2017-11-02 / Front Page

Central Baptist Church to present Wilder’s ageless play ‘Our Town’

Three weekend shows will star retired organist
BY RYAN GIBBS


Norman Newberry rehearses for his portrayal of Simon Stimson in Central Baptist Church’s production of ‘Our Town.’ Like his fictional counterpart, Newberry is an experienced choir director and organist. 
PHOTO BYCATHY KAISER Norman Newberry rehearses for his portrayal of Simon Stimson in Central Baptist Church’s production of ‘Our Town.’ Like his fictional counterpart, Newberry is an experienced choir director and organist. PHOTO BYCATHY KAISER He may not be the choir director anymore, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play one on TV. Or, more appropriately, on stage.

Norman Newberry, the longtime organist at Central Baptist Church who retired in September, will portray choir director Simon Stimson in the congregation’s version of “Our Town.” During three shows spanning three days, the CBC Players are presenting Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prizewinning masterpiece to celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary.

Although Newberry and Stimson share a profession, the men could not be more different, particularly their personalities.

“He is utterly unlike Simon Stimson,” director Julie Beth Andrews said. “The character is self-absorbed and personally troubled. However, Norman is affable and well-loved by his community.”


Valerie Tarantino, left, and Eleanor Howard shelling peas as neighbors Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs. The women will portray their characters during the CBC Players’ version of ‘Our Town.’ 
PHOTO BY CATHY KAISER Valerie Tarantino, left, and Eleanor Howard shelling peas as neighbors Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs. The women will portray their characters during the CBC Players’ version of ‘Our Town.’ PHOTO BY CATHY KAISER Despite their different demeanors,

Andrews petitioned Newberry for the role because of his half-century tenure with the church. Also, his retirement as choir director reflected themes in the play, which is about a small town in New Hampshire.

“It is about coming and going, about really seeing each other, and it is about caring for each other,” Andrews said.

Newberry has never acted be- fore, but he is familiar with “Our Town” and the character he will portray. He was reluctant to accept the offer; Newberry turned down Andrews three times before conceding to play the part.

Like Andrews, Newberry said he doesn’t relate to Stimson’s character, aside from their roles with the town church. He has, however, enjoyed rehearsing as his polar opposite.

“I was always very happy with what I did and enjoyed working with the choir,” he said. “He’s mostly unhappy with his situation. He feels like he’s stuck in it, which I never did.”

Another big difference, according to Newberry, is Stimson’s affection for alcohol. “I never came to choir rehearsal drunk,” Newberry quipped.

A native of Wickford, Newberry arrived in Jamestown in 1965 as an 18-year old student at the University of Rhode Island. After the church’s organist skipped town, he was recommended as a temporary replacement. While the Baptists cased the area for a permanent organist, Newberry agreed to the two-week gig.

His guest spot behind the organ became months, then years, then decades. He moved to Jamestown in 1970, married his wife at the church and raised his family while working as a schoolteacher in West Warwick. Despite being a fixture for 52 years, his position at Central Baptist never was officially changed from its temporary title.

“I’ve always been the interim organist and choir director,” he said. “I never had a regular contract.”

When Newberry announced his retirement, he told the vestry, “I hope your next interim works out better than mine did.”

According to his estimates, Newberry has played the organ during 2,600 Sunday services. Now 70, much has changed about Jamestown since he was a teenager, although his constant post at the church has kept him grounded.

“It’s been the one stable thing that’s always stayed the same,” he said. “It became pretty important to stick around.”

Newberry’s favorite part of the job has been working with the choir and selecting the hymns for them to sing. He did not limit his musical choices to traditional church music, and often incorporated jazz, gospel and classical music into the repertoire.

While he no longer leads the choir, Newberry remains active in the congregation and attends church every weekend. In the meantime, the Rev. Kurt Satherlie has been inviting guest musicians to perform while he searches for someone to permanently replace the church’s “temporary” organist.

Unlike the pitch to Newberry, the church has formed a search committee to find its new choir director. There is a list of potential candidates, but Satherlie said Newberry is “one-of-a-kind” who will be difficult to replace.

“He’s just a fabulous human being,” he said. “He’s very compassionate and caring and just a superb musician.”

As for his acting ability, Newberry is crediting Andrews for boosting his confidence on stage.

“It was painful at first, but I think I’m beginning to enjoy it,” he said.

Satherlie, who was cast as undertaker Joe Stoddard, is glad Newberry is still involved with the church.

“For the rest of the congregation to see him still very active with the church, that’s an affirmation that he’ll always be a part of Central Baptist,” Satherlie said.

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