District premieres new folk/bluegrass musical

Posted Online: May 22, 2014, 11:40 pm
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
If the District Theatre's new original production, "Big Rock Candy Mountain," shares the time period, look, sentiment and musical style of the popular musical "Southern Crossroads," that's intentional -- according to playwright Tristan Tapscott.

A veteran of both Circa '21 productions (in 2012 and 2013) of "Southern Crossroads" (and the District's artistic director), Mr. Tapscott again teamed up with composer Danny White to create this new "feel-good" folk and bluegrass musical.

Set in 1932 Owensboro, Ken., a band with a deep secret (the five guys are escaped convicts) finds itself in a small-town theater, they must pose as the Good Ole Boys Bluegrass Band to outrun the law and save the joint from the crazed mayor taking over the town. What unfolds is an "inspiring story of hope and the magic of music," Mr. Tapscott, said, noting there are about 20 familiar songs including "Circle Be Unbroken," "Midnight Special" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

"We're not pretending we revolutionized theater. It's just a really good time at the theater, really funny," the show director and author said this week. "It's music everyone knows.

"The key for us on this project was to have a good ole time and enjoy every minute of it," Mr. Tapscott added.

Set in 1933, "Southern Crossroads" (with 29 folk, bluegrass and gospel tunes) follows a traveling family of singers and musicians that arrives at its new gig in Virginia to find the doors locked and the aptly named New Hope Theatre out of business. The plucky performers need money for train fare, so they play for the townspeople passing by (otherwise known as the audience), hoping to earn tips.

In "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (named for a famous folk song, first recorded in 1928, about a hobo's idea of paradise), the bluegrass band is the house band and the District becomes its theater, with the audience involved in the show, Mr. Tapscott said.

"It's a blast; it's a lot of fun," said Tom Vaccaro, who plays Walt, one of the convicts who's quiet and dim-witted. He plays guitar, upright bass, dulcimer and banjo, and like the on-stage band in "Southern Crossroads," the "Big Rock" musicians switch instruments.

"It's great old bluegrass music. Playing all these different instruments, we've had a lot of fun rehearsing," Mr. Vaccaro (who was in a recent District production of "A New Brain") said.

"In the Depression era, everything is on hard times. It fits the period for the music, bluegrass and folk standards of many years ago," he said of the songs. "These are songs you would have heard in that era. They reflect the times.

"There will always be those times," he said. "They are songs you can sing along with. It's really simple -- the music is really simple, heartfelt music, great emotional stories and sentiment in every song."

While a similar look and musical era to "Southern Crossroads," "Big Rock" has no piano player or percussionist and the band is not a family, Mr. Tapscott noted. He previously partnered with Mr. White, who wrote original songs for their adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol," which will be done at the District for the third-straight holiday season this December.

"We haven't created any new materials for this," Mr. White -- currently associate conductor (and keyboards player) for the "Beauty and the Beast" national tour -- said of "Big Rock." "The music is familiar and we wanted to keep it that way. My arrangements are new and fresh, but you will be sure to recognize the songs, which was most important to me," he said.

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" is part of the theater's new works initiative, in which Mr. Tapscott plans to present one new play at least every other year.

"It's important for us to support local playwrights and produce their works," he said. "Audiences get tired of seeing the same shows over and over again. Why not introduce them to something entirely new? Why not surprise them? This area wants it and they are wiling to support it; we can't ignore that."


"Big Rock Candy Mountain" came together since Mr. Tapscott and Mr. White were between original projects, and "hadn't come upon anything inspiring to us," the director said. "We really liked the concept. We thought we should just put together a story, really an amalgam of a bunch of different shows (including "Smoke on the Mountain," also done at Circa)," he said.

Mr. Tapscott also wanted something family-friendly, since that's fairly rare at The District, and fits the lighter summer season. "It's nothing too philosophical, just a really good time.

"The music kind of lends itself to the Depression," he said. "The theater owner in the show helps entertain the audience, talks about how difficult the times are. It's a period I'm attracted to, aesthetically, the way it looks," Mr. Tapscott said, adding it's also relevant to the tough economic times of the present day.

If you go
What: "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
When: Friday and Saturday (plus May 29-31 and June 5-7) at 8 p.m., and Sunday (plus June 1 and 8) at 2 p.m.
Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $20; districttheatre.com or 309-235-1654.


Local events heading

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