Summer music theater to offer high flying fun

By Josette Keelor

Beginning in the depths of a Spanish prison and ending on the rooftops of London, the Shenandoah Summer Music Theater plans a show-stopping summer of musicals.

The four-musical lineup at Shenandoah University’s Ohrostrom-Bryant Theatre in Winchester starts tonight with “Man of La Mancha,” gallops off to ancient England June 25 in “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” travels to Siam with “The King and I” on July 9 and flies back to England with “Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical” on July 23.

“Man of La Mancha,” with music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and a book by Dale Wasserman, tells the story of Don Miguel de Cervantes, a man in prison awaiting trial during the Spanish Inquisition. Threatened by other prisoners who want to steal his possessions, he convinces them to let put on a play in his defense with all of them as cast members.

Playing Don Miguel is actor Chris Sanders, who was Inspector Javert in last summer’s “Les Miserables” at SU and who said he’s played Emile in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” nearly 1,000 times.

“I’ve had a lot of enchanted evenings, let me tell you,” he said by phone recently.

Also guest directing the show, he said “wearing two hats is an adventure, to say the least.”

In the musical, he portrays three characters in one — Don Miguel, who assumes the character of Alonso Quijana, an old man with dementia who thinks he’s a knight and tries to slay windmills he thinks are dragons. As Quijana, he also plays Don Quixote de La Mancha, who seeks adventures with his squire Sancho Panza, the Man of La Mancha.

Sanders, who has performed in other productions of “Man of La Mancha,” said the role of Don Miguel has grown with him, that “life experience has helped the way I portray him over the years.”

He’s gained a new level of understanding of a man down on his luck who inspires audiences to “dream the impossible dream” and “battle the traffic another day.”

One of three guest directors this summer, Sanders said he’s excited for the opportunity to continue a 31-year legacy inspired by Producing Artistic Director Harold Herman, who has decided not to direct this summer.

The second show, “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is in great part a musical retelling of the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” according to costume designer Cheryl Yancey.

She researched designs from fifth and sixth-century England, the era of the legendary King Arthur’s rule, but said most of her inspiration came from the 1975 British comedy film about King Arthur’s quest to find the grail.

“You really have to base [designs] on the movie, ’cause that’s what it’s all about,” Yancey said.

“It’s a lot of work, ’cause there’s a lot of silliness,” she said. Costumes have to complement a plot that contains comedic violence like a knight losing all of his limbs and another attacked by a vicious rabbit.

As “the queen of magnets,” she uses them in place of seams to help quick costume changes go smoothly.

Third in the lineup, “The King and I,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II follows themes of love and acceptance that Musical Director Tom Albert said are universal and timeless.

Playing the King of Siam as well as Sir Lancelot in “Spamalot” will be Strasburg native Russell Rinker, who recently toured with the Blue Man Group.

Robin Higgenbotham, an actor with the theater since its second season, returns as the King’s principal wife. SU graduate Catharine Kay will play Anna, a widowed teacher assigned to instruct the King’s many children, as well as the title role in “Mary Poppins.”

As director of “The King and I” and “Mary Poppins,” Carolyn Coulson warned the musical based on the beloved Walt Disney movie is not the movie version of a nanny who drifts purposefully into the lives of a British family desperately in need of magical intervention.

“When they wrote this show, they went back to the original books,” she said. “The show is a little bit of [last year’s Hollywood film] ‘Saving Mr. Banks.’ It’s very much about her saving that family.”

The Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre begins at Shenandoah University’s Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday, $27 for Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and for Sunday matinees, and $25 for senior citizens and children. For more information, call 540-665-4545 or visit shenandoahsummermusictheatre.com.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com