The original show fills seats and fulfills fundraising goals for the Ashland lifelong learning organization
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
Members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SOU are not new to breaking age stereotypes. But they may have broken the mold at the Bellview Grange in early November.
Ranging in age from 59 to over 80, they kicked up their heels and then some in putting on a fundraiser show Nov. 1-5 to sold-out crowds.
The 90-minute musical, “OLLI Abroad,” featured spirited song and dance numbers, and was produced, written, directed, choreographed and performed by members.
The only thing older than the performers was the song catalog, consisting of royalty-free numbers drawn from music in the public domain. Crowd-pleasers included favorites such as “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Fascinating Rhythm.”
Show director Cheryl Goodman-Morris was ecstatic about the results.
“We had terrific shows,” she said. “The audiences were wonderfully responsive, culminating in several standing ovations.”
The fundraiser raised more than $6,000 for OLLI.
The germ of an idea
Ever since Goodman-Morris and her husband, Mark, moved to Ashland in 2010, she thought it would be fun to direct a musical for OLLI. She figured seniors committed to lifelong learning — and staying “young” and engaged — would jump at the chance to participate.
She was right. As it turned out, those values are a perfect match for vibrant seniors who want to give back to the community, raise money for a good cause and put on a show.
The idea of writing and producing an original musical for OLLI came to Goodman-Morris as the world was emerging from the pandemic. At a spring 2022, OLLI open house, she ran the idea by then-OLLI President John Ferris and Lorraine Vail, who became the producer. Both embraced the idea enthusiastically.
“We had done a café mystery about five years ago with a script we purchased,” Vail said. “Murder at the Café Noir” was a hit, so Vail believed members could tackle something more ambitious successfully.
“I never had a doubt,” she said.
In Goodman-Morris, Vail had someone who was perfect to helm the production, with 40 years of experience directing plays and musicals. In fact, she had served as artistic director of the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory, a Bay Area company she founded in 1994.
Recruiting a co-writer
The first thing Goodman-Morris did was reach out to Jack Seybold, a writer in OLLI’s improv group, and ask if he would be open to co-writing a musical.
“Jack enjoys writing mystery and intrigue pieces and I love writing musicals, so together we developed a plot,” she said.
Each wrote a storyline and then they wove them together.
The plot has OLLI written all over it: OLLI members board the SS Socrates for a cruise during which they take classes to broaden their horizons and have a bit of fun. It’s similar to the idea of the “senior semester at sea” that many colleges offer, only in this case the seniors were, um, seniors.
Throw in a couple romances, an element of intrigue, and shipboard entertainment provided by OLLI cruise members taking hip-hop and Fosse-style dance classes, and you have “OLLI Abroad.”
Seybold’s element of intrigue involved a nefarious billionaire villain, Ronald Bedminster, and his two henchmen, Vinny and Mitch, planning a hostile takeover of OLLI. Madness, mayhem, song and dance ensue.
Meeting the challenges
Although cast members rose to the occasion, rehearsals were a bit slower than they had been with Goodman-Morris’s younger actors when she worked in the Bay Area. Memorizing lines, blocking and choreography required extra effort.
Goodman-Morris, a senior herself, marveled at the performances, she said. Throughout the 90-minute show, with some steep steps to negotiate, space limitations, energetic dances to perform, and even a frantic chase scene finale, “the cast came through with flying colors.”
“Every night, 71-plus-year-old dancers drew applause with their kick lines,” Goodan-Morris said. “And the actors expertly navigated complicated songs and dialogue, and carried strong character-driven story lines.”
She has high praise for the production crew as well.
“Every single one of the designers and crew worked hard to create a show from scratch,” she said, “without the benefit of an established theater community to build on.”
She also expressed appreciation to Eve Smythe, director of the Ashland Children’s Theatre, for giving up its reservation of the Bellview Grange, allowing OLLI to use the space.
Down but not out
One of he cast members in particular deserves the stage equivalent of the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart for his pluckiness.
John Pratt had been cast last spring as the villain, Ronald Bedminster. However, in June, he suffered serious injuries in a car accident on a California mountain road.
“With his life hanging by a thread, John was airlifted to a Redding hospital, where he remained for much of the summer,” Goodman-Morris said.
He underwent numerous surgeries to set and heal multiple broken bones. He was down. But not out.
A few days after his accident, John’s wife, Shari, emailed the director, asking her not to write him off, “just yet.”
En route to the Bay Area later, Goodman-Morris was able to visit Pratt in his hospital room.
“We found him propped up in the bed with a brace around his neck and multiple casts on his arms and legs,” she said. “But his eyes were bright and his spirit was determined. We left knowing, against all odds, that he would play Bedminster, no matter what.”
Seybold tweaked Pratt’s part, placing the villain in a wheelchair.
“He wheeled his way through the show with speed, grace and agility,” Goodman-Morris said. “The wheelchair turned out to be a powerful addition to his character.” (Think Shakespeare’s villainous King Richard III on crutches.)
John Pratt’s indominable spirit is what OLLI represents: resilience, passion and the celebration of life.
And, oh, in case you were wondering: Despite the efforts of Bedminster and his henchmen, the day was saved, and no one, including OLLI, was lost at sea when the curtain came down.
OLLI at SOU is among the nation’s largest of 125 Osher Lifelong Learning programs on college and university campuses across the nation, with nearly 1,700 members involved in classes at SOU’s Ashland and Medford campuses.
OLLI provides a variety of in-person and online noncredit courses and outdoor activities for people who want to learn for the joy of learning. Classes are geared toward those 50 and older, but membership is open to adults of any age.
For more information about current course offerings and fees, go to olli.sou.edu.
Open enrollment for winter term courses begins on Dec. 11.
Reach writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.