Music

Milking Christmas (2018)

Project Roles: Writer / Composer
Location: Chicago / Kansas City

A show I co-wrote that premiered last year at The Living Room Theatre is has returned for an all new run!

It’s a musical comedy called Milking Christmas which I created originally with my frequent collaborators Brian Huther, Seth Macchi, and Ryan McCall. You can read more background on that in my post from last year.

It was a hit in 2017. The run became The Living Room’s highest selling show on record in their 8 year history. The reviews were good, the cast was having fun, and despite my own misgivings about a few script elements that still, to me, felt half-baked, audiences by and large were eating it up. I think we decided more or less right away to do it again next year, though we didn’t get down to brass tacks until months later.

So, why do this again? It may seem like the answer to that is pretty simple; it sold well. It’ll probably sell well again. Cheers to selling things! But the truth is, that barely factors in - at least in the short term. Yes, big adventury holiday musical comedies are the types of things that have a wide draw, but they’re also expensive to produce. And The Living Room isn’t some big for-profit joint. They are, as the wonderful playwright John Kolvenbach once called them, “theatre pirates.” The money that gets made in a place like this goes to keeping the ship afloat, not padding anybody’s pocket. Most of that money doesn’t even come from sales, it comes from grants and donations from folks who just wanna keep good theatre in their community. Maybe - hopefully - in the next few years, we can get some more regional theatres interested in this piece and start selling the rights. For now though, substantial profit is out of reach, and that’s totally fine.

Because the main reason we decided to give this another go is easy: we like it.

When we laid it out last year, our goal was “make something good enough that we’re interested in revisiting it.” That being accomplished, our goal this year was “make the show more complete.” The 2017 version ran about 85 minutes with no intermission. This year we set out to create a more standard ~2 hour, 1 intermission experience, with more fleshed out character arcs where needed, more exploration of the world, and better communication of the themes and messages.

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Missing from the mix this go-around was our co-writer Seth. Seth has spent most of 2018 on hiatus from theatre work, so he gave us his blessing and joined for a couple of phone meetings but had to mostly bow out. We missed his off-the-wall concepts and how-the-hell-did-you-think-of-that contributions. But we did have the advantage of starting from a solid base rather than from scratch this time, which helped compensate a bit.

The revision process was a little more harried and extensive than we’d anticipated. Scenes were cut, story threads were replaced, the ending was reworked about a dozen times, songs were added, then one was removed again, and by about two weeks from opening, we realized the damn thing was just too long and it was time for some brutal edits.

We worked mostly from Chicago, spending a few days in KC at the theatre to sit in on rehearsals and sort out the types of music questions that you just can’t manage on google docs.

This rehearsal process - like so many do - had plenty of challenges. In addition to the standard new work issue of constantly making adjustments, there were things like good ol’ winter illness, rehearsals cut short for bad weather, and a death in the KC theatre community that left many shaken.

In the end, despite it all, this incredible group of people pulled it off. I knew they would, because they’re amazing, and because they’re the type who will sacrifice just about everything - including sleep - for a project they care about. I wasn’t in the room most of the time, but every moment I was, I saw joy and fun on the faces of these beautiful artists despite whatever obstacles that day has brought.

The two-act version of Milking Christmas opened December 7th, 2018. The first weekend saw large crowds, great energy, and positive reviews. I’m so, so proud to and floored to get yet another opportunity to collaborate with this incredible crew. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come give this show a chance. It runs all the way through December 6th!

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Directed by Missy Koonce & Rusty Sneary
Musical Direction by Ryan McCall
Accompanist Jeremy Watson

Starring Elise Poehling, Bob Linebarger, Ellen Kirk, Mike Ott, Nellie Maple, Hollis Wilhoit, Pancho Javier, Enjoli Gavin, Maragret Veglahn, Haddy Wilczewski, and Eli Black.

Shawnna Journagan - Scenic Artist / Prop Designer
Technical Director - Kyle Dyck
Lacey Pacheco - Stage Manager
Emma Dodge - Assistant Stage Manager
Alisa Lynn - Production Assistant
Nicole Jaja - Lighting Design
David Kiehl - Sound Design
Nancy Robinson - Costume Design
Regina Weller - Scenic Artist
Emma Carter - House Manager

2018 KC Improv Festival

Project Role: Improviser, Accompanist
Location: The Kick Comedy Theatre, Kansas City

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This year - if all goes according to plan - I'll be heading back to the KC Improv Festival with my troupe Business of Otters!

As I am committed to growing my career in Chicago, I will abdicate my spot to a substitute performer should something come up here. But, it's only a couple of days - so unless some shoot pops up in a very narrow range - I've got my sights set on the fest!

KCiF is one of the oldest improv festivals in the country, and if memory serves, I've been performing there in at least one troupe every summer since 2014. This year, I'm slotted to perform with Business of Otters, which also happens to be the group I've been with the longest. We formed back in college. At the time (and I think to this day?) there was no official improv going on at Avila University, so a small group of us started putting up projects on our own time. We had a couple different names before landing on Otters, but the core idea and cast remains the same.

 The Otters after one of our two Improv Thunderdome wins. I think I still have that belt.

The Otters after one of our two Improv Thunderdome wins. I think I still have that belt.

Andy Perkins, Michael Hudgens, Joshua Gleeson, and I (with occasional appearances by Peter Weber) have toyed with various format specifics, but the heart of the act is a style we call "basement-prov," which is less creepy than it probably sounds. The act is just big and dumb and goofy and free; the sort of vibe that came out of playing just for ourselves in a basement. No audience, no pressure, just fun. That's what we try to bring with us. It's all helped along by the kind of chemistry that you can really only get from college buddies.

Whether that sounds like your cup of tea or not, I highly recommend checking out KCiF if you're in the KC area this August. More information on their website: http://kcimprovfestival.com/

UPDATE 8/14:

In addition to my set with Business of Otters I'll also be making the following appearances at KCiF! Here's my full schedule:

August 23rd, 7:00pm - Business of Otters
August 24th, 7:00pm - Accompanist for headliners Shrew
August 25th, 5:00pm - Hot Mess: The Musical
August 25th, 10:00pm - Accompanist for headliners Shrew

UPDATE 10/13:

I am way behind in my updates! But the festival was an absolute blast and I want to thank everybody involved for yet another wonderful year! It was tough to say goodbye.

History of the Internet

Project role: Sound Designer
Location: Chicago

 Image by Michelle Leatherby.

Image by Michelle Leatherby.

The time is the nearish future. The place is a school; a school where, by orders of DeVos, the books have probably been replaced by "paintings of White Jesus and pictures from her mission trip." A starry-eyed student stands before her class and tells the tale of a once-great global network in the days before its treasures were open only to the rich.

This is the History of the Internet.

My friend Michelle Leatherby has written and directed a truly funny and at times downright terrifying comedy vignette play for Corn Productions in Chicago, and I highly recommend checking it out. Her distinct voice shines throughout, and the ensemble sells the thing from start to finish with energy and innovation. And hey, that's just from watching a couple of rehearsals; I can't imagine how killer opening night's gonna be.

Unfortunately I won't be around for opening, since I'm currently stopped in KC on my way to Colorado. But a little piece of me will be there in the form of a sound design I created (with help and input from Michelle) for the piece. The episodic nature and tech-driven subject matter made for a hearty cue load, which was an enjoyable challenge. I was also hit with waves of dizzying nostalgia as I scrounged around for lost gems like dial-up noise and AIM chat sounds. I might have even composed and recorded an intentionally cringy sitcom theme. If that doesn't get you in the door, then frankly, I don't think you even know how doors work.

The History of the Internet runs Thursdays - Saturdays at 8:00pm, March 29 - April 28
Corn Productions, 4210 N Lincoln, Chicago, IL

Facebook Event Here
Website Listing Here

 Image by Michelle Leatherby.

Image by Michelle Leatherby.

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe at CMTF

Project role: Writer, Composer, Actor
Location: Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago

What started as a Fringe fest show back in 2015 is now in its fourth iteration and its second city - The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is [as of the first update of this post on 2/13/18] right in the middle of a limited run at the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival!

Set at the decline of vaudeville and the rise of Hollywood, Lefty & Crabbe tells the tale of two talented but down-on-their-luck performers as they attempt to navigate the rapidly changing world of entertainment. I've written more extensively about it in a post from Summer of 2017, so check that out if you're not familiar with the show.

The festival, now in its fourth year, brings in an eclectic collection of around 10 shows, and we're very excited to be one of them. The Living Room Theatre, which has been making this show possible ever since its inception as a fringe short, has been gracious enough to produce the piece, and, in addition to funding and management, schlep half the cast back and forth from KC to Chicago to make it happen.

 

 Table read with the cast.

Table read with the cast.

In an effort to avoid a novelization here, I'll try to give a quick, non-dumb description of every element of this that I've been wrapping my head around.

As far as writing, we've made several small tweaks and a couple of bigger ones. The most significant are an overhaul of the opening number to better set the tone of the show and a beefing up of the character arc for Lolo - the clever Starlet who helps green-light our protagonists when they get to Hollywood and eventually finds her own liberation. That element is still being developed. A solo song for her was drafted and I'm very excited about it but unfortunately it's not quite ready for prime time. Look out for it in the next one.

This is my first time actually performing this show as an actor, which is a strange thing to say because I feel like I've been in it all along. I was accompanist for the fringe run, but it's safe to say I fit a lot better here.

As for promotion, it's been an uphill battle selling a small show in a new city, but audiences have shown up and the reception has been great! Lots of laughter, positive feedback, and some nice networking.

It's been so incredible and humbling to witness all these talented people give SO MUCH of their time and effort to this silly show. Some have been involved before, others are stepping in for the first time. Because the cast is split roughly 50/50 between KC and Chicago based actors, our time as a full group was extremely limited, but not only did everybody bring their a-game to rehearsals, but director Rusty Sneary, stage manager Lacey Pacheco, costume designer Nancy Robinson, and production assistant/understudy Bob Linebarger constructed and carried out an absolutely brilliant compacting of the whole process.
 

 Snapshot from our expedited rehearsal process.

Snapshot from our expedited rehearsal process.

 Ryan Hruza & Shea Pender are playing Lefty & Crabbe for the first time in this production.

Ryan Hruza & Shea Pender are playing Lefty & Crabbe for the first time in this production.

I love these people, I love this show, and I'm prouder than I can express to get the opportunity to show it to a new city.

UPDATE (2/19/18): The run officially ended yesterday. We had a great second weekend! I will give this post a final update once the festival comes to a close next week.

UPDATE (2/26/18): The festival came to a close last night with an award ceremony, and I'm over the moon to announce that we received 10 nominations and 4 wins, including the coveted "Best of the Fest" award! HUGE thanks to the festival staff, the Greenhouse Theater Center staff, the judges, all the incredible artists in the festival, and of course, the Lefty & Crabbe crew (listed individually at the bottom of the post!) As for what's next, it's too early to say, but there are some very exciting things potentially on the horizon for our little show, and we can't wait to share them with you! Feel free to visit leftyandcrabbe.com for the latest information. Below is a list of all nominations/wins:

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The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe
Greenhouse Theater Center
4427 N Lincoln Ave

Part of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival

Book & lyrics by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, and Seth Macchi
Music by Ben Auxier and Brian Huther
Arrangements and additional music by Ryan McCall

Directed by Rusty Sneary
Musical director / accompanist Ryan McCall
Stage/production Manager Lacey Pacheco

Ryan Hruza.......................Lefty Childs
Shea Pender.....................James "Crabbe" Hathaway
Elise Poehling..................Lolo Carmichael / Ensemble
Mike Ott.............................E.G. Swellington / Ensemble
Molly Denninghoff..........Evelyn Rose / Ensemble
Brian Huther.....................Gene Sherman / Ensemble
Nellie Maple......................W.W.W.W.W. Rocksfeld / Ensemble
Ben Auxier.........................Mac Lloyd / Ensemble

Costume designer Nancy Robinson
Production assistant / understudy Bob Linebarger

Milking Christmas: A New Musical

Project role: Co-Writer/Co-Composer/Actor
Location: Written all over the place, performed in Kansas City

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2017 is over and I am officially tired. Somehow, against all odds and reasonable medical advice, my collaborators and I managed to squeeze out a second full-length musical before the year was over. It's hard to know where to begin with this one, so bear with me as I hit ya with some background.

The whole thing started as sort of a joke during late night conversations toward the end of the run of our first musical, The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe. Brian and I had recently watched a fascinatingly awful Christmas movie in the form of an MST3K episode and we were so intrigued by it that we started musing about turning that into our next piece. Then the idea of writing a Christmas show became less of a joke. And Seth got on board. And Ryan (composer/musician extraordinaire) got on board. And the artistic director of the theatre got on board. And then our fate was sealed.

It started with a couple of brainstorming meetings. We really had no idea where we were headed other than "Christmas." We quickly scrapped the bad movie concept, though one or two elements from it made their way into the final piece. By the end of the two days, we had a core concept.

The story would take place in Christmastown. That much we knew. North Pole, Santa's village, sleigh, reindeer, the whole nine yards. In addition to the standard cast, we wanted to use figures that would be recognizable as Christmas characters, but that didn't get featured a lot. The 12 Days of Christmas turned out to be a goldmine. Lords-a-Leaping? Ladies Dancing? Who the hell were these people? We had loads of fun figuring out how to weave them in. We'd landed on one of the eight "Maids-a-Milking" as our protagonist; it felt like kind of a perfect choice. Milk Maid is an inherently low status character, a great place to start for a hero, and it seemed unexpected but not out of place. We knew that this Maid (eventually dubbed "Macey") would make a troubling discovery about Christmastown, and have to fight to save the day.

 White board from one of the first writing sessions.

White board from one of the first writing sessions.

I hesitate to say more because we hope to stage the show again, and I hate to spoil my own stuff. I'll just say that we landed on the title Milking Christmas for three reasons: 1) Milk maid protagonist 2) Themes of exploitation of the holiday and 3) A wink to the fact that that's exactly what we were doing by putting up this show.

The writing process was a bizarre beast. Following the close of Lefty and Crabbe, we had to shelve this project for a bit to get other things done. By the time we refocused, we had about 3 months, in 3 different states, to put together a full script and score.  Brian Huther and I worked from Chicago. Seth Macchi had recently moved to New York. And Ryan McCall and producers Rusty Sneary and Shawnna Journagan were in KC. Thank god for google docs.



 

 Writing session from 3 different states.

Writing session from 3 different states.

Once Brian and I, and later Seth, got back to KC, it was really crunch time. We'd have full day sessions with Ryan tying up musical loose ends and finishing numbers, then we'd retire to the building's basement and work a few more hours on book revisions. Lather, rinse, repeat.
 

Since this was such an infant of a piece, we were still playing and writing and adjusting basically up till tech week, which I'm sure caused no shortage of headaches. Luckily, there was an amazingly talented and supportive team on this show remarkably adept at punch-rolling. All four of us writers were in the show (Ryan on keys, though often throwing in a line or an animal sound). Was this a good idea? I dunno, but it was a hell of a ride. Seth had originally planned on being in New York during the run but stepped into the cast last minute to fill a vacated spot.

 A production meeting midway through rehearsals.

A production meeting midway through rehearsals.

I could churn out two dozen more paragraphs on this from a writing standpoint, but none of that is as important as the incredible people that really made this thing happen. Rusty and Shawnna at The Living Room, as usual, demonstrated unconditional support, absurd amounts of trust, and ingenious leadership and flexibility in bringing a really odd vision to life. Our incredible director, a Kansas City legend and self-proclaimed Director-of-All-The-Plays, Missy Koonce, pulled a sort of triple duty as set designer and choreographer, which makes me tired just writing it.

I won't gush about each artist individually because this post is already too long, but they are all listed at the close, and suffice it to say that their professionalism, drive, and willingness to go the extra mile for a yet thoroughly unproven idea was tremendously humbling, and I owe these folks a lot.

So - how did it go?

Our goal, as writers, was to have the show go off well enough that we left saying "Yes, we'd like to keep working on this." I think we certainly achieved that. It was a crazed and wonderful first stab - thanks in no small part to the commitment of the actors - and we're already brimming with notions of how to make it better. Some nights, the response was subdued chuckles and warm smiles. Some nights, it was wall-to-wall hysteria. That's fairly typical for a comedy in my experience; there's no telling what the energy's gonna be. But I don't think any crowd left feeling disappointed. And boy did they show up! About a week before it even closed, Milking Christmas officially became the highest selling show on record in the history of The Living Room.

It was well reviewed, well enjoyed, and maybe most importantly for my selfish ass, a wonderful time. A Christmas "cheers" to all of you, team. I love you, I miss you, and this is one holiday season I'll never forget.


Milking Christmas: A New Musical
Book and lyrics by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, and Seth Macchi
Music by Ryan McCall, Brian Huther, and Ben Auxier

World premiere: The Living Room Theatre, December 2017
Director/choreographer Missy Koonce
Musical director Ryan McCall

CAST
Elise Poehling.............Macey Maid-a-Milking
Bob Linebarger..........Santa Claus
Seth Macchi................Chris Claus
Ellen Kirk......................Mrs. Claus/Masha/Carol Jolly
Mike Ott........................Jingle B. Elf/Ginger/General Sparkleshine/Lord 1
Nellie Maple.................Citizen Cane/Lt. Puddings/Mildred/Holly Hunter/Lord 3
Brian Huther.................Clyde/Mandy/Lord 2
Ben Auxier....................Krampsnickle/The Christmas Mole/Mike
Margaret Veglahn......Mildred/Toy Soldier
Andrew Stout...............Coal Miner/Toy Soldier/Mika/Lord
Cam Burns....................Coal Miner/Toy Soldier/Mary

Stage management: Lacey Pacheco
Regina Wellner
Emmy Panzica
Shawnna Journagan
Costume designer Nancy Robinson
Lighting design Nicole Jaja
Stage carpenter Kyle Dyck
Scenic artist Regina Wellner
Properties by Shawnna Journagan
Artistic director Rusty Sneary
 

MINt (Music Improv Night)

Project Role: Improviser
Location: Chicago

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Wednesday,  October 25th, was bittersweet. It was my final night performing with my MINt team before a trip to KC would cause me to leave the season early. Not only that, but the future of MINt itself was up in the air, as its longtime home MCL announced they would soon be closing their doors.

So, I suppose that's the bitter. The sweet, though, was the opportunity to do all these fun shows. Music Improv Night is a long-standing tradition of, well, what it sounds like. It's not quite a class, it's not quite a troupe, it's more like a club - a club for people who didn't know they needed to be in the club until they found themselves there.

I auditioned for MINt waaay back in July, and from there was placed onto one of three teams that performed various long and short form musical improv every Wednesday night at MCL. Few if any of us actually made it to EVERY performance, but teams are stocked with a big enough cast that the show doesn't suffer for it. I think my track record was probably around 50% of the shows between when we started at the beginning of August and when I departed in late October. I wish I could have done more, because this was a blast. Huge shoutout to my friends on the unforgettably named team The Lion, The MINt, and The Wardrobe, and to our coach Ryan Cashman. Let's keep it rolling!

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Addendum 1/30/18:
MCL Chicago has now officially closed its doors, and will be missed. I'm very happy I got to be at the goodbye party.

The Rough & The Precious

Project Role: Writer / Actor
Location: Chicago

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We wrapped our sketch show The Rough & The Precious on Friday, October 13th. The show had a limited run of four performances and was independently produced for the Blackout Cabaret stage at The Second City.

The Rough & The Precious (so named for reasons I now can't fully remember) was written and performed by Michelle Leatherby, Molly Kessler, Brian Huther, and myself, and directed by the wonderful Heather Bodie. It was my first live sketch endeavor in Chicago, and I couldn't have asked for a much better experience. Receptive but small turnout for the first two performance gave way to full houses for the last two as word began to spread, and I'm very proud of what we put together. My sincere thanks to everybody who made it out.

 Performance of "When God Made the Universe"

Performance of "When God Made the Universe"

This particular foursome had never worked together, but it wasn't long before the show found a voice. That voice, while definitely eclectic, was mostly very silly and endearing. Even its biting moments were embedded in broad smiles and bouncy melodies. It was a sincere joy to perform. We'll be on the lookout for another chance to put it up when schedules allow!

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe

Project role: Co-Writer / Co-Composer / Music Supervisor
Location: Kansas City, MO

"Playwrights Ben Auxier, Brian Huther, and Seth Macchi have put together an absolutely enjoyable evening at the theater. Dialogue is tight. The jokes are funny."
- Alan Portner, Broadway World

I don't even know how to begin writing about this. This has been one of the single greatest experiences of my life, both professionally, and personally.

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is a musical comedy that began its life as a 55 minute piece in the 2015 Kansas City Fringe Festival. I co-wrote it alongside my Friend Dog Studios collaborators Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, and the response we received was so wonderfully positive that we all came away knowing we weren't done.

Rusty Sneary and Shawnna Journagan at The Living Room theatre produced that fringe original as well as this new, expanded version. Their trust and support have been absolutely integral to the existence of this piece; it simply wouldn't be around without them, and I'll never be able to thank them enough for that.

 A poster design I created for the show.

A poster design I created for the show.

So, sentimental blubbering aside, what is this show? The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is the story of a comedy duo who find themselves down on their luck as the vaudeville circuits die and give way to the early popularity of film. Determined to stay in the entertainment business they love so dearly, the two follow a fast-talking agent to Hollywoodland, and are soon dizzy from the rapidly changing industry landscape around them.

The show is lightning quick, blissfully silly, 100% heartfelt, and designed to be a piece of pure entertainment. In many ways, it's a simple show, but in many others, it is fiercely and fascinatingly challenging, and I couldn't possibly have asked for a better team to pull it off. The casting consists of Lefty (Michael Hudgens) and Crabbe (Seth Macchi), surrounded by an ensemble of six actors (Brian Huther, Molly Denninghoff, Mike Ott, Ellen Kirk, Joshua Gleeson, and Elise Poehling) who portray some 46 additional characters throughout the show.

The piece was directed by Rusty Sneary of The Living Room, with choreography by Kyra Weinberger, costume design (no small undertaking here) by Nancy Robinson, lighting design by Lacey Pacheco, and dashes of sound design by David Kiehl. A very special kudos to the stage management team as well - led by Ellyn Calvert - who juggled more elements than I could possibly count in a stunningly flawless manner. I could go on and on about this cast and creative team, but there's too much to cover, so I'd invite you to read the reviews (below) to hear more about the incredible fruits of their labor.

One of the best things to come out of this experience was a new partnership with musician Ryan McCall, who acted as both our music director and our arranger, converting our chords and melodies into fully-fleshed out numbers that are better than I ever could have hoped. Ryan had to leave the production as accompanist after the first week, replaced by the incredible Eryn Bates, but we at Friend Dog Studios know we want to work with him again, and in fact are already getting started on our next collaboration!

"The writers and actors won me over with the sheer joy of performing and love of theater. And that’s something you can’t fake. The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is part of the Living Room’s mission to produce original work by local or expatriate artists. Other theater companies should take note. I suspect this show has a future."
- Robert Trussell, KC Studio

"Playwrights Ben Auxier, Brian Huther, and Seth Macchi have put together an absolutely enjoyable evening at the theater. Dialogue is tight. The jokes are funny."
- Alan Portner, Broadway World

"The team is also able to tap into some kind of immediacy — whether it’s the small theater, the local talent or the 1920s nostalgia — that makes this production something to savor. (And don’t forget to stay for the post-curtain call sequence.)"
- Christine Pivovar, The Kansas City Star

"The heartfelt performances and unbridled silliness add up to an affectionate evening of escapism. The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe is the stage equivalent of a summer blockbuster..."
- Liz Cook, The Pitch

"Hudgens and Macchi absolutely carry the show with their singing and acting. They are a joy to watch. The interaction and camaraderie amongst the cast sends electricity to the audience. ★★★★★"
- Bob Evans, KC Applauds