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April 4, 2013

Mohawk Schools: One of county’s most ambitious musical directors calling it a career.

NEW CASTLE — On Sunday, the final curtain will descend on Mohawk High School’s performance of “Phantom of the Opera.”

And with it will end the the stage career of one of Lawrence County’s premier high school drama directors.

James McKim’s 36-year tenure as vocal music, digital media and visual editing teacher won’t come to a close officially until the end of the school year, but “Phantom” wraps up a string of 36 musicials he’s directed since 1979.

McKim, a  lifelong resident of the Mohawk area, launched his directing career with “Oklahoma,” and the list of productions he has overseen since then reads like a best-of-the-best of Broadway.

Under McKim’s tutelage, Mohawk students have performed some of the most challenging and advanced musicals of any high school in the area, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “West Side Story.”

In 2007, McKim’s students performed the complex and socially significant musical “Ragtime” for more than 2,000 people at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. In 2003, Mohawk became the first high school in the region to perform the full version of “Les Miserables.”

Now, McKim ends his career with arguably his biggest challenge ever, “Phantom of the Opera.”

“This is by far musically, technically, expense-wise, in every way, the most difficult musical we have ever done,” he said.

Students have been rehearsing and preparing for “Phantom” since last year. Many have taken additional voice lessons and training in preparation for this show.

The result is a full-blown production of “Phantom,” with a well-prepared and  talented cast, professional orchestra and technical accoutrements worthy of any stage in Cleveland or Pittsburgh. The show and McKim’s career both end with a bang as the chandelier crashes to the stage, leaving the audience in awe — yet no one would expect less from Mohawk or McKim.

He admits that when the final curtain falls he will be a little teary eyed, but McKim does look forward to life after retirement as well.

“When I walked down to the office to deliver my letter, it was a long walk,” he said. “The walk back to my room was even longer. But it is time for someone new, younger.”

McKim has goals for his retirement years.

“I have a farm. I also collect and restore antique tractors. I have about 20 of them in various stages of restoration.”

He also intends to travel.

“I have a goal to visit and see every one of my former students who work in theater,” he said. “That will take me as far west as the Queen Mary and the West Coast, as far south as Disney World, and as far east as Vienna, Austria, and the Vienna Opera House, where one young woman is a professional opera singer, headlining in the heart of the opera world as well as around the globe.”

McKim may get involved in some theater locally, but nothing will replace the decades he has spent mentoring and encouraging generations of young actors to succeed both on and off stage.

It is those years of success and encouragement that award James McKim his highest honor, a symbolic standing ovation from generations of students for all his years of dedication.

(Email: d_irwin@ncnewsonline.com)

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