Community Theater Luminary Says Goodbye with Harmony’s “The Music Man”

By Jan Mercker

Karlah Louis shook up Loudoun’s community theater scene when she opened Main Street Theater in 2013. She shook it up again last summer when she announced she was closing the theater company following the death of her husband, Arthur, leaving local arts lovers wondering what’s next for Louis and the performing arts in western Loudoun.

Louis is returning to her roots as a professional actor but not before putting on one last show. She directs her 10th and final musical at Harmony Middle School with a gangbusters production of “The Music Man” later this month.

For Louis, losing her husband and collaborator after a long illness meant it was time to shift gears and return to stage and screen. She’s preparing for spring auditions for DC-area television and stage work while wrapping up rehearsals for her final school show.

“When you are blessed with talent, it’s your obligation to share it and teach it and spread it. A chunk of my life has come to an end, and I could have just closed the door on it. I closed the door and kicked open the next one,” Louis said. “I didn’t decide it on my own: my husband, my friends, my parents my family, my old bosses—every one of them. It was like a tide came at me, and they all said, ‘Go back on stage because that’s where you do the most good.’”

Louis was an award-winning actor for more than two decades before turning her attention to community theater. Main Street quickly became known for ambitious, high-quality shows at Purcellville’s Franklin Park Arts Center, attracting regional talent and launching blossoming professional careers for several young performers. Arthur Louis was an important force behind the scenes and a constant presence at performances at the Franklin Park ticket counter even in the final months of his illness. But as Arthur reached the end of his life, Louis said, the couple realized that moving forward with the company was too much for one person.

“Main Street was mine and Arthur’s,” Louis said. “It was what we were going to do in our retirement. It was going to be what we built. … I just don’t want it to be the rest of my life as lovely as it was.”

In addition to spending nearly every weekday afternoon this fall with gaggles of middle school drama kids, Louis has been prepping for her return to the professional stage, and that meant starting by losing 50 pounds.

“I knew I needed to get back into fighting shape in order to step into the entertainment industry on television,” Louis said. “I didn’t want to be sold by agents as the old, fat funny woman. … I’m putting myself back to how Washington remembered me. … I played a lot of older leading ladies. I’m fighting for that.”

But Louis, who has been giving students at Harmony Middle School a taste of professional theater sensibilities for 10 years while running the school’s drama program, had one last commitment to the community before closing up shop and decided to go out with a bang in the form of a celebrated classic. “The Music Man” was the right show for her last local production on several levels, she said.

“There’s a foundation that musical theater is. If you’re a junior high school student and somebody looks at you and says, ‘Let’s do ‘Frozen,’ there’s nothing wrong with that. … But if you take a classic musical, you learn what the structure of a musical is and that songs were written for a purpose and that characters were written in that all supported a storyline. There’s a structure to the old musicals that the better ones nowadays follow, but a lot of them don’t.”

“The Music Man” stars sister and brother team Eliza and Hudson Prymak, who were featured in Main Street’s production of “South Pacific” last year and have gone on to snag professional roles at Olney Theatre. Grayson Carnall, another familiar face in local community theater, plays Harold Hill. For many young actors, Main Street served as a kind of incubator, with Louis using her experience and connections to help guide young performers into professional roles, including Loudoun-based teen actor Serena Parrish who starred in an off-Broadway play last summer and got her start in Harmony and Main Street shows.

Louis says she and co-director Ann Stewart analyze rising talent every year when planning the following year’s show and decided they had a group with the chops for “The Music Man” including plenty of boys to fill male roles. But there was also a more personal reason for the choice: the show, which includes a beloved barbershop quartet, is also a tribute to Arthur, a retired government contractor with a passion for barbershop a cappella.

“This show is for him,” she said. “It was his favorite.”

Stewart met Louis in 2010, when Stewart was looking to build a theater program at the recently opened Harmony Middle School and both women had daughters involved in the performing arts. Louis was brought on to direct a 2011 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and wowed other volunteers with her skill in everything from sets to costumes to blocking the show.

“It soon became apparent that we had genius with us,” Stewart said..

After launching Main Street, Louis was hired to continue running the Harmony drama program with support from Stewart and staff liaison Nancy Stevens and directed 10 winter musicals at the school. Stewart is hoping middle school performers from all of the shows Louis directed will attend the Friday, Jan. 24 opening night of “The Music Man” for an alumni reunion.

“Whatever Karlah does, it’ll be magnificent,” Stewart said. “She’s a tour de force.”

Louis says she plans to stay in Loudoun for now. Her younger daughter Sarah is a junior at Woodgrove High School and older daughter Rachel will graduate from Shenandoah University’s drama department this spring. For Louis, moving back into life as a professional actor will be just a little easier with another actor in the family: Rachel has been helping her mom update her résumé with a new digital audition reel and website.

“I have this lovely college graduate who’s kind of shoving me out of the nest,” Louis said. “I think we’ll help one another.”

Louis will also be performing in a farewell Valentine’s cabaret put on by Stewart and a group of Main Street alumni next month. 

“It’s a little scary,” Louis said “It’s one of the first times in my life that I’m stepping forward and trusting that I’m really good at what I do. That’s a hard thing to say and stay humble and stay grounded, knowing that you’re saying it about the most difficult profession in the world. I don’t forget that.”

Harmony Middle School’s production of “The Music Man Jr.” takes place Friday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m., with Harmony alumni encouraged to attend the Friday show. Tickets are $8 and are available at showtix4u.com.

The “A Valentine 4U” cabaret performed by Main Street Theater alumni and featuring Karlah Louis is Friday, Feb. 14 and Saturday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Trillium Gathering Building in Purcellville. Tickets must be purchased in advance from Ann Stewart. For more information, go to facebook.com/mainstreettheaterproductionsinc

The cast for the 2020 Main Street Theater production of The Music Man.