Outsider musical "Bigfoot" opens in Anchorage

Mike Dunham

Alaskans usually don't get a New York musical before it's seen in New York -- particularly a musical by a composer who has won Tony Awards for a Broadway hit. But an exception is being staged right now at Sydney Laurence Theatre.

"Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls: a Musical Fable" features songs by Mark Hollman. He collaborated with Greg Kotis to create "Urine- town," the "outsider musical" that swept up prizes and critical acclaim after it opened at the New York International Fringe Festival and leaped to Broadway in 2001.

Director Elizabeth Lucas -- a filmmaker and founding producer of the New York Musical Theatre Festival -- said she was approached to take on "Bigfoot" in New York some years ago. That production fell through, but when Perseverance Theatre in Juneau decided to give the world premiere of "Bigfoot" there last spring, she jumped at the chance to shape the show.

At a rehearsal on Wednesday, Lucas said the new musical is based on a quasi-autobiographical play by Adrien Royce, "Everything that Happens in the Woods is Real," also a veteran of the Fringe. Lucas summarized the plot as being "about a woman who gets involved in a search for truth while recovering from some traumatic events and encounters all these zany characters."

Rachel Landon, who plays the role of the woman, Bernie, compared the character to Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

"She's already a failed actress and failed writer, then she gets sick and loses all she has, all her money, her boyfriend," Landon said. "The search for Bigfoot is a metaphor for the search for faith."

Desperate for work, city girl Bernie takes the hack job of writing a documentary about finding a sasquatch in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California. En route to a ranch run by an opportunistic backwoods couple, she picks up an eco-terrorist determined to protect Bigfoot habitat. He's pursued by a boisterous sheriff with political ambitions and quarrelling FBI agents who manipulate Bernie's former boyfriend, a cross-dresser with a mannequin obsession. A pair of randy Scottish documentarians are striving to capture it all and get their work on a cable network.

This summary doesn't begin to convey the complex and bizarre details.

"I do a lot of musicals and regional theater," said Landon. "But I've never seen anything like this before. It's never what you think. I can tell people that if you're in the seats, you will not see this show coming."

Each character has his or her dreams, all somehow connected to the presumably non-existent hairy creature who has actually become the subject of dubious cable documentaries in the years since Royce wrote her play.

Stylistically, the music is "all over the map," said Rob Cohen, who directs the five-piece band that accompanies the singers. "There's vaudeville, country, rock and roll, classic Broadway, even some ballads in the second act."

On Wednesday he and the other musicians were trying to reconfigure music passages to accommodate scene changes and exits that require a different pace in Anchorage than was the case in Juneau. The Perseverance stage can be described as a smallish wedge with steep rows of seats above it on three sides. The Laurence is a relatively large proscenium stage with most of the audience directly in front of it and close to stage level.

"This stage is a very different setup than what we had at Perseverance," said Lucas. "So I'm having to stage it very differently."

Choreographer Ricci Adan was delighted with the space. Some of the scenes were fairly "stiff" in Juneau, she said. In Anchorage the action could be "bigger, more revolutionary, with more jazz and schtick. The characters are so much more alive here."

Though most of the cast is from Southeast Alaska, Landon works out of New York as does Enrique Bravo, who plays the eco-terrorist. One performer, Luke Bartholomew, is in both worlds. The Service High School graduate and University of Alaska Anchorage alumnus is now an Equity actor in the Big Apple.

Despite having a fine voice -- he sang Mozart at UAA -- he's mainly been doing non-singing theater, he said. "Shakespeare and Ibsen. This is my first musical in like four or five years," which is about as long as it's been since he left the state.

His homecoming is in the role of Max, Bernie's cross-dressing boyfriend. He appears in different scenes in a dress and wedge high-heel sandals. "I'm dressed to the nines," he said with a laugh.

Bartholomew is back, in part, to see old friends. But the other New Yorkers said they were drawn by the unique artistic opportunity.

Hollmann's association with the Juneau company goes back at least to 2007, when another collaboration with Kotis, his "Urinetown" partner, debuted there. "Yeast Nation" went on to play to soldout houses at the New York Fringe in 2011.

"Mark was looking for a place to experiment with something," said Perseverance's managing director Art Rotch.

"Perseverance has incredibly adventurous programming," said Lucas. "That a theater of this size does a new musical every two years is very impressive."

Not just new musicals, but works that reach outside convention.

Rotch described "Bigfoot" as an "outsider" musical, something requiring smaller forces that a big Broadway production and making a social statement, sometimes to the point of becoming uncomfortable.

"Bigfoot" is less political than "Urinetown" (about capitalist greed and government collusion) or "Yeast Nation" (about climate change and government collusion). It's more like an old-fashioned screwball romantic comedy. Despite the caution in the ads about adult language and situations, it's no more risque than a Neil Simon play.

What becomes of "Bigfoot" after Anchorage? Lucas noted that it had taken 12 years to get it this far, the first full performance on a larger stage in a larger market. She was not aware of any pending productions elsewhere, but sounded resigned.

"Musicals take a long time in development," she said.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.