The classic "Cinderella" story will be gender-bent and Southern fried in summer 2000, when composer-lyricist John Thomas Oaks sees the world premiere of Chipper, about a farmhand stepbrother whose Dolly Parton-like fairy godmother helps him land the richest girl in the county.
Lees-McRae Summer Theatre on the campus of Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, NC, will host the staging as part of its summer season, July 20-24. Dr. Janet Barton Speer will direct and choreograph.
New York City songwriter and Tennessee native Oaks wrote the libretto with his father, Tommy Oaks, drawing on a storytelling yarn published in the journal of the oral storytelling program at East Tennessee State University.
The elder Oaks was the first graduate of the oral story program and came across the story by Gradye and Kathy Parsons in the journal. He passed it to his son and musical ideas started popping, the younger Oaks told Playbill On-Line.
"The first thing I thought of when I read it was 'Rodeo,' the Aaron Copland piece," said Oaks, 31. "I thought of a lot of lively American Western-type sounds, but that's the first piece that popped into my head: A Copland hoedown feel. I'm also using a lot of jazz harmonies, a lot of contemporary jazz sounds." Add a touch of rock 'n' roll and a country-western-bluegrass sound worthy of Dolly Parton, and the piece feels perfect for the North Carolina venue where Oaks will get to assess the strengths and shortcomings of the young show, billed as "A Cowboy Cinderella Musical" on the Lees-McRae Summer Theatre website (http://www.lmc.edu/jspeer/summer.html).
Oaks calls the show perfect for families -- a comic musical with a heart.
In New York City, the developing score has been a hit in the second year of the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where Oaks is a popular participant.
The songwriter grew up in an industrial region known as Upper East Tennessee, in Elizabethton, TN, and he recalls his first brush musical theatre being a staging of Godspell, when he was three. He remembers the image of the Christ character being crucified on a shadow on the floor of the stage.
Later, after earning a bachelor of music degree from the University of Tennessee, he was asked to play for a local staging of West Side Story, and he fell in love with telling stories in song. It was a moment of revelation worthy of Ira Gershwin: He asked, "How long has this been going on?"
In January 1998, North Carolina director Dr. Speer was invited to a three-man musical version of Oaks' Star Queen, a pop retelling of the Bible's Esther story. She was so impressed with the tiny church-venue production she presented a fuller version of the show in summer 1998 at Lees-McRae Summer Theatre.
Dr. Speer directed Oaks' distaff retelling of the Prodigal Son story, Sunny, in 1999 at the Blue Ridge Community Theatre at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and co-wrote and staged Oaks' pop musical, Moses, at Lees-McRae in 1999.
His Star Queen, the CD of which he personally peddled to New York record shops, has the feel of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: A composer testing styles and pastiche while telling a broad-strokes story.
"I think I'm getting closer to where I want to be as a writer with Chipper," Oaks said. "I feel like I've learned a lot since then, especially in BMI."
The BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop offers a two-year, tuition-free program in which theatre songwriters hone their craft with professionals. A continuing workshop beyond two years is moderated by Maury Yeston (Titanic, Nine).
A reading of Chipper will be held in New York City May 8. Oaks dreams of Dolly Parton or Bernadette Peters to eventually play the Fairy Godmother, who inspires the dung-shoveling Chipper to attend the barn dance and meet his dream girl, Sorella, daughter of the county judge.
In the new musical, a glass slipper is a cowboy boot, clog dancing is expected, farmhands sing harmony and the opening number is called "Shovelin'."
And the payoff of the story?
They all end up, happily ever after, on a honeymoon in Gatlinburg, not far from Dollywood.
For information about the New York reading, call (718) 836-1004. For information about Lees-McRae Summer Theatre, call (828) 898-8709.
-- By Kenneth Jones