Original musical rocks theater festival

Kristen Halsey

When I traveled to the University of Illinois over my break for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, I was looking forward to seeing some of the amazing talent in the region.

What I was not expecting was to be blown away with an original musical. Ball State University’s production of “The Circus in Winter,” based on the book by Cathy Day, is one musical I expect to go all the way and become very successful; it might even make it to Broadway.

This musical was created by a group of students who study at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. The B. Ball Center students, with faculty leaders, explore the connections among the arts, humanities, science and technology.

Through the course of a semester, they create and illustrate using their collaborative research and interdisciplinary study to create a product that is then shown to the community. For “The Circus in Winter,” they decided to create a musical based off of the novel.

With the skeleton of the musical in place at the end of the semester, they spent the next three years, with the help of the professors at Ball State University and former alum, creating a musical that was a fantastic piece of art to watch.

The story takes place in Lima, Ind., in the spring of 1896 and through the following year. It follows the journey of a simple country-man named Wallace Porter, played by Andy Pickerill, who travels to New York City with his cousin Emory, played by Ethan Litt, to go see a circus.

At the circus, Porter falls in love with Irene when they first meet. In the course of one song, “If I Could Know You,” Irene moves to Lima with Porter to start a family and live a simple life.

Tragedy strikes when Irene suffers an illness when she becomes pregnant and dies shortly after they begin to build a life together.

Porter is left to pick up the pieces of his life when a ring master, Clyde Hollenbach, played by Jessie Vetters, brings his circus through Lima. Hollenbach has become too old to run the production so he sells the circus to Porter who is eager to rebuild the circus back to its glory days.

There were moments while watching this musical that I forgot it was a college production. The quality of the acting and singing by the ensemble blew me away and I was captivated by this show from the very first number.

There were two memorable characters outside of Porter.

One was the character of Jennie Dixianna. She is a circus performer and gypsy who is caught in an abusive relationship with the elephant trainer, Jack.

Jennie and Porter start to fall for each other and help each other try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Jennie is still caught in her relationship with Jack and finds herself in a triangle in which her way out turns tragic. One of my favorite songs in the musical was her song, “Recognition,” when you start to see her struggle.

Pearly, played by Lakecia Harris, is a girl who lives with the circus and connects with the elephant, Cesar. She delivers an astounding performance that leaves you connected and especially tugs at your heart strings with her song, “Elephant’s Eye.”

Harris went on at the convention to become the alternate for the national Irene Ryan Scholarship Competition, a most well-deserved title for this amazing performer.

The music of the show has a lot of folk style to it that you don’t hear in a lot of new musicals these days. It also included some scatting and ballad styles. But, with every developing musical there are always improvements to be made. The issue I had with the music was that it tended to be a bit repetitive, but not enough to distract you from the show.

When you first walk into the theater you do not see a curtain waiting for a set to be revealed at the start of the show, you see a set that looks like the skeleton of an abandoned barn with one small, transparent piece of fabric. This first visual is one that caught my attention immediately.

The set was designed by brothers who won the award for the design in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Region III closing ceremony. Awards at KCACTF are presented for accomplishments throughout the region for designs and acting from university theater students.

Overall, the show is great but it has so much potential to be greater. I feel lucky to be one of the first audiences to see this musical. I highly recommend going if you hear about a production of “The Circus in Winter” and are able to see it.

It is, by far, one of the best musicals I have seen lately. I can’t wait to see how much they improve and see how far it goes.