'Perfect Picture' puts Rockwell in the spotlight

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MANCHESTER — It's not every day that talented stage actors, dancers and singers, recognized as among the best at their craft, find their way to Manchester, Vermont, to premiere a Broadway musical.

That day is July 20, when the curtain rises on "Perfect Picture," a musical based on the life of Norman Rockwell and starring Tony- and Emmy-award winner Lillias White at Southern Vermont Arts Center's Arkell Pavilion. Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 20, and 3 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 21.

The show, co-produced by Joshua Sherman Productions and The Mill, Sherman's East Arlington-based creative space, is being directed by four-time Tony nominee Randy Skinner. It's the centerpiece of the 4 Freedoms Festival, a month-long celebration of Rockwell, who made Arlington his home and his inspiration for 13 years. And The New York Times called the musical one of this summer's 15 must-see theater productions.

Sherman, who is also a physician at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, has been watching the development of his mother and aunt's musical about Rockwell for years, in stage and concert settings across the country, including New York's Lincoln Center. "I grew up in house full of music and heard the development process ," Sherman said. "It's what inspired me to have a good understanding of what artists need to move projects forward and collaborate effectively."

"Finally having the opportunity to have a Broadway cast and all-star director and choreographer stage this production is thrilling as we plan on moving it forward to New York," he said.

"One of the treat pleasures of summer theater in Vermont is that the stars come to you," Sherman said. "For anyone who has a kid who loves to sing or dance this is the show to bring them to for a lot cheaper and easier than a Broadway show. For anyone who has parents who can;t travel to the city anymore this is the way to get them to se a new Broadway show. For anyone who really just loves the joy that is experienced from musical theater this is worth seeing. And for anyone who gets joy out of Rockwell's work or meaning out of Rockwell's work they'll be thrilled with the essence of Rockwell captured in this."

The 75th anniversary of Rockwell's iconic Four Freedoms paintings, and the controversial sale of two of his masterworks, "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Blacksmith's Boy — Heel and Toe," by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., have raised Rockwell's profile in the past year. "As they say, timing is everything," Sherman said. "The moment has really arrived where Rockwell has never been more popular. His work has never been more valuable and moment he captured in time was really something that has never been more relevant than in 2018."

It's very much a family affair, as the book and lyrics were written by Sherman's mother, Eileen Bluestone Sherman, and the music was written by his aunt, Gail Bluestone. In "Perfect Picture," Rockwell's quest to create the Four Freedoms paintings are juxtaposed with a portrait of the artist — whose life was anything but a "perfect picture."

Arranging that picture on stage is Skinner, whose Broadway directing credits include "42nd Street," "Dames at Sea," "State Fair" and "White Christmas." In a phone interview Tuesday from New York City, where rehearsals were taking place, he said the musical's book, lyrics and music give him confidence that the musical will resonate with audiences.

"Number one, he music is going to be very entertaining. Besides the up tempo numbers there's beautiful ballads in the show. And I think people will be really interested in [Rockwell's'] story," Skinner said.

While past Broadway audiences were more likely to be entertained by the talented actors, singers and dancers on stage, current audiences want a compelling narrative, Skinner said.

"It's great when you have a wonderful score and opportunities to dance but bottom line you have to be moved by the story," he said. "We live in times now where the stories are very important and people do want to walk away feeling `I really got into that storyline, I really connected with those characters.' That's the crucial part."

Rockwell's story is going to connect, Skinner predicted. "People who think they know him might learn some new things."

It's an uplifting show as well, one that culminates in the watershed moment of Rockwell's art career — his painting of the Four Freedoms.

"It really does end on a great song that we feel is going to leave people feeling like an American, no matter what you believe," Skinner said. " I think everyone will walk away feeling what it means to be an American."

As for the process of putting a new musical through its paces for the first time, Skinner said he "puts the blinders on" and concentrates on the on-stage product, and then lets the audience reaction and feedback tell him what needs tinkering.

"Your audience tells you everything. That's the next component," he said. "With revivals you have that piece in place. When you start fresh with a new show the next element is when you add the audience in. That's the fun part. Anyone who views a new show you can learn from."


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