Home Arts Jim Thompson’s ‘Halfway There: A New Musical’ Prepares for Vermont Premiere

Jim Thompson’s ‘Halfway There: A New Musical’ Prepares for Vermont Premiere

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Choreographer Brandy Perez works on a dance sequence with the cast. Photo by John Lazenby.
It’s quiet on the street this Sunday evening in Montpelier, but I am led by the sound of laughter and music to Bethany Church’s multipurpose room. There I find the cast of “Halfway There” rehearsing the finale to Act I, preparing for performances in Barre in April. Jim Thompson’s new musical is inspired by his research on mental illness and his experiences with mental health challenges in his family.

Performances are scheduled for April 15 and 16 at the Barre Opera House, with a preview on April 7 at Montpelier’s Christ Church.

“Kick, ball change, cross!” Brandy Perez, the choreographer, urges the cast of 16 portraying the staff and clients at a fictional transitional group home for young adults. As they sing and dance, children of cast member Jesse Clayton quietly play on the other side of the room. 

“Halfway There” is the creation of Montpelier’s Jim Thompson, who arrived early to tape off the dimensions of the Barre Opera House stage. Thompson had experience in theater at Montpelier High School, as a musician for the Barre Players, and with his band Stretch n’ the Limits. He taught at Union Elementary School for 21 years and says writing this musical has been his dream for decades, interrupted by the pandemic but finally coming to fruition in this church basement. 

Creator (playwright and composer) Jim Thompson. Photo by John Lazenby. 
“I used issues from my own life, as well as traditional research,” Thompson explains. “I had a short stint working at the Spruce Mountain Inn, a transition residential treatment program in Plainfield. In my own family, my sister Mary Lou battled anorexia, which led to her early death, and my brother Bobby, diagnosed with schizophrenia, died of an overdose at the age of 26. ‘Halfway There’ is musical comedy on a serious subject. It was tricky for me to keep it light.” He began with four scenes with songs, and then turned to a writing coach, Tamar Cole, to complete the work. 

He explains his process on the production’s website, halfwaymusical.com. “Years ago I cut out photos from magazines and pasted them on index cards to move around a bulletin-board stage as I wrote the dialog and finished the scripts in 2019. Now I’ve replaced them with the actual cast for April 2022!”

Besides the cast, the band includes familiar faces to those in the music world: percussionist Dov Schiller, from Elmore, as musical director; multi-instrumentalist Steve Sawyer, from Vergennes, who played with Stretch n’ the Limits; and rehearsal pianist Christopher McWilliams from Barre, the organist and choir director for Bethany Church. (Daniel Bruce will play for the performances.)

There are new faces, too. Australian Erin Rathier-Bogart came to Vermont for her honeymoon and ended up staying when COVID-19 hit. She plays Claire, a young woman with anxiety disorder who mistakenly thinks resident Max is a staff member rather than a client. The pair eventually fall in love and marry. 

The actor playing the leading man, Max, is also a new face. Thompson had been performing on Lake Champlain’s cruise boat The Spirit of Ethan Allen when staff member Peter Bowley joined him to sing Sinatra tunes. Thompson invited him to audition in Montpelier, and cast him as the leading man in Halfway There.” Bowley, who has a background in theater, also took over the director’s duties. Naomi Flanders is the producer, and Richard McEntire the stage manager.

Thompson describes the set as “a group home for the rich and insane with all the warmth and charm of a country inn. It’s not (One Flew Over the)’Cuckoo’s Nest’ — the staff here are kind.” Staff and client rooms are separated by a wall, which turns into a metaphor, as the wall comes down between them. In fact, the roles of staff and clients are sometimes reversed, and thus the line blurs between them.

Thompson’s lyrics dive into the inner lives of both of staff and clients, with moments of great poignancy balanced with humor: 

“There was a time

when we drew a fine line

between normal and insanity.

What started out small 

soon grew into a wall

that divided our humanity.”

Performances of “Halfway There” are on Friday and Saturday, April 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Barre Opera House. For tickets, go to barreoperahouse.org

On Thursday April 7, the public is invited to a special preview performance from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. at Christ Church, 64 State St., Montpelier. A donation will be solicited for Veterans’ Place in Northfield vermontveteransplace.org

For additional information, go to halfwaymusical.com

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