‘Music Man’ Marks Return of Summer Productions to Ford Center

Meredith Willson's popular Broadway musical being staged June 30-July 1 by alumni and locals

Joe Jackson (right), as Harold Hill, and John Simmons, as Marcellus, perform a duet as part of the upcoming production of ‘The Music Man,’ set for June 30-July 1 at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The show is the first of a planned annual series of summer community productions at the Ford Center. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – A classic Broadway musical about a heartless grifter who falls for a pretty small-town librarian is the first of a planned annual series of summer community productions at the University of Mississippi‘s Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” takes center stage at the Ford Center later this month. Directed by and starring UM alumni, the Tony Award-winning show is slated for 7:30 p.m. June 30-July 1.

Tickets are available at the Ford Center Box Office, at this link or by calling 662-915-7411.

“‘The Music Man’ is a classic,” said Kate Meacham, who handles marketing for the Ford Center. “The show has great music, which many people will recognize. It’s a great family show.”

This marks the first summer theatrical production on campus since 2013, when the Oxford Shakespeare Festival ended its 10th season, said Julia Aubrey, Ford Center director. Aubrey and her husband had directed and conducted the festival’s musical productions for eight years before she was hired as Ford Center director in 2016.

“I often heard community members express the sentiment that they missed that experience each summer,” she said. “After conversations with friends and colleagues, I determined that there was enough interest to consider reviving the summer musical.”

Choreographer René Pulliam (left), director John Davenport and stage manager Madison Hickey-Rider watch a rehearsal of ‘The Music Man’ at the Ford Center. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“The Music Man” is a perfect show to kick off the new series, which is supported by a gift from donor Nancye Starnes, of Charleston, South Carolina, Aubrey said.

“There is an enormous amount of music theater talent in our community and it has been a pleasure to bring together so many theater professionals to support the production,” she said. “Along with the entire Ford Center staff, we have designers, musicians, carpenters, seamstresses and many others who work behind the scenes to bring this wonderful story to our stage.”

Several Oxonians, many of whom are Ole Miss alumni, are involved in the production. Longtime Oxford High School theater teacher John Davenport (BFA 99) directs the production. Joe Jackson (BFA 00) plays lead character Harold Hill, and Alice-Ann Light (MFA 09) portrays feminine foil Marian Paroo.

Other actors include Oxford dentist Walker Swaney, who plays Olin Britt, and former UM Employee Health Center physician Jean Gispen, who portrays the River City Woman.

Davenport has been staging OHS musicals for more than 20 years, but his last community experience was staging “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center in 2013.

“Julia Aubrey mentioned the project to me last September and asked if I would consider directing the production,” he said. “Honored to be asked, I accepted the invitation and am excited to be a part of this community event.”

Jackson said that he couldn’t resist Aubrey’s request.

“When Julia Aubrey reaches out and asks you to play Harold Hill at the Ford Center, how do you say no?” said Jackson, a Pittsburgh native who teaches dance in the UM Department of Theater and Film. “Especially when she says you get to work with John Davenport, René Pulliam, Michael Worthy and the most fun and talented people in Oxford.”

Cast members of ‘The Music Man’ rehearse one of the musical’s popular songs at the Ford Center. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

An equity actor for more than 20 years, Jackson has performed across the country and overseas. Since transitioning to teaching full time, he does not get a chance to perform as much.

“I am so honored and excited for the opportunity,” he said. “My wife is also in the production, so being able to perform with her again is special.”

An assistant professor of voice at Texas Tech University, Light said she is excited to return to Oxford for this particular production.

“I first performed in ‘The Music Man’ exactly 20 years ago, and I have wanted to play the role of Marian ever since,” said Light, who has been performing in musical theater and opera more than two decades. “I love working with this creative team, and I jumped at the chance to come back ‘home’ to perform with and for some of my favorite people.”

“The Music Man” is Swaney’s fifth production at the Ford Center.

“Julia Aubrey has been very supportive in my participating in the plays and musicals,” he said. “This is a very fun part of my part and, even though it’s a big commitment, it is really rewarding to see the fruits of your labors on stage.”

Gispen, who has deep family roots in Oxford, said her role is a lifelong dream come true.

“I have known and loved ‘The Music Man’ since the early 1960s,” she said. “When I was in elementary school, I auditioned for a role as a von Trapp child in a high school production of ‘The Sound of Music,’ but I didn’t get it. In high school, I auditioned for a part in ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ again not getting one. 

“I have sung in choirs intermittently since then, so I thought I’d try once more to be in a Broadway musical. Luckily for me, altos are often needed.”