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"Chaps!" creators Malcolm Hillgartner and Jahnna Beecham return this summer to Hope Summer Repertory Theatre. Photo: HSRT
By Dana Casadei
HOLLAND – Anyone trying to find a job in today's economy knows that being able to stay in one job for a long time isn't easy. As part of the generation where I'll be lucky to work at the same place for more than five years, a number such as 40 does not seem plausible. But the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre has surpassed that, with this summer being its 41st season.
Not only does the 41st season bring a wide variety of shows like the many years before it, it also has a legacy to honor, that of producing director Mary Schakel, who may make this summer her last. Schakel has been with the theater since that first summer, and honoring her was an important part of choosing this season's shows.
"In 1995 was one of the few shows that Mary produced from the ground up, and that was 'Chaps!,' which is the revival that we're opening up with this year," said HSRT marketing director Greg Grobis. "It (the season) really is going and looking into all aspects of theater from the classics to contemporary works to works that really identify who we are, like 'Chaps!'" Grobis said.
Some of this season's shows include a new adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," two children's performance troupe shows, including "Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!" and "An Inspector Calls," which is a thought provoking mystery.
"On top of having a delightful show such as 'Chaps!' and the classic romance 'Pride and Prejudice,' we also have a show that will challenge and examine your own conscious and really have you thinking what would you do," Grobis said.
While "An Inspector Calls" is on the darker end of the season's spectrum, "Chaps!" is a much lighter show. Its 1995 production at HSRT was its world premiere – and not only is "Chaps!" the kickoff of the season, its creators are back in the saddle for the production. Playwrights Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner are directing the show, while Chip Duford, who worked with Hillgartner on the vocal arrangements and played Clive in the original, is on stage playing Leslie.
"It's a hysterical comedy."It speaks to the Holland community and theater in general," Grobis said. "It's just going to the theater and being entertained with wonderful music and beautiful harmonies."
"Chaps!" is much like the season: It doesn't really fit into one specific theme, but it covers a variety of genres, including musicals and comedies. "From the very beginning we didn't want to just string together a bunch of songs that were very loosely connected by little dialogue," said Hillgartner. "We wanted to have more story lines."
When asked how the idea for the show came about, Hillgartner takes a quick pause and says, "It's a great story," with a smile that can be heard through the phone.
In the spring of 1995, Beecham and Hillgartner got a call from Schakel, who had a problem. They had hired more actors than needed for "Forever Plaid," which led to them losing the rights for the show. Schakel needed a show that could utilize four male actors singing harmonies.
Hillgartner then thought about The Sons of the Pioneers, who were famous for their harmony singing, and singing cowboy songs.
"I asked (Mary) if anyone had ever done a show with that kind of music before, and Mary said no," Hillgartner said. "But if we wrote it, they'd (HSRT) do it and we had to have it done in two months."
From there, Hillgartner and Beecham were off, knowing they wanted to do a "Gene Autry-style radio roundup" but were having difficulty thinking of an original way for the show to work. Until, that is, one evening while watching "The Adventures of Pricilla: Queen of the Desert."
"I turned to Jahnna and went 'Fish out of water' and she said 'Yea' and I said 'Chaps in chaps' and she immediately got it," he said. "British guys trying to be American singing cowboys, and from there a whole bunch of things fell into place immediately."
Including the time era, World War II; the place, the BBC station; and a great source, an editor whose father had worked at BBC during the war. "With all these things, it was like the stars aligned and the show at that point started to write itself."
They then came to HSRT with a complete first act and a strong outline for the second, and it was an instant hit. HSRT even brought it back the following summer because people enjoyed it so much, giving Beecham and Hillgartner more time to tinker with it, and leave the audience with a show that will work for many generations to come.
"It really is a delightful show," Grobis said. "It has your heart singing with the cowboy classics, but it really does show multiple aspects of the human condition. To be more specific, it really does go into what you have to do to get things done sometimes."
HOPE SUMMER REPERTORY THEATRE 2012 Hope Summer Repertory Theatre performs in four venues in Downtown Holland: DeWitt Theatre, Knickerbocker Theatre, Holland Area Arts Council, and the Studio Theatre. "Chaps!" plays in rotating repertory through Aug. 10 at the Knickerbocker; "Pride and Prejudice" continues in rotating repertory at the DeWitt Theatre through July 28. For complete ticket and schedule information: 616-395-7890 or www.hope.edu/hsrt.