A Norman Rockwell version of Mr. Smith goes to Washington premiered at the Shelton Cinema in the form of a homespun documentary, Small Town, Huge Heart, Big Apple by Mark and Linda Woytowich on 9-26-13. It is the story of how a small rural community choir in Mason County, through the cajoling of its director, Matthew Blegen, rose to heights necessary to perform Handel’s ‘The Messiah’ in Lincoln Center’s Avery-Fischer Hall and New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The movie was quintessentially Mason County in mood, scenery, humor, and format.
To begin with, the crowd (approaching 200) was squeezed into a lobby much too small to serve as a host for such local excitement. The air was becoming warm, fetid, and there was entirely too much togetherness to the point one could not move further in or out. There was an abundance of schmoozing, small town chatter, and plenty of smiles all around. While only 24-hours prior to the event, only 50 tickets ($8-$10 ea.) had been sold, they were virtually sold out within the last 24 hours and at the door for the 200 seat theater. Dr. Busacca, a local dentist, and his wife, both ardent patrons/supporters of Anna’s Bay had to be turned away at the door for not having purchased tickets earlier. Drew MacEwan from the 35th District and his wife were seen in attendance along with any number of choir members.
Rumor had it the doors to the silver screen remained closed because an earlier matinee had caused some delay. As it turned out, the bulb to the theater’s projector had burned out with no replacement in sight. The producer (Mark) had to set up an ad hoc laptop and home projector to show the film to ticket holders. He had a couple of sizable stereo speakers on stage connected to his PC with coaxial cables snaking their way under the seats to a connection on a small card table set up on the seats in front of his projector. One patron, not knowing what to expect, asked if it was to be a slide show. She was reassured it would be a video and the crowd accepted the forum’s lack of expected amenities with good humor. A small number of hand silhouettes on the screen preceded the film.
Mr. Woytowich took to the stage to announce his production before the desktop display from his laptop. The film itself was good though uneven in spots where a shaky camera became annoying. The sound ambiance changed dramatically from one scene to the next in a disconcerting fashion. Many scenes were spontaneous and had to do as they were unrehearsed. In general, there was a lot of well received humor in the editing and the audience loved seeing themselves along with their town on the big screen. New York City, itself, looked intimidating.
The performance itself was held at Lincoln Center’s Avery-Fisher Hall, a prestigious world class artistic venue. But, the cost to choir members wishing to perform was $1600 with a limited number of ‘scholarships’ reducing that to $1000 for airfare and lodging. The producer found he was forbidden to film the performance unless he has $80,000 to fork over as a fee to the venue. Without this large fee, he was limited to telling the story surrounding the bringing of that performance to the Big Apple…and he nailed it. Lincoln Center has the archive of the performance, but Shelton residents have the story.
The film is worth the price of admission to see. Mr. Woytowich is a talented producer with a limited budget which he does not allow to dampen his vision. Sadly, Matthew Blegen, the talented director who brought the choir to a level of excellence equal to the challenge of performing The Messiah, resigned last spring to pursue his doctoral studies.
It’s hard to believe Matthew Blegen wasn’t disappointed, despite his professionalism and diplomacy, to be unable to dance with the girl he brought to the party. Jonathan Griffith, a renown director in his own right and part of the organization tied in with Avery-Fischer Hall, directed Anna’s Bay Chorale (along with 4 other choirs) during its stay in NYC. It’s uncertain who directed their performance at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The choir members had to raise their own funds and pay their own way ($1600/ea.) to perform at the prestigious venue under Mr. Griffith’s direction. Matthew’s unique blend of inspiration and professionalism will be missed, its absence will be felt. Whether Suzanne Montgomery’s direction will serve as an adequate substitute remains to be seen.