Fort Lewis College's flashy Musical Theatre debut
Discover the behind-the-scenes magic of the new Musical Theatre program and debut of Cabaret.
EXT. THEATRE BUILDING - NIGHT
The atmosphere was electric at Theatre Hall during the opening night of Cabaret, the legendary musical set during the rise of Nazi Germany. The building was wrapped by lines of people, all eager to see the drama by Kander and Ebb. Costumed players in the lobby escorted guests to their seats in the Mainstage Theatre, some of which were placed on stage with dining tables to give the theatre space the feel of an actual German nightclub in the 1930s.
Audience members snacked on popcorn as faint, frantic sounds emanated from backstage. Michael McKelvey, assistant professor of Musical Theatre, ascended the stage and urged the crowd to cheer for the cast.
“[Cabaret] is something we’ve been working on for a while, so give our students your applause,” McKelvey said. He then spoke that age-old phrase: “We hope you enjoy the show.”
The theatre went dark, and then it happened. The stage erupted in a dazzling display of song and dance. Magic.
Oliver Kennedy, a senior studying Theatre K-12 Education, immediately commanded the audience’s attention with his rendition of “Willkommen,” the opening song sung by the musical’s Emcee, the fourth-wall-breaking showrunner.
A nine-piece orchestra, conducted by Curtis Reynolds, visiting instructor of Musical Theatre, provided the beats for every strut, kick, step-ball-change, and shuffle for 20 musical numbers. Some members of the orchestra even performed as singers.
Cabaret was the region’s best musical theatre production in recent memory with its masterful choreography, precise rhythms, and depth of acting. It was also the inaugural production of Fort Lewis College’s new Musical Theatre degree program, and it was a spectacle that was two years in the making.
INT. OFFICE - DAY
“The idea [for the Musical Theatre program] came about two years ago,” said John O’Neal, chair of Performing Arts and associate professor of Music. “Around the same time, we were uniting the Music and Theatre departments into the Performing Arts Department, and FLC wanted to add a program that bridged the gap between the two.”
In the past, the Theatre Department produced musicals at FLC and gained a cult following in the community.
“The Durango community loves Musical Theatre, and our musicals have always drawn the biggest crowds,” said Felicia Lansbury Meyer, associate professor of Theatre and cofounder of the Durango Playfest. “Creating a Musical Theatre program allows us to expand our offerings to students and the community and was a logical next step for us.”
To take that step, FLC needed an industry veteran that could build the program from scratch. Enter Michael McKelvey, a man with 35 years of experience and classical training who brings gravitas and a wealth of connections to the budding program. Hired in 2021, McKelvey hit the ground running to canvas the region for talent.
“I don’t think the Performing Arts Department had done region-wide recruitment on this scale before,” McKelvey observed. “We had potential players from around the Southwest audition for us. Like any Musical Theatre program, it’s extremely competitive. We had to turn people down.”
McKelvey’s search produced 10 students for the program’s inaugural class. He reiterated that recruiting and working with these students was the highlight of his job.
To round out the musical aspect of the program, he brought on Curtis Reynolds. Reynolds had recently graduated with a master’s degree in Musical Theatre Vocal Pedagogy from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
“I had just graduated, and I was applying around the country [for teaching jobs],” Reynolds said. “FLC seemed beautiful, and I applied. I was excited that I had the opportunity to shape something new.”
Together, McKelvey and Reynolds work to build a program that is uniquely FLC.
“I think any student will be lucky to come to a school of this size and study Musical Theatre,” McKelvey said. “If you have a class bigger than 12 students, many won’t get called upon to try new monologues or techniques. So, in the performing arts, low student-to-faculty ratios are vital.”
Reynolds echoed that same sentiment.
“That’s the advantage of being at FLC,” Reynolds noted. “With a smaller class, people can be more involved, and I can tailor my voice lessons to their needs. It’s one of the reasons I wanted this job.”
But the smaller class sizes aren’t the Musical Theatre program’s only claim to fame. Students in the program can intern over the summer at Durango Theatreworks, McKelvey’s professional theatre company, which stages multiple productions in the Durango community, like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Much Ado About Nothing.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to break out into the wider community,” McKelvey said. “They work with performers and technicians from across the region and make connections for their future careers.”
McKelvey’s industry-spanning connections have also attracted talent from Broadway and Hollywood.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to break out into the wider community. They work with performers and technicians from across the region and make connections for their future careers.” - Dominik MorningDove, a senior studying Music Performance.
— Michael McKelvey, assistant professor of Musical Theatre
He brought former student Sarah Meahl and colleague David Utley to come in and work with the Cabaret cast. Meahl, a Broadway dancer, helped choreograph the show. Utley, who has worked on television programs such as It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Glee, taught a masterclass on set design.
“These students are working with nationally renowned choreographers and set designers,” McKelvey said. “For a school this size, that’s unheard of.”
INT. STUDENT UNION BUILDING - DAY
“When I heard about the program, I was stoked,” said Wyatt Krob, a junior studying Musical Theatre. “I finally had an opportunity to combine my interests in acting, dancing, and singing. I could put myself out there.”
Krob had cycled through various majors before McKelvey told him about the opportunity to join the Musical Theatre program. Krob and his castmates appreciated the rigorous nature of the new program built by McKelvey and Reynolds.
“Michael pushes your limits, but he doesn’t cross boundaries. And Curtis is a ball of sunshine, but he’ll challenge you,” said Jade Graves, another junior studying Musical Theatre. “They want us to put the best versions of ourselves on stage.”
Inspired by the opportunity to express herself on the stage, Graves accepted McKelvey's invitation to be a backup vocalist for the Performing Arts Extravaganza. After another stellar performance in Heathers: The Musical, Graves decided to go all in on the new Musical Theatre program.
Months later, Krob and Graves both had starring roles in Cabaret, playing Ernst and Fräulein Kost, respectively. Like their stage members, Krob and Graves trained for six weeks to master their line delivery, choreography, and stage directions.
“I enjoyed the process from start to finish, but it was a lot of work,” Graves said. “I had a lot of sleepless nights rehearsing lines in front of my cat, and I put so much of myself into the performance that I feel like there’s a part of Fräulein Kost that will always be with me.”
In addition to the inaugural class of Musical Theatre majors, students from the Theatre and Music programs in the Performing Arts Department worked on Cabaret. McKelvey chose the title because it lent itself to multiple skill sets in the performing arts.
“We tried to pick titles that use students in all department programs,” McKelvey said. “So, we’re employing Musical Theatre, Theatre, and Music students.”
Working on Cabaret was a fresh opportunity for students in the Music program.
“It was an awesome experience that I’ll use later as an educator,” said Alec Perrotti, a senior studying Music Education and percussionist for Cabaret. “You’re playing and having to keep time with multiple stage members and other pit musicians. It was challenging but enriching.”
For Theatre students, Cabaret was their senior seminar showcase.
“My nerves were through the roof on opening night. Once I stepped into the white, though, it all changed. I was in a box, and no one else existed outside of it. I learned what I could do.” - Dominik MorningDove, a senior studying Music Performance.
— Dominik Morningdove (Senior, Music Performance)
“We had to do a ton of research for this production,” said Siena Widen, a senior studying Theatre. “For us, it’s for the [THEA 496: Senior Seminar] class, so we have to do a substantial paper with background information about our characters and the show.”
Widen, who played the lead Sally Bowles, wrote 5,000 words for her in-depth character analysis in addition to the preparation she had to do for her performance.
“This show demanded so much more from me [than other productions],” she said. “We had to adopt grander ideas and insights to really bring it in our performances.”
And "bring it" they did. Widen’s dedication and the dedication of her fellow stage members produced a fantastic show with a thrilling opening night.
INT. MAINSTAGE THEATRE - NIGHT
As the army of eager theatregoers packed the seats out front, a riot of last-minute makeup applications, hushed line read-throughs, and hyperventilating was happening behind the scenes.
“I was backstage pacing right as the show was about to start,” Kennedy said. “As the Emcee, this was the biggest thing I had done in my career, and I was a bundle of nerves. But, when I walked out into that spotlight and saw the crowd cheer, it was a reaction I couldn’t have expected.”
The production captivated the audience, who was hungry for more musicals after the pandemic. Every character introduction, plot twist, costume detail, and musical number was greeted with stentorian applause from theatregoers.
“I was waiting backstage, and I heard the crowd get excited by the opening number,” Graves said. “That eased my nerves, and then I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’ I stepped onto the stage, and we all killed it.”
It’s true: the acting was so convincing that audience members on stage visibly sneered when the Nazi threat materialized at the end of Act I, which was a testament to the power of the production.
After hours of tireless performances, the curtain fell on Cabaret. Many students involved with the show, like Graves and Kennedy, called it their best opening night ever and a triumphant start for the Musical Theatre program. The production allowed them to master their crafts, collaborate, and become multi-talented—all according to McKelvey and Reynold’s vision.
“When I worked at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, they had this phenomenal bachelor’s program where most students would graduate and then get excellent placements,” McKelvey said. “They were better trained than most conservatory students with a bachelor of fine arts because they had more latitude to dabble in every facet of theatre rather than one. And that's what I know we can build here.”
McKelvey further explained the advantage of studying Musical Theatre at FLC.
“With multi-disciplinary learning experiences like Cabaret, we’re going to help students find their place in the industry in a way that other programs can’t,” McKelvey said. “That’s what makes us special, that flexibility and industry focus. With that, these students are going to find their way.”