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Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006 02:32 pm

Of mice and maestros

Springfield author's children's story makes its U.S. stage debut in Tennessee

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Dancing mouselets caper through the East Tennessee Regional Symphony/City Youth Ballet production of The Orchestra Mice.
Photo by Giery Cloud

Originally published in 1970, the children’s book The Orchestra Mice had been out of print for decades when its author, Springfield resident Jacqueline Jackson, got an unexpected phone call.

The woman on the other end of the line was Martha Hicks, an American teacher of wind instruments at an arts high school in Bielefeld, Germany. Hicks, who had been given the book during her studies at a conservatory in New York, kept Mice for 30 years and read it to her young son.

Hicks tracked down Jackson — a longtime professor of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield and contributor to Illinois Times — on the Internet in the hope of collaborating with her.

“She said she’d like to turn [The Orchestra Mice] into a musical and how would she go about getting permission,” Jackson, 78, says.

“I said, ‘I own the copyright — be my guest, and I’ll go see it.’ ”

An orchestral production made a perfect match for the story of mice who find their way to an orchestra hall by way of a hole in the wall and spend their evenings listening to Beethoven, Brahms, and Bizet. Hicks wrote the score and translated the story into German.

The German performance debuted in November 2004 and sold out the auditorium for three of the four performances.

To Jackson’s delight, there was interest in producing American version, but it came from an unexpected place: the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee. On Sept. 8 and 9, at Milligan College, located near Johnson City, the East Tennessee Regional Symphony and City Youth Ballet presented the American premiere of The Orchestra Mice, featuring Jackson as the narrator.

Buoyed by the strong response to the productions in Germany and Tennessee, Jackson says she hopes the Illinois Symphony Orchestra will consider presenting a Springfield performance.

The book chronicles the courtship and marrage of two mice, Sam and Clarissa, who live in the case of a string bass. The mice wake up to a litter of 12 mouselets, which they decide to raise musically, teaching them to harmonize and play instruments — a story similar to Jackson’s own tuneful childhood spent playing the cello amongst her siblings. Jackson says she wrote the story long before it was published, inspired after reading what she considered a subpar mouse story while babysitting.

Jackson’s strong, confident voice meets the demands of the narrator’s job, but the retired professor admits that getting ready required more work than she expected. Jackson says she had what amounted to a three- or four-day voice tutorial with brother-in-law Lewis Dalvit, conductor of the East Tennessee Regional Symphony.

“He wanted me to slow down. He wanted me to lower my voice. I was used to reading to kids, where I would hit the main words,” Jackson says. “He wanted every word to hit but the main words to hit most of all.”

Jackson’s familiarity with scores proved useful during her duties as narrator; she was accustomed to reading one line at a time or following along while listening to a music performance. As narrator, Jackson needed to know when to come in.

“This has been a new experience for me — and a growing experience,” Jackson says. “It showed me I still have things to learn. I may have white hair, I may be retired, but I still have a lot to learn, and I learned a whole lot both in watching the performance [in Germany] and pitching in with some ideas but in actually being part of the cast [in East Tennessee].”

The East Tennessee cast also featured dancers from the City Youth Ballet. Artistic director Susan Pace and assistant director Traci Honeycutt took on the task of choreographing movements for the 12 dancing mouselets and the lead dancers portraying Sam and Clarissa. The City Youth Ballet arranges plenty of original ballets, but the difficult choreography for The Orchestra Mice took about three months to complete.

“It was hard, one of the hardest ballets I’ve ever done. Some of the music was not made for dancing; we had to kind of make it that way,” Pace says by telephone. “I had no choreography to go from because the Germany production was a play, more or less.

Once Jackson receives the DVD recordings of the performance in East Tennessee, she’ll send some out to ballet companies and orchestras, including the ISO, hoping to see her family of mice onstage again.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.

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