August 17, 2005
Maple Grove, Minn. — Cedar Island Lake sits behind a line of houses along a winding, tree-filled road in Maple Grove. The water is calm and the air is cool as the evening sun begins its slow descent. Facing the lake on a deck in back of one of the houses, a couple dozen adults, teenagers and children are marching and singing "Seventy-Six Trombones"
The deck has been turned into a stage with a set of scenery and props. To the right of the deck, a patio serves as an orchestra pit with a pianist providing accompaniment for the evening's rehearsal.
Janet Grove stands watching the swirl of activity.
"None of us, I would say, are professional actors in the theater," she says. "However we have a lot of people who are professional musicians. The kids that are in it are involved in music in their schools, in theater in their schools, and we have a lot of people who just love to do this. "
Grove and her husband Jerry Irvin have been staging musicals in their Maple Grove backyard for the past several summers with casts and crews made up of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. The idea for the backyard summer productions came from Janet and Jerry's son Nate when he was little more than a toddler.
"He, at three, said 'I want to direct a production of the Wizard of Oz in our backyard, Mom!'" Grove laughs. "And I said 'Hmm. Maybe later.' And he continued to keep bugging me about it and when he was seven I said, 'Go to town Nate. Go ahead, you try to put it together.' And so that was our first. That would have been, I think, 1999."
That show started with just a couple of friends, it took a week and a half to put together and about 90 people showed up.
Since then the amount of work that goes into the backyard musicals has grown. Early rehearsals for "The Music Man" began in June; at first two or three times a week and then leading up to more intensive and frequent rehearsals in August.
There are 40 people in the cast and when the show is fully staged there will also be a twelve member orchestra. Over the two nights, Janet Grove says an audience of over a thousand people will crowd together in their small backyard, with a few people watching from boats in the lake.
Don Krubsack and his wife Teri Larson have been a part of the backyard productions since the original "Wizard of Oz." Krubsack is the band director at Orono High School and Larson is the director of music at the Basilica of St. Mary. He's playing Professor Harold Hill and she has the role of his love interest, Marian the Librarian.
Krubsack says the Maple Grove backyard is a wonderful setting for a musical and says his friends and colleagues who have come to see the show in the past have been surprised.
"I mention that it is a backyard, neighborhood production, and they expect maybe 30 or 40 people to show up and be supportive for something that is mediocre," he says. "But it is really a quality show that packs the place. we can't believe that we can get 500 people in that little backyard."
Krubsack says the musical is staged each year for the kids. His two children are both involved in the production and he says it's a great way for them to spend the summer.
Nate Irvin, who got the whole thing started, is now in 8th grade at Maple Grove Junior High. He's also the closest thing to a professional in the "Music Man" production, having sung as a boy soprano with the Houston Grand Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra. He only has small roles in "The Music Man" so he can spend more time directing.
"You know, it takes up my summer, that's for sure. It starts two weeks after school gets out, and it goes until a week before school is back," he says. "Sometimes I wish I could just have a night when I could just sit and watch a movie, but really it's a lot of fun. And the comments we get after a show makes it so much worth it." Nate Irvin's five year old sister Samantha also has a role in "The Music Man." She plays Marian the Librarian's young brother Winthrop, who sings "Gary, Indiana."
Samantha Irvin and nine year old Ashton Valentines and ten year old Victoria Schwartz say it takes a lot of time putting the show together.
"It's just something really fun that we love to do" they say in chorus.
While the production may give kids an early theatre experience and something fun to do in the summer, it also gives the adults a rare opportunity to be on stage. Dick Irvin plays the train conductor and town constable in "The Music Man." He says that before getting involved in these backyard productions it had been many years since he'd done any acting.
"I did a little in high school, and I just had my 40 year reunion, so it's been a while so I did anything serious, except for the last four or five years," he says. "It helps because I teach over here at Maple Grove Junior High now, and a lot of our students come to see the play and a lot of our students are in the the play. And so I get to see this kids in a different light, and they get to see me in a different light, which makes a big difference in the classroom."
With many weeks of rehearsal in the backyard and hundreds of cars crowding the street during the nights of the performances, these summer productions would seem to be in danger of becoming a noisy, neighborhood nuisance. But Janet Grove says her neighbors are all involved in different ways.
"My next door neighbor builds all the sets that we come up with - concoct, " she says. "For the productions, they come and they help. They help sell all the food, and help with parking. We have port-a-potties that come. We often talk about it takes a village to raise a child, well it certainly takes our whole village to make this show come together."
Janet Grove says she doesn't think about how many more summers they'll continue staging the summer backyard musicals. She says they're great fun and suggests that maybe her kids will want to come back each summer to stage them even after they graduate from high school.
Grove says any profits go to the Bridget McCarthy Scholarship Fund, managed by the Minnesota Boy Choir.