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Mountain music

The acclaimed musical ‘Fire on the Mountain’ comes to the Rep.

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The Rep closes out its 2007-2008 season with the award-winning musical “Fire on the Mountain.” The stage show features an impressive cast, working both behind the scenes and on stage.

Topping the roster are co-creators Randal Myler, also the show's director, and Dan Wheetman, the show's musical director. Myler and Wheetman shared a Tony Award nomination in 1999 for Best Book of a Musical for “It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues.”

Wheetman also served as musical director for “The Cider House Rules,” a stage adaptation of John Irving's novel. Myler's most recent solo production is “Love, Janis,” about Janis Joplin.

The story line of “Fire on the Mountain” travels through various historical stages of coal mining, focusing in particular on the lives of Appalachian miners. The changes — from mining's early years to the strip mining of today's industry — are filtered through the people who endured them. 

Wheetman said that the idea for “Fire on the Mountain” came after he and Myler wrote “Appalachian Spring,” a piece also centered on mountain culture, and found an abundance of surplus material about miners.

“All the spoken word in (“Fire on the Mountain”) is taken from interviews with coal miners and their families,” Wheetman said.

The writers found that the tales of miners were naturally suited to the drama of theater.

“Miners share a quality that I have found in combat veterans and firemen, whose lives put them in danger and whose safety is dependent on their comrades,” Wheetman said. “They have a heightened sense of life.”

This visceral approach to living is at the heart of the current production. Performers bring bluegrass and dancing native to the area onto the stage, adding levity to an often bleak existence.

The music serves as a character in its own right. The majority of the play's score is composed of traditional numbers. The remainder consists of contemporary songs, written by those raised in the world of mining and Appalachia. Wheetman paraphrased Mississippi Charles Bevel, a performer in “Fire on the Mountain” since the play's beginning, who once said that music born in places where people are dependent on the land has a distinct feel.

“It has a deeper truth to it,” added Wheetman. “A cord that connects it to the hearts of the people who live that story.”

The folks at the Rep are abuzz with anticipation for May 30, when the show officially opens.

“The Rep is extremely excited about this production,” said Kelly Ford, director of development and marketing at the theater. She said that the actors in the production were “hand picked” by Wheetman and Myler, who gathered performers from across the nation.

The cast includes Margaret Bowman, who recently appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “No Country for Old Men,” and Molly Andrews, touted as “one of the finest interpreters of traditional Appalachian music.” Grammy Award-winner Al Tharp plays banjo and upright bass. The lone Little Rock native in the production is 12-year-old Connor Frederick, who'll be an eighth-grader this fall at Little Rock Christian Academy.

Tickets are $25 and $40 and are available through the Rep's box office, www.therep.org or by calling 378-0405. The musical runs through June 22.

 

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