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Song Medicine

New South Baltimore Theater Company Dedicated to Producing Original Musicals

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SLAVERY DAYS: Ruth Hulett resists John Sheldon's advances.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 4/23/2008

The King of the Eastern Shore

April 18-27 at Riverside Stage

Michael Hulett is a rare bird in Baltimore theater. In a city that boasts at least a dozen small, independent companies that produce works for the stage, he is the only one devoting much of his theater company's time to producing original musicals. Vagabond Players in Fells Point puts on some fine remakes, and Theatre Project and Baltimore Shakespeare Festival both cultivate debuting playwrights, but neither has done much experimenting in recent years with Hulett's most beloved genre.

That's why, a few months after finding his perfect staging space--a small, elevated stage theater in the basement of Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, across from South Baltimore's Riverside Park--he jumped on it. His new company, Riverside Stage, performs his new musical, King of the Eastern Shore, to kick off its inaugural season.

"I took one look at the space and thought, We could do theater here," he says of the church basement stage. "Our first thought was just to put on a play . . . but we decided to make it into a sort of neighborhood arts center."

Hulett's wife gives voice lessons there during the day, and once King of the Eastern Shore's run is over, he hopes to solicit more material for productions at Salem Evangelical.

The musical, which takes place entirely in a barn on an antebellum farm, is a morality tale about racism and ego. A young boy named Nate (Spencer Blankenship) and a young girl named Elly (Meghan Sova), at play among the hay bales, find an escaped slave who claims to be an African king (Corey Dunning). The King endears himself to the children and, while in hiding, gets involved in Elly's widowed mother Ruth's (Ruth Hulett) potential marriage to Nate's father, Ethan (John Sheldon). Rejected by his beloved, and drunk most of the time, Ethan tries to force himself upon Ruth, forcing the King to intervene and bringing the conflict to a head: racist white man with wounded pride wants revenge on noble, mysterious "African King," who has nothing but good intentions, all fleshed out through the eyes of the children.

It's admittedly pretty formulaic. And the songs that Hulett has composed are accompanied by MIDI arrangements that sound alternately like Andean pan-pipe music, Renaissance fair morris dancing, and an ethnically patronizing impression of Native American ritual dance music, piped in through phantom overhead speakers. But it's the sentiment that's important here. Hulett is striving for profundity on a level that isn't inaccessible to the kiddies, and he's doing it low-budget, for the good of the community.

"I want people to be intrigued," Hulett says. "Is [the King] a magical figure? Is he dangerous? . . . I was very cautious to not give any clues about setting, so that if you see it, you don't immediately go, `Oh, I see--we're in the mid-19th century.'"

Hullett is a full-time playwright and director of some note. As a writer, he has had a few shows produced, including adaptations of The Wind in the Willows and A Christmas Carol, and a 1984 run of Basin Street, a musical about jazz in New Orleans set to the music of Turk Murphy. He moved from New York to college at Wesleyan, on to small-company theater in Colorado, where his career really got started. He met his wife, Ruth, a Baltimore native, professional singer, and voice teacher, nine years ago and recently moved with her into her grandmother's old house in Federal Hill. He's currently working on the book for a revival of Loften Mitchell's Bubbling Brown Sugar.

"The problem with a place like New York is that you never get work done," he says. "You'll write and write and write, and then get a reading if you're lucky. . . . Here I get fully mounted productions."

Together, in the early '00s, Hulett and his wife formed Musical Artists Theatre, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that initially focused on putting on plays at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, which is located in the building that was once Ruth Hulett's high school, and for a few years they have been running summer theater camps in Towson and Anne Arundel County. They put out a national call for submissions in 2002 and '03, and about 50 to 100 musicals came back, none of which, Hulett says, were worthy of production. He hopes that King of the Eastern Shore spurs momentum that he can hand off to someone else in order to keep Riverside Stage moving.

Pastor Barbara Melosh, the minister at Salem Evangelical, says she has read the King of the Eastern Shore book and that it strikes her as a "fresh use of some of the classic themes in American literature" she taught in an earlier life as a professor at George Mason University.

Because Riverside Stage's performance space is in a church, Melosh says she isn't going out of her way to program edgy, R-rated adult fare, and that she would like to keep most productions family-oriented. "I don't think we'll be doing Caligula here anytime soon," she says, but adds that she wouldn't rule out more adult material.

Before a dress rehearsal last week, Hulett explains that the actors, though paid, "are just once-removed from community theater," and it shows. His wife, Ruth Hulett, chats with Blankenship and Sova, the two young leads, while hemming their costumes by the stage. She is motherly, helping Sova pull her dress down over her head and addressing them as "kids" when telling them it's time to put their boots on.

The play is still rough--the younger actors need more coaching and the blocking is still awkward. Dunning's King is surprisingly polished and gentile for an escaped 19th-century slave, and the computer music is too loud, too immodest with its awkward key changes and weak rhythmic definition. The whole thing, in fact, is tremendously hokey, but, in the end, quite heartwarming at the same time.

And despite his earnest dedication to the theater, Hulett has no illusions about the gravity of his musical. "It's an adult play in that it would go over the heads of most of the kids, but if it were a film, it would be G-rated," he says. "It's not like cutting-edge theater. It's light entertainment that maybe moves you as well."

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