The world premiere of Midwestern Gothic is being staged at Signature Theatre’s intimate ARK Theatre marries music, lyrics and orchestrations by Josh Schmidt and book and lyrics by Royce Vavrek. Signature Theatre associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner, the musical’s director, told us it came about through Signature’s American Musical Voices Project.
“Over the years, we’ve commissioned about a dozen up-and-coming writers to write something for us, and Josh was one of those commissioned,” Gardiner says. “Four years ago, he sent me a few songs and then he brought Royce Vavrek on board, and it’s all been chugging along since then.”
Midwestern Gothic deals with a small Midwestern town and has a voice that Gardiner says you wouldn’t normally hear in a musical. He compares it to something akin to Fargo with tinges of Lolita and Misery.
“I felt this was something I had never really seen in a musical before,” the director says. “Both Royce and Josh have this unique voice that sort of reminds me of Sam Shepard or Martin McDonagh and this piece has a musical sound that’s somewhere between Led Zeppelin and Kurt Weill , which I know doesn’t make any sense, but it’s very unique.”
Set in the middle of continental nowhere, the story follows a young girl living in a small town whose wild and twisted imagination drives her to create more and more bizarre diversions.
“It has no intention of being political but ‘a group of forgotten people’ has always been a term that we’ve used and it’s taken on new meanings now in this Trump world,” Gardiner says. “The idea is it’s about a family living in the Midwest and this girl who comes to have indecent feelings for her stepfather. Through the course of the play, a series of events takes place and we watch these people in these terrible circumstances and how they act within them.”
Gardiner says that despite the fact that Sweeney Todd is so beloved, there aren’t many productions that take on the genre of thriller musicals successfully.
“It’s hard for me to think of many musicals that have done this well. I am definitely a fan of films [of the genre] and some of those have greatly influenced me when preparing for this and influenced the designers as well,” he says. “When we think of musicals, we sort of tend to think of opening one’s heart and that’s not what thrillers aim to do. In Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim found a way into the heart of a killer and it’s our goal to find a way in the heart of our principal character.”
The production stars Morgan Keene (Disney’s Newsies, First National Tour) as Stina, Timothy J. Alex (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting) as Red, and Signature favorites Sherri Edelen, Sam Ludwig, Bobby Smith and Rachel Zampelli.
“We have a lot of Signature notables; many who have been influential in the development of new works over the years,” Gardiner says. “Morgan is a newcomer for us, a 20-year-old really talented performer, and Timothy has done dozens of Broadway shows as a dancer and is coming into his own and we hope this role will showcase that.”
Being in the 110-seat ARK Theatre, the production is smaller in tone than some other Signature debuts, but it’s still the largest production ever been done in the space.
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“We have a 10-person cast and a 5-person orchestra so we don’t do a lot with sets, but what [set designer] Misha Kachman and I decided to do was create a sort of feeling of the vast openness of the Midwest,” Gardiner says. “It’s minimal in its look but I would say there’s a rather large surprise scenically towards the end.”
He admits it is challenging to make everything work the way he wants without making telling the story seem cramped or claustrophobic, although Gardiner says in some instances the sense of claustrophobia works well for the thriller.
“I had to find ways in which to create depth and distance and openness staging-wise and design-wise,” he says. “This daring new musical promises to take audiences into uncharted territory with its bold story and thrilling characters.”
When people are in the theater, Gardiner hopes they are leaning on the edge of their seats as the story unfolds.
“I hope they take away from it an understanding of where other people are coming from,” he says. “Wrapped up in this whole thriller is an honest story about what we think of as the forgotten or the misunderstood. The goal is not to create stereotypes, the goal is to approach the characters from an honest place and put them in really exciting, dramatic situations.”