

Doing the show as a co-production allowed Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh to combine resources to create what Paul calls "a Rolls-Royce production."

"We have a cast of seven and an orchestra of four -- the right four," Paul says.

Paul and Eaton received lots of positive feedback from board members of both companies who saw a workshop production last fall. "They said the best part of it was the Stephen Foster music," Paul says.

Searching for Stephen

Here are some upcoming events and nearby places where you can learn more about the life and music of composer and Pittsburgh native Stephen Collins Foster:

Events

Symposium on Stephen Foster (April 23-24): The University of Pittsburgh Music Department and Center for American Music, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre and Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh are collaborating to present a symposium on Stephen Foster's music. The symposium will bring together national and international scholars for the first scholarly gathering on Foster. Speakers will examine the songs' meanings and role in American culture, and as an export abroad, both during the composer's lifetime (1826-64) and for subsequent generations. The symposium, which takes place at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland, is free and open to the pubic. Details: 412-624-4100 or www.picttheatre.org .

Doo-Dah Days (July 10): An annual event now in its sixth year, Doo-Day Days is hosted by the Lawrenceville Historical Society, together with the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association. It's official title is the Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival. The festival celebrates Foster's life and music with live folk bands that specialize in music of the Foster era, costumed re-enactors and educational tours of Allegheny Cemetery, which include Foster's burial place. This year's festival is scheduled for noon to 4 p.m. July 10 in Allegheny Cemetery, 4734 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Admission is free. But a $5 donation is accepted for the trolley tours. Details: 412-682-1624, www.doodahdays.com or www.alleghenycemetery.com .

Foster sites

• The best place to start is the Stephen Foster Memorial building, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland. It's home to the University of Pittsburgh's Center for American Music. An archive, library and museum, it maintains and displays the Foster Hall Collection of materials by and about the composer. Among the items on display are one of Foster's pianos, copies of his 200-plus musical compositions, recordings, broadsides, programs and memorabilia related to Foster's life. The Stephen Foster Memorial Museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. Unguided tours are free. Fees for guided tours, which must be arranged in advance, are $1.50 for adults, $1 for senior citizens and children. Details: 412-624-4100 or www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/museum.htm .

• Stephen Foster statue, Forbes Avenue at the northeast corner of Schenley Plaza. Informally known as the Uncle Ned Statue, it was created in 1900 by sculptor Giuseppe Moretti. The cast bronze statue features Foster, as well as pays tribute to his songs. According to the Pittsburgh Art in Public Places Oakland walking tour guide created by the Office of Public Art, Foster's brother worked with Moretti to assure that the statue faithfully represented the composer's likeness. According to Deane Root, director of the Center for American Music, the statue originally was placed in Highland Park but was moved to its present location during World War II.

• 3600 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville. The site, if not the actual house, of Foster's family home and birthplace. Root says the house's western foundation might be an original part of the house where Foster was born July 4, 1826. Foster's father, William Barclay Foster, owned much of the land that is now Lawrenceville. He laid out and named many of the district's streets when he subdivided and sold some of the property in the 1810s and 1820s. Many of the nearby streets are named for the elder Foster's friends and family members.

• East Commons Park, East Ohio Street at Cedar Avenue, North Side. A marker has been placed near the house on Union Avenue (now gone) where Foster lived with his family when he composed his first two songs -- "Open Thy Lattice" and "Old Folks at Home." The family frequented the Commons. From 1842 to '43, Foster's father was the mayor of what was then the town of Allegheny, which was later incorporated into Pittsburgh and became known as the North Side.

• Allegheny Cemetery, 4734 Butler St., Lawrenceville. The cemetery is the final resting place for Stephen Foster, who died Jan. 13, 1864. Foster's gravesite is in section 21, lot 30/31, grave 9, alongside those of his parents. His wife, Jane Denny MacDowell Foster, and daughter, Marion Foster Welch, also are buried at Allegheny Cemetery. Details: 412-682-1624 or www.alleghenycemetery.com .

Additional Information:

'Beautiful Dreamers'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh

When: Thursday through May 1 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. April 18 and 25 and May 1 and 7 p.m. April 27

Admission: $34-$50 or $34-$47 for senior citizens and $20 for those younger than 25 with valid ID

Where: Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

Details: 412-394-3353, Opera Theatre's Web site or PICT's Web site

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