Let me explain. Locals still mourn the closing of Nantasket Beach’s Paragon Park, one of America’s original amusement parks, in 1984. But the memories linger, sometime in the form of still-extant relics such as the carousel, which was installed in 1928 and remains intact, and still on public view in Hull.
That carousel forms a nucleus around which Zoe Bradford and Michael Hammond have created a brand new, sprawling musical, "Paragon Park," which boasts 18 songs by lyricist and composer Adam Brooks (the splendid orchestrations are done by Jerilyn Sykes and performed, with emotional depth and range, by a live, 20-piece orchestra).
"Paragon Park" is playing now in its world premiere run at Company Theatre in Norwell. Often, describing the initial run of a locally-produced, brand new work as a "world premiere" seems a tad grandiose, but in this case it seems warranted: This play deserves longevity and a world tour, and this production fully realizes its potential. This is an exciting, full-fledged spectacle that does justice to the park’s grand vision.
In 1895, George Dodge (played here by Scott Wahle, in a solid and charismatic performance) decided to devote part of the fortune he’d made as a whaler to the creation of a special place; a jewel of entertainment, "a paragon of fun," as one of the songs has it. (The park opened ten years later, in 1905.) The play sketches out Dodge’s history as he describes the origin of his idea to a trio of children; in return, those kids later detail for Dodge the sorts of things they would like to see and do. (Fly! Live underwater! See exotic, far-flung lands! Be an angel... and then fall all the way to Hades!)
Not everyone in the local community welcomes the idea of the park. Newspaper editor Floretta Vining (Victoria Weinstein) is firmly against the idea; then again, Floretta seems to detest most things smacking of frivolity, including children. (She does, however, imbibe her share of spirits.)
But it’s not simply a matter of NIMBYs versus a visionary. Without getting bogged down in the details, the play references and illustrates the complexity of community relations, from unscrupulous rival Boss Smith (Dave Troilo), who essentially owns the town and seeks to set up his own amusement park, to corrupt city officials who hold permits hostage in exchange for bribes.
The shining light at the center of the story, however, is Tilly (Joyce MacPhee), a spirited young women whose rejection of constraints begins with her hatred of the corset she’s obliged to wear and extends to the ways in which others seek to shape her life and destiny on her behalf--including Ogden (Brendan Auld), a silent partner in the park who hopes to marry Tilly some day. But Tilly, exuberant and uncontainable, isn’t a meek maid looking to settle down into the role of wife and mother; she’s a living emblem of an age in which there seemed to be no limits. Her yearning for liberation, and the park’s cosmopolitan character, mirror each other.
It’s fitting, then, that one of the immigrant workers Dodge has brought over to staff his park should capture Tilly’s heart. His name is Rinaldo (Ross Brown); he’s a gondolier from Venice, or at least that’s the guise he assumes for his job at the park. It’s something of a scandal to those who see what’s going on; anti-immigrant sentiment is deeply entrenched, and few share Dodge’s view that those who work in the park, wherever they may hail from, are a family.
Ogden in particular is incensed to see Tilly and Rinaldo together. When disaster strikes one night and a fire rages across the park, Ogden, seeing his chance, takes action against Rinaldo, with consequences that last for years.
The play jumps around in time a little, showing us the last hurrah of the park’s emblematic carousel in 1985 and giving us a glimpse of the how Paragon’s prospects dimmed over the decades. But the story remains anchored in that most traditional of all plots: How two lovers meet, are separated, and must endure challenges of every sort to find their ways back to one another.
There’s plenty along the way to admire. This production goes the distance, from the talented cast and huge ensemble (there are 43 actors, all told) to the fabulous costuming and inventive set design, which includes an ingeniously contrived carousel. Watching this all-out, impassioned production is reminiscent of seeing a cheerful movie from the triumphal days of Technicolor, in wide screen no less; or, better yet, it’s like a day spent at the park itself. This sparkling new musical truly is "A paragon of fun," not to mention nostalgia, enchantment, and romance.
All 19 shows sold out completely before opening night, with the exception of some seats for an Aug. 14 benefit performance ($100 per ticket, with a matching grant of over $60,000; the proceeds are earmarked for improvements to the theater, among other things; tickets are available here).
But don’t worry: If you don’t see the show’s initial run (and lucky you, if you do!), this play is destined to become something of a classic. I wouldn’t be surprised to see its cinematic qualities brought to the screen some day, but in the meantime there’s no doubt that this story will be back on stage, somewhere, before long.
"Paragon Park" continues through Aug. 19 at The Company Theatre, 30 Accord Park Drive, in Norwell. For more information, please visit http://companytheatre.com