February 17 was opening night for the Keene Lion's Club production of The King and I, its 59th annual musical. Behind the keyboard as accompanist was Keene State's very own Jon Ripley O'Brien '78. An honorary member of the club, O'Brien has worked on 29 of the past 34 shows, a tradition he began as a senior in Keene State's music composition and theory program.
O'Brien's love for music started early with piano lessons and exposure to music within the community. A parallel thread was his love for Arthurian legend, inspired in childhood by Walt Disney's The Sword and the Stone and a Keene High School Drama Club production of Camelot in 1967, produced and directed by English Department chair Vincent E. Riel (KSC '57, MA '67), which sealed O'Brien's fascination with all things Arthur.
When O'Brien got to Keene High, Riel staged O'Brien's own original musical, Jonah! (with libretto by Dan Roentsch) and has remained a lifelong mentor and friend to O'Brien.
After graduation from Keene State, O'Brien went into banking at Cheshire County Savings Bank on West Street in Keene (now TD Bank). He kept one foot in the music world through his volunteer work with the Keene Lion's Club, churches, and other performances. It was not until 2005 that O'Brien began to work toward presenting original works – and he did so with a bang.
Merlin, an original musical that grew out of O'Brien's avid interest in Arthurian legend, was co-presented by Marlborough's Branch River Theatre and the Keene Lion's Club in 2006. With every show sold out, O'Brien had a hit on his hands.
For Pendragon, O'Brien was nominated for Best Original Playwright by the New Hampshire Theatre Awards.
Planting his community roots even deeper, O'Brien began working on a piece with the United Church of Christ in Keene. Based on his earlier high-school creation, Jonah! (2007 version) was another hit.
Soon after, along with Scot Tolman, Keene High's drama director and co-founder of Keene theatre group The Edge Ensemble, O'Brien composed the music and wrote the lyrics for an original rendition of Dracula (2008).
Continuing with his Arthurian fascination and working once more with the Branch River Theatre, O'Brien, in 2009, presented Pendragon, his sequel to Merlin. For Pendragon, O'Brien was nominated for Best Original Playwright by the New Hampshire Theatre Awards.
Last December, with Small Pond Productions of Marlborough, O'Brien premiered a new rendition of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It was announced at the premiere that the show, already sold out, would become an annual event.
For this show, as for all the others, O'Brien generously volunteers his time and his considerable talent, for what he describes as his solace and joy in music and composing.
The one thing he said he would like to take time for, something that would take him far beyond the Monadnock region, is a visit to Tintagel in Cornwall, the legendary dwelling place of the spirit of Merlin. One suspects that a little part of the magical Merlin already lives inside Jon Ripley O'Brien.