Music men announce final season Port and Jones come full circle
Dying swans really don’t sing, but the two men behind P&J Productions are going out on a high note.
The local theatrical partnership of Neil Port and Will Jones just announced its season-long swan song of shows that mirrors their collaborations in the years since their chance meeting at auditions for “The Music Man” in 2005.
The partnership delivered 27 performances.
The farewell season of P&J Productions kicks off on May 26 with a community musical tribute concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” That will be followed by a reprisal of their version of “The Music Man” in June, “The Wizard of Oz” in October and a new show being written by Jones in June 2018.
“We wanted to go out on top, our way,” said Jones. “We want to go out celebrating the legacy of P&J.”
The performing arts community is grateful for that legacy, said Kate Shaffer, executive director of the Blair County Arts Foundation, which owns the Mishler Theatre where most of P&J’s productions have been staged.
“Exciting performances from the Port/Jones team during the past … years thrilled patrons and introduced many new audience members to the Mishler and the vast cultural opportunities available there,” Shaffer said. “P&J’s enhancement of the artistic community and generous financial support of local human service programs will be greatly missed when they take their final curtain call.”
The founding of the partnership was rather serendipitous, even though the two partners loved music from an early age.
Growing up in Altoona, Port started taking piano lessons at the age of 5, but he also loved business and started his own snow-shoveling service at an early age. In junior high, he began playing in local bands, including trombone for Paul Winter’s Little German Band — before Winter went on to become a seven-time Grammy Award winner.
Port continued his music in college by marching with the Penn State Blue Band, and he studied industrial engineering while running two businesses. After graduation, he served for two years with the U.S. Army before returning to Blair County. He pursued a business career and became CEO of two companies that became national leaders in the food service and healthcare software industries.
Port used his interest in music “to enhance” his life, performing for his family and on stage with local community theater groups.
Similarly, while growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Jones composed his first song at the age of 9 and has been writing music since. He performed in rock bands until he graduated from high school and served in the U.S. Marine Corps for a tour. He pursued his two passions of music and martial arts, operating a martial arts school for more than a decade and writing music for radio ads, television commercials and other media.
Family ties brought him to Blair County, and Jones started writing musicals. His first, “A Christmas Caroled,” based on the Dickens’ classic, was performed by the Tyrone Community Players in 1999.
By 2005, Jones stepped out of his comfort zone and went to the auditions of “The Music Man” being produced by the Ebens-burg-based Allegheny Highland Regional Theatre, today’s Cresson Lake Playhouse in Loretto.
“I’d never done anything like that,” Jones said. “But it was one of the few musicals I knew and I decided to go to my first audition.”
He tried out for the role of professor Harold Hill and he thought he flubbed the song. Afterward, he struck up a conversation with a man auditioning for Mayor Shinn who told Jones that his performance of “Trouble” was “one of the best renditions” he had heard.
Jones responded that he was a writer of musicals, not a performer.
“I liked this man, but I didn’t know who he was at the time,” Jones said. “I didn’t know he was a successful businessman in town.”
With both landing their sought-after roles, Port and Jones agreed to get together after the 22-show run of “The Music Man” ended that August.
Port liked what he read of Jones’ musical, “A Christmas Caroled,” but they couldn’t get a local theater group to stage it that year.
“We were asking for the unreasonable,” Port said. “But we did the unreasonable.”
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Jones added.
They pulled the production together that holiday season for a show at the Mishler Theatre.
“We did it, and it was a huge hit with a standing ovation,” Port said. “That launched us.”
They started producing other original works by Jones, including “Sherwood: The Musical Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Ghost Show.” And they made an independent film of the “Ghost” musical that debuted at the Manhattan Film Festival near Broadway.
“So you could say we have been on Broadway,” Port said, with a laugh. Seriously, though, three theater groups bought the rights to Jones’ play as a result.
P&J also started producing musicals that had been on Broadway, such as “Chicago,” “Cats,” “Les Miserables” and “Mary Poppins.”
“We do things that average companies don’t do,” Jones explained. “We’ve never been a community theater; we’re a production company. We like to provide professional, quality theater and give local talent an opportunity to participate in a grand production.”
They added national touring acts to their schedule, including Vegas-style tributes to the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, Bruce Springsteen and others.
This season will mimick those success stories, Jones and Port said.
When Jones was listening to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album earlier this year, it occurred to him that the music was 50 years old and should be P&J’s tribute celebration this year.
It was only “natural” to add “The Music Man” to the final season since it was what originally brought the two together, he said.
“We’re coming full circle,” Jones said. “Let’s do our legacy, ‘The Music Man,’ but let’s do something we’ve never done. So, we’re doing the big-time musical, ‘The Wizard of Oz.'”
“We like to set our horizons big,” Port said. “‘Wizard of Oz’ is a tough show to put on. People have big expectations. This is a way of continuing to stretch ourselves.”
For ‘Mary Poppins’ in 2015, for example, P&J hired a professional company to physically manage the risks of four actors soaring over the stage. Port insisted on doubling the number of rope handlers to reduce the liklihood of problems.
“We took risks, but in a calculated way,” he said. “You’ve got people 40 feet in the air, and don’t forget Spider-Man fell on Broadway. You don’t want problems.”
Jones said paying attention to such details is the “non-fun stuff that makes the show great. That’s been the key to our successes.”
Their final scheduled show in June 2018 will be the world premiere of Jones’ original work that he has been writing for five years or more.
“The fifth Will Jones show is a fitting end,” Port said. “It is the reason P&J got in the business. It will be closing the circle.”
Port said his original purpose of the partnership was to get exposure for Jones’ work.
“It was never my intention to make money. In fact, we only intended to do that one show,” he said. “But Will wanted to keep going, so we formed a partnership.”
Jones said he is grateful that Port was willing to be his mentor.
“He introduced me to the fine art of schmoozing,” Jones said, with a laugh. “I had never done anything like that. We really are the odd couple. He can talk to anyone; I had to force myself to talk to people.”
Port, for example, approached Altoona Mirror general manager Ray Eckenrode when P&J produced its first show in 2005. The newspaper was launching its inaugural Season of Sharing, and P&J was looking for a charity to benefit from the production.
“That first Christmas show was a full house and we made a surplus of $10,000,” Port said. “So our first $5,000 went to the Mirror’s Season of Sharing campaign. That is really the beginning of our relationship with the Mirror.”
They began co-producing and promoting events together and Jones went to work for the Mirror’s events wing, Altitude Entertainment, last year.
“I can’t think of many collaborations the Mirror has been involved in that have been as fulfilling as our work with P&J, in terms of business, in terms of entertainment and in terms of community outreach,” said Eckenrode. “Personally, I’ve learned so much from both Neil and Will and I’m proud to still work beside them and call them friends and partners.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Ray Eckenrode has been supportive of us from the beginning,” Port said. “We didn’t know where we were going, but we have created a great opportunity for local performers. The community has been very supportive and appreciative of what we’ve done. It has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.”
Jones said he will keep writing, producing and promoting. Port said he will continue to pursue business opportunities, as well as serve on the boards of a number of local charities.
“There’s a part of me that says I could do this another five years,” Port said. “It’s bittersweet. But it’s time.”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.