Plugged into her ear buds and resting on the taut, pretzeled legs of a professional dancer, Erin N. Moore sat amid reams of sheet music scattered about the Whitefish Performing Arts Center, studying up for her adoptive theater company’s upcoming summer season, set to open one week from the day.
Accustomed to the razzle-dazzle of Broadway’s professional theaters, and equally at home under the “lights-camera-action” pace of popular film and television productions, Moore recently added a close encounter with a black bear in Glacier National Park to her illustrious resume.
“He followed us down the trail,” she said. “I have a video of it. It’s so beautiful here.”
To the uninitiated, Moore’s entrée into Montana’s theater scene might seem an unlikely departure for the award-winning dancer and actress, but for those familiar with the Alpine Theatre Project and its legacy of drawing high-ticket performers from the biggest stages in the business and tapping into the most prestigious cultural centers in the country, it makes sense that the dancer feels right at home, even if she’s 2,000 miles from Broadway.
She’s not alone.
On a recent rehearsal day leading up to the launch of ATP’s trio of original musicals, ATP veteran cast member Dan Sharkey ran through his vocal exercises at a workstation a few feet away from Moore, who is performing with the local theater troupe for her first time.
A month earlier, Sharkey had wrapped up performances as a cast member in the longest-running musical in New York, “The Fantasticks,” whose producers announced its final run after 57 years and 21,552 performances.
“I was proud to have been part of the show’s history,” Sharkey said. “It was pretty special.”
Last summer, Sharkey played the role of Judge Turpin in ATP’s rendition of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” his fourth performance with the local company. Like many of the cast members with vaunted careers in theater, the story of how he became affiliated with ATP begins with Luke Walrath and Betsi Morrison, the husband-and-wife duo who built the nonprofit theater venture from the ground up in 2004 and grew it into a powerhouse production company.
Sharkey met Morrison while performing at the Missoula Children’s Theatre, while Broadway star Mike Eldred performed alongside her in 2002, in the Nashville Symphony’s production of “West Side Story.”
“I played Tony and she was Maria,” Eldred said of the classic twist on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” “It was just after 9/11 and Betsi and Luke were looking to leave New York. A year later she called me and said, ‘I’m starting a theater company in Whitefish, Montana, and I want you to be involved.’ I said, ‘Where’s Whitefish, Montana?’”
He continued: “Betsi told me that she couldn’t pay me, but she could put me on a speed boat on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and take me to Glacier National Park.”
With a sterling reputation in Nashville — Eldred was voted Tennessean Actor of the Year for four years, earned the Nashville Music Awards Male Vocalist of the Year award and stands out as one of the country’s most in-demand tenors — it might have been a difficult decision for him to leave the cultural bastion.
But it wasn’t.
He began calling Whitefish home in 2004 when ATP launched its debut production of “Songs for a New World,” and two years ago gave up his home in Nashville to move here full-time.
Morrison, a Montana native with roots in the Whitefish area, met Walrath in 2000 while they were performing together in the Broadway revival of “The Sound of Music.” At the time, they were living a shared dream, performing every week on major stages on Broadway and beyond.
But the break-neck pace of New York was beginning to wear on the couple, and one day shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after coming home from a performance of “42nd Street,” Walrath proposed moving to Montana.
Now, 13 years later, the little theater company that could continues to make creative strides that challenge the paradigms of traditional theater.
“This is definitely a season unlike any other,” Walrath said during a break from rehearsing a mash-up of Eminem’s aggressive rap “Lose Yourself,” Adele’s “Skyfall” and the spooky falsetto of “Moonfall,” from Broadway’s “Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
“Betsi wanted to take these classic Broadway musical pieces and really turn them upside down,” Walrath said of Morrison, who conceived, created and directed all three original theatrical concerts.
“We’re combining ‘I Can’t Say No’ from ‘Oklahoma!’ with ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’” Morrison said, lighting up as she described the numbers. “We’re doing ‘Defying Gravity’ from the Tony Award-winning musical ‘Wicked’ with Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’”
ATP’s trilogy of original shows is slated to debut July 13, with all three concert performances coinciding over the course of three weeks. Walrath said each show can be experienced on its own or as a cohesive whole with the other two.
“We had to envision it as basically a nearly six-hour concert in three parts,” Walrath said. “In a very short period of time we have come together as a company to learn 90 songs in multiple languages.”
Called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” each show “celebrates the common threads that unite us all,” Walrath said, a theme he hopes will buoy the local community through the arts.
“We wanted to switch it up this season,” he continued. “It’s been a rough year for the community and for the country, and we wanted to do something as apolitically as possible that focuses on human bonds rather than division. We wanted to inspire our community and uplift our community through the healing power of theater.”
But running a theater company has its challenges, the largest being financial. ATP is a nonprofit organization with the bulk of its funding coming through donations, which can be unpredictable. To that end, ATP is constantly seeking ways to become more financially efficient while still producing high-caliber shows.
Morrison took care to handpick the 14 cast members and tech crew, knowing that efficiency would be critical to the series’ success.
“Betsi was very specific in who she invited to the cast because this was uncharted territory for us,” Walrath said. “We wanted to work with artists who we knew we collaborated well with.”
Still, for some of the performers, like Moore, the professional dancer, this summer’s repertory season is their first experience with the regional theater company, and yet their level of talent allows them to mesh seamlessly with the ATP veterans.
“I love this group,” Moore said. “Everybody is extremely talented at what they do, and they push you to step outside of your comfort zone as a performer while also providing tremendous support. It sort of feels like a creative summer camp.”
“Luke and Betsi make sure that everyone is taken care of,” she added. “They go above and beyond. They want you to get the full experience of Whitefish.”
Eldred said there are several elements that make ATP competitive as a regional theater company.
“This location is very attractive, and the quality and professionalism of ATP and the quality they represent is really unrivaled,” he said. “It’s also great pay for a regional theater.”
One of the show’s stars, whose spooky falsetto overlays Walrath’s rendition of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” is N’Kenge, the Broadway star known for originating the role of Mary Wells in Broadway’s smash hit “Motown.”
N’Kenge graduated from both the prestigious Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. She made her Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Pops Orchestra, earning a New York Times review that characterized her range as “a classically trained diva that can stretch from Broadway, Pop Soul to Opera.”
Her performances in the upcoming concert trilogy include arranged renditions of hit songs such as “The Impossible Dream,” “Greatest Love of All” and selections from Broadway’s smash shows “Hamilton,” “Motown” and more.
“Being around so much talent and working with performers like N’Kenge is so inspiring, and the beauty of this area makes the entire experience very magical,” Moore said.
For tickets, a schedule of performances and more information on Alpine Theatre Project, visit www.atpwhitefish.org.