Jingles, jangles, rhymes, The Hunkitchy Man, The Greedy Old Fat Man, Marigold and more -- you’ll find them all in “Mountain Mother Goose,” an operetta for young audiences.
The production, presented by the Fairmont State University School of Fine Arts, the Town and Gown Youth Company and the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, will be on stage in the Wallman Hall Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 10. Following each performance will be a reception to meet the composer and the cast at the Folklife Center. Tickets are $12 and are available by calling (304) 367-4240.
Decades in the making, “Mountain Mother Goose” is based on the childlore collections of Dr. Ruth Ann Musick and Dr. Walter Barnes, both retired Fairmont State faculty members. The works are edited by Dr. Judy P. Byers, Director of the Folklife Center and Abelina Suarez Professor of Folklore and English, Senior Level. Six stories will be woven together to bring Mother Goose to life.
“Mother Goose is not just an image, a personification of riddle and rhymes. She also gave us lessons on life. There are many versions of Mother Goose. Geese have always been protectors, and they stand for constancy because they mate for life,” Byers said. “In the French tradition, Mother Goose goes out to be a spinner of tales, of lesson stories. Charlemagne’s mother was Queen Bertha. Legend has it that she went out into the villages to give lessons on life by talking with children and telling stories. Because of this, she became the patron saint of children.”
Byers said that Charles Perrault published the first collection of Mother Goose tales in 1697, and he called it “History or Tales of Times Past.” On the frontispiece of the book, there was a picture of an old woman spinning with little children gathered at her feet. Above the image in very small print was written “Tales of My Mother the Goose.”
“Perrault was probably was thinking of his mother being a lot like Queen Bertha. The goose is a folkloric symbol of a nurturer and teacher and protector,” Byers said.
In the early 1700s, two Mother Goose-themed collections appeared. British publisher John Newberry published a collection titled “Mother Goose Melodies.” Across the pond, a Boston printer named Thomas Fleet published a collection called “Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes.” Fleet’s mother-in-law was named Elizabeth Ver Goose.
“Along the way, the idea of Mother Goose became a bit lost,” Byers said. “A lot of the versions of Mother Goose present the jingles, jangles and melodies but do not include the stories. It is our hope that with this new collection and operetta that we think of Mother Goose as a spinner of tales. Of course, even the riddles and rhymes are lyrical lessons for the child in all of us.”
Dr. Alice A. Moerk, Professor Emeritus of Music, composed the music, with additional lyrics written by retired faculty member Dr. George Byers and additional story by Dr. Francene Kirk, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre.
“The collaboration involved in this production has been amazing. Judy Byers and Alice Moerk first talked about writing this in the late 1990s. Alice wrote the original music, which was more of a staged choral piece. We needed Mother Goose to have a dramatic arc, really have a story, so we worked with George Byers. Alice ended up writing five additional arias in a span of about two months,” Kirk said. “I have only talked with Alice over e-mail. We’ve never really met in person. It makes you feel good that somebody trusts you with her ‘baby.’ Alice will be coming in from Florida to see the final product, and I hope she is pleased. If it hadn’t been for Alice shaping this and then shaping it a second time and allowing me to shape it in another way, this never would have happened.”
Directed by Kirk, the operetta tells the story of Mother Goose, who wanders the land looking for children who will listen to her stories. She comes upon a group of children playing in a field. A small group of “tough girls” try to intimidate some of the children. They single out one girl and torment her most. Complications ensue as Mother Goose attempts to use her stories to teach the children life lessons through story.
“At the beginning, the children are all skeptical of Mother Goose. They are particularly mean to one little girl, Marigold. The kids are also mean to Mother Goose, and she thinks she is failing. At the end, they’ve all made up, and the children encourage her to finish her stories. She realizes they are changing,” Kirk said.
Guest artists are West Virginia native and graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music, Elizabeth Wotring-Nelson as Mother Goose; Lynette Swiger on the hammer dulcimer; and storyteller Ilene Evans of Thomas, who served as choreographer. Mary Lynne Bennett serves as music director, Dr. Valarie Huffman as conductor, Kaici Lore as stage manager and Troy Snyder as set designer.
Kirk says that some of the rhymes included in the operetta will sound familiar, even though they may be set to a different tune.
“There’s one that I remember that goes ‘Blue bells, cockle shells, easy ivy over.’ We used to do that to jump rope when I was a little kid probably around age 7. But, evidently this was collected way before I was a little kid. There’s another one that goes ‘Nobody loves you. Everybody hates you. Go down to the garden and eat some worms.’ I heard that my whole childhood, but it never occurred to me that it was folklore,” Kirk said.
Faces familiar to those who enjoy productions by the Town and Gown Players will be seen in main roles: Jason Young will portray the Greedy Fat Man; Brady Dunn will portray the Hunkitchy Man; Chris Yost will portray the old man from the Tailypo story; and Jordan Kennedy Rea will portray Marigold.
Ranging in age from 7 to 17, the ensemble cast features: Isabella Bowen, Bekah James, Sydney King, Leah Michael, Bryanna Fleming, Isabella Diserio, Maddie LaFollette, Brailey Gouzd, Erica Gorman, Shannon Yost, Sarah Lemley, Hannah Hill, Madison Hayes, Brent Hayes, Sabrina Dahlia, Ariel Stern, Jenna Richman, Billy Tobin, Sinead Tobin, Sophia Flowers, Franchesca Aloi, Loki Hall, Michaela Greene, Marissa Macaulay and Madison Janes.