News Column

Missouri Western musical to play in New York

June 28, 2013

YellowBrix

June 28--MUSICAL THEATER FROM MISSOURI -- rise from your grave.

After trial, error, death and resurrection, a musical written by a woman with ties to St. Joseph and Kansas is helping spread the wealth of creativity from the middle of the map to New York in July.

Picked as one of 10 shows out of 200 submissions in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, "Mother Divine," created and written by Dr. Laurel Vartabedian, the wife of Robert Vartabedian, president of Missouri Western State University, will be the only new musical in the festival from the area or any place close to Missouri.

"This show is the only one from the Midwest. ... Everything else is Los Angeles, mostly New York, Minneapolis and Canada," she says.

Very loosely based on the real life of the Depression-era evangelist Father Divine, the musical, set to open July 11 at The Pearl Theatre in New York, is an Official Selection in the New York Musical Theatre Festival's 2013 Next Link Project.

With more than 70 selections going to having success on Broadway, off-Broadway and beyond, the festival has become known as the Sundance of musical theater, harvesting the best and brightest talent in the U.S.

This all comes as a surprise to Vartabedian, who comes fresh off of performances in April at Missouri Western of another play she had written, "American Story," a folk opera based on the true story of a 1913 strike in Trinidad, Colo., that pitted immigrant miners against the wealthy Rockefeller empire.

An incredibly important topic that required years of research and development, "American Story" took a lot out of Vartabedian, to the point where she was looking at backburner projects to bring back to life once the play ended.

"After I finished with 'American Story,' I said 'I really want to write a comedy,'" she says. "'American Story,' while I think it's a very, very important story and one that needs to be told, it's a sad story with a hopeful ending. This is pure comedy."

The musical, with its music heavily inspired by '30s gospel and jazz tunes, follows Father Divine, a Harlem preacher with a successful following, as his mission gets its brakes pumped with the death of his assumed immortal wife, Mother Divine. Wanting to give her a "body more fitting of her righteous spirit," he reincarnates her as a blonde bombshell known as "Mother In The Second Body."

The only problem -- Mother Divine still is watching from the afterlife and wants to set the record straight on Father Divine's lies.

The story of Father Divine, a man who claimed to be God and is thought of as one of the first cult leaders, was one that deeply interested Vartabedian when she was first introduced to it by a colleague while she was teaching at Western Carolina University.

"I did probably two years of research on 'American Story' and I probably did two months of research on Father Divine," she says, laughing. "It is a fantasy. I don't think a person in the Divines came back from the dead."

Writing the first version of the musical about a decade ago, Vartabedian took the show to New York. Unfortunately, it became a jumbled mess of scheduling, due to the Northeast Blackout of 2003. When she returned back home, the script was shelved.

She would later return to New York at a smaller festival with "American Story."

Still, there was something about "Mother Divine" that intrigued Vartabedian and begged to get finished and submitted to festivals.

"A lot of musicals are around for a long time in different revisions. But this is different because I literally sat it on a shelf for years and then decided to get back to it," she says.

With professional backing, a list of performances and stellar Broadway talent, "Hairspray" and "Rent's" Danielle Lee Greaves playing the title role and "Annie Get Your Gun's" Randy Donaldson, "Avenue Q's" Howie Michael Smith and "Man of La Mancha's" Allyson Tucker, rounding out the cast, it's one of the most positive and exciting theater experiences Vartabedian has ever had.

"Part of the joy of working with these professional actors is to be able to stretch some of the boundaries and try things that we might not do otherwise," she says.

Inviting people with ties to St. Joseph to come and view the play during its run at The Pearl Theatre, Vartabedian says it would be great for other talent to show their faces and come together to celebrate their Midwest roots.

"It's just so wonderful to have support and we love to have that from our St. Joe contingency also, just to have them turn out and see who's here," she says.

"Mother Divine" is scheduled to run at The Pearl Theatre on the following dates: 8 p.m. July 11; 4:30 p.m. July 14; 5 and 9 p.m. July 17; and 9 p.m. July 20.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.

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(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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