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Opinion

Commentary: Remembering Costa Mesa High School’s first musical theater production

COSTA MESA, December 08, 2015 - The Robert B. Moore theater at Orange Coast College designed by Rich
The author of this piece performed in what became the Orange Coast College auditorium in 1961. The venue would later be renamed the Robert B. Moore Theatre after a beloved campus president.
(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

It was the spring of 1961, my junior year at Costa Mesa High School.

I was a 16-year-old cast member of the school’s first-ever musical theater production. The school opened in the fall of 1958.

Mesa High’s first production was a one-act, 55-minute opera, “The Lowland Sea.” It was authored by composer Alec Wilder and dramatist and librettist Arnold Sundgaard.

For lack of an on-campus performance space, and for logistical reasons, the production was staged across the street in Orange Coast College’s 1,200-seat auditorium. Two decades later, that same facility would be christened the Robert B. Moore Theatre, which honors legendary 18-year (1964-82) OCC President Bob Moore.

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“The Lowland Sea” is a romantic tale of a young sailor (Johnny Dee) going to sea and leaving behind his true love (Dorie Davis). Tenor David Kest and soprano Perry Hoke — Mesa High vocal students — brilliantly performed the roles of Johnny and Dorie.

I recall snippets of the operatic dialog. Funny what the mind will retain for 58 years.

The cast was accompanied by the high school’s orchestra under the baton of music instructor Gary Renzleman.

I assumed, after my first reading of the script, that it was an ancient text with origins in South Hampton or perhaps Dover. But no. It was written by two Americans in 1951 and was performed for the first time in 1952 at Hillsdale Junior High School in Montclair, N.J. Mesa High’s production followed a decade later.

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The opera is set in the early-1800s in a whaling village much like Nantucket, Mass. Wilder and Sundgaard created the work after receiving a grant from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Though much of the score sounds like folk music, it’s not. It’s Wilder’s clever invention, though he does weave into the libretto an authentic old English-language nursery rhyme, “Bobby Shaftoe:”

“Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea,

Silver buckles at his knee.

He’ll come back and marry me,

Pretty Bobby Shaftoe!”

Tragically, Johnny does not return, and Dorie is left to grieve and watch the Atlantic “rage and blow.” The haunting Shaftoe melody leaves audiences enthralled.

One critic said in 1952 that the opera had a “Whitmanesque” quality to it.

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I auditioned for — and landed — the role of the ship’s doctor. I was also a member of the chorus. I was taking an acting class at Mesa at the time and was a member of the school’s choir.

No theater role is small. Doc had a single line, and I remember it well: “Now, leave me alone boys, I’ll just watch from here.”

That was it.

In my big scene, the ship’s crew is on deck dancing a jig to some sailor’s squeezebox and they’re unsuccessful at getting Doc to join them.

As an unofficial member of the Marlon Brando school of method-acting, I spent the entire six weeks of rehearsal trying to figure Doc out. Who’s this curmudgeon and what’s his backstory? What motivates him?

Was Doc antisocial? As the most educated member of the crew, was he, perhaps, a bit too self-important? Was he prone to bouts of seasickness? Did he have an aversion to clam chowder?

It was for me to discover.

I repeated my line audibly a thousand times over six weeks — with hundreds of different inflections — in front of our bathroom mirror; while riding my bicycle to and from school; while watching my best buddy surf The Wedge; and while standing in line at the Mesa High snack bar for my lunch order of mashed potatoes and corn nuts. People thought me cracked.

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But I was on a mission.

Things went smoothly and the show proved a hit. The performance was audio recorded and a record was produced. I bought a copy for five bucks and kept it for a couple of decades before misplacing it during a relocation. I put it on my turntable two or three times.

I don’t know if a copy still exists, but I hope so.

If not, well, I still remember my line.

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Jim Carnett lives in Costa Mesa.


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