Tall Tales, Singing Murderers, and Johnny Cash

Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish closing out “most ambitious” season ever

By Molly Priddy
Photo courtesy of Alpine Theatre Project

WHITEFISH – About an hour before the curtain went up on last Thursday’s production of “Big Fish,” Alpine Theatre Project director of marketing and development Luke Walrath waited with a visitor in the lobby.

“Lauren said she would be here,” Walrath said, scanning the faces of the people gathered in front of the box office, trying to buy tickets to the show.

And suddenly, she was, flustered and fully made up for the performance that night. Lauren Lim Jackson, whose Broadway credentials include “Motown,” “Memphis,” “Wonderland,” and “Finian’s Rainbow,” is all smiles, apologizing for being a bit late. She was getting ready for the show, and … wait, which show is it tonight?

“What day is it?” Jackson replies, laughing.

This is the life of the Broadway actors who live and work in Whitefish for about seven weeks during the summer; their lives are ATP’s three-show repertory schedule mixed in with rehearsals, encores, and a few chances to enjoy a Montana summer.

An intensive rehearsal schedule eventually breaks into some of the valley’s most popular summer theater shows. This year’s repertory schedule – which rotates the shows throughout the week, giving visitors a chance to see a variety instead of one set show – includes “Chicago,” “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” and “Big Fish.”

The shows started in early July and will run their respective courses by Aug. 1. ATP already added an extra showing of “Chicago,” given the sultry, sharp musical’s popularity this summer, and Walrath said he’s also adding another round of “Ring of Fire.”

The Johnny Cash-based musical was supposed to end with its 8 p.m. performance on Aug. 1, but due to demand and selling out every show, Walrath added an extra 3 p.m. performance.

“I think it’s been our most ambitious season,” Walrath said.

As a newcomer to the ATP scene, Jackson said she had been told by others in the New York City theater world that it was a good contract to snap up for the summer and that Whitefish is “cool,” but that she didn’t grasp what that really meant until she got here.

“I’m in love with it,” she said. “We’ve just had so much fun this summer, and we all just gel.”

Such instant cast bonding isn’t necessarily the status quo on Broadway, she said, and that it has been refreshing to perform with such talented cast and crew in a new way.

For example, Jackson said when she walked into the first rehearsal for “Chicago,” in which she plays one of the lead characters, Velma Kelly, she expected the same minimalist set that has made the play so famous in New York. The show has been so popular for so long on Broadway that it’s rarely done any other way, she said.

But producing artistic director Besti Morrison had other ideas, infusing the musical with freshness and even technology, giving the play and ATP a new feel.

“When we walked into the studio on my first day, I knew were going to create magic,” Jackson said of Morrison’s vision.

Changes to the shows’ formats haven’t come easy, Walrath acknowledged, with the new inclusion of projection and technology in shows giving some of the crew some trouble.

These changes are also part of ATP’s relatively new business plan, one that prizes the repertory schedule that has largely gone out of favor due to the sheer effort it takes to maintain and excel.

“It just makes sense in a resort town,” Walrath said.

Now in the second season of repertory shows, the 2015 season was also marked by financial increases from the ATP Board of Directors to help facilitate the new look and feel of the shows.

So far, it appears to have paid off: most of the shows are close to selling out if not sold out, with presales showing “Chicago” at the top spot, though Walrath believes “Ring of Fire” will eclipse it in the end, given the valley’s deep affection for all things Johnny Cash.

“It’s been a successful season,” Walrath said, moments before running off to prepare for his performance in the night’s show.

For ticketing and schedule information, visit www.atpwhitefish.org or call 406-862-7469.

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