Ella Minnow Pea, a New Musical, Tested in University of Michigan Workshop Nov. 20-23

By Kenneth Jones
20 Nov 2008

A couple of New York City musical theatre writers have been in residence in Ann Arbor, MI, in recent weeks, honing their new musical, Ella Minnow Pea, for a sold-out workshop production by the University of Michigan's respected musical theatre program.



The dawning musical comedy by Larson Award-winning writers Scott Burkell (book and lyrics) and Paul Loesel (composer), gets its first full production Nov. 20-23 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the U-M campus.

The production, directed by Burkell, is one of a handful of new musicals that have been nurtured in the respected U-M workshop program, which benefits emerging writers but also exposes students to the process of creating new work rather than re-creating revivals. Curious local residents and university folk in Ann Arbor flock to these untested shows, hoping to discover the next big thing. The shows typically sell out. A waiting list has formed for Ella Minnow Pea.

An adult musical comedy fable, Ella Minnow Pea, based on the novel by Mark Dunn, had a reading in New York in 2007.

"We're very excited as this will be an extremely valuable tool in the further development of the piece," composer Loesel previously said of the U-M run. "Joe Calarco remains attached as a future director of the piece, but wasn't available in the U of M time frame, so Scott stepped in to direct."

Brent Wagner, chair of the U-M Musical Theatre Department, told Playbill.com, "Our Department is committed to doing new works as part of the overall training of musical theatre performers, allowing students to work with writers and to develop characters which haven't been explored and documented before. Most of our new works are found through referrals. We present these in the new, 300-seat Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center.

"Ella Minnow Pea attracted me because of the inventive, imaginative script, the lyricism and depth of the score, and the opportunities for the large cast to create a wide range of unusual characters. Also, the story raises important social issues which I thought would be valuable for the students to explore."

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Orchestrations are by Loesel and Andy Jones. Catherine Walker Adams is music director. The creative team includes scenic designer Rob Murphy, costume designer Christianne Myers, lighting designer Craig Kidwell and stage manager A.J. Dobbs.

The publishers of the novel recently reissued an illustrated edition of the book.

Ella Minnow Pea, according to the musical collaborators, "takes place present day on the fictional island of Nollop, a land of free-thinking, liberal, artistic folks. Their major claim to fame is that Nollop is the birthplace of Nevin Nollop, the ingenious creator of the linguistic pangram (a sentence which uses all the letters of the alphabet) 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.' At the annual Nollop day celebration, the letter Z on the statue of Nevin bearing the pangram comes crashing to the ground. After a closed session, the High Island Council determines that the falling of the letter is a beyond the grave sign from Nevin, signifying that the letter Z must be removed from all further usage. The penalties for using the forbidden letter are strict: first offense results in a public oral reprimand, second offenses carry the punishment of time in the public headstock or lashes on the whipping post, and third offenders are banished from the island with a return resulting in immediate execution. The once calm and tolerant island is thrown into chaos as Nollopians slip up and begin pointing the finger of blame at one another. To make matters even worse, more letters keep tumbling from the monument resulting in an ever shrinking language and an end to free choice."

The heroine, Miss Ella Minnow Pea, a gifted but restless teenager, "rises to the challenge of stopping the madness. As the island teeters on the brink of disaster, Ella races towards a solution to right the wrongs and restore the island to its glorious past. Both political allegory and a linguistic tour-de-force, Ella Minnow Pea reminds us how the loss of freedom of expression can affect an entire society."

The U-M cast includes Etai Benshlomo, Will Burton, Derek Carley, Britney Coleman, Emily Glick, Kelcy Griffin, Holly Grossman, Haley Hannah, Mike Kelton, Elizabeth Klemperer, Beth Kuhn, Andrew Laudel, Eric Maier, Stephanie Maloney, Anne Markt, Ian Mazurek, Alle-Faye Monka, Leonard Navarro, Jonathan Parkey, John Rapson, Sabra Satz-Kojis, Max Spitulnik, Christopher Jon Torrella, Madeline Trumble.

Burkell and Loesel's songs have been performed at Carnegie Hall ("Michael Feinstein: Now and Then" series), Lincoln Center (American Songbook), Joe's Pub, Symphony Space, and the Chicago Humanities Festival. Their songs have been premiered by Kristin Chenoweth (Carnegie Hall), Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, Susan Egan and Liz Callaway. Recordings of their work have appeared on Lisa Richard's album "Virgin Tracks," as well as Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley's "Opposite You." Their musical, Six of One, received a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Grant, an ASCAP workshop, a CAP21 workshop, and a production in the 2007 Philly Fringe Festival. Love Songs and Other Crap, their musical revue, received a MAC Award nomination.

For more information about U-M's School Music, Theatre and Dance, visit www.music.umich.edu/.

For more information about Ella Minnow Pea, e-mail ploesel@nyc.rr.com.

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In December 2007, the U-M workshop production was the musical A Good Boy, marking that show's first full production. Featuring a script by Brian Spitulnik, music by Sam Davis and direction and choreography by Linda Goodrich, the musical tells its story through dance, music and script, but without songs. The autobiographical piece is based on a Hapgood Award-winning collection of short stories by librettist Spitulnik, and concerns a young dancer's efforts to come to terms with both his emerging sexuality and his fragile relationship with his mother, who has some secrets of her own.

Subsequent to the Michigan production, a reading of the revised script was held in May 2008 starring Karen Ziemba as the mother. A full-scale workshop of the piece will be produced in New York City in 2009.

Spitulnik and Davis are both graduates of the University of Michigan. Spitulnik is currently dancing on Broadway in Chicago. Davis was recently the musical director and arranger for Manhattan Theatre Club's Romantic Poetry and will orchestrate Jason Robert Brown's upcoming Trumpet of the Swan at the Kennedy Center.