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TWO SHOWS, ONE HOPE: Keepin’ Up Productions and Thalian Association open shows about the underdogs rising

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encore interviewed the forces behind two show openings coming up…

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Two shows opening this week in local theatre will have folks laughing, crying, empathizing and rooting for the underdogs, leaving audiences with messages of hope in its wake. Thalian Association will premiere “Little Miss Sunshine,” the musical based on the instantaneous cult-classic 2006 film. Keepin Up Productions will restage “Django Salvatori’s Awe Inspiring, Death Defying, Big Top Spectacuganza… Featuring Ralph” by UNCW grad Justin Cioppa. encore interviewed the forces behind the show openings…

Opening June 20-30, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Academy, 3900 S. College Rd.
Tickets: $17-$25 •
The story follows a family who travels in a VW van across the country to get their quirky but lovable Olive into a beauty pageant. Automotive problems, family crises, and even tragedy strikes as they reach their final destination. Still, what arises is a story of familial bonds that can’t break and the fortitude to follow through on all dreams, no matter how impossible they seem.

After Thalian’s artistic director, Chandler Davis, saw the success of “Steel Magnolias” last summer, she thought premiering “Little Miss Sunshine” during this season also would be a good fit. While music plays a large part in the movie (hello, Rick James!), this iteration of the show comes full-force as a musical of 14 songs propelling the story. Lyrics and book are by the Tony Award-winning team of James Lapine (“Into the Woods”) and William Finn (“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”).

“This musical is about people who are really struggling emotionally but are also determined to keep moving forward,” tells Davis, who also is directing the show. “I think that is something most people can relate to.”

Audiences will meet the Hoover familiy, each of whom is facing hard realities of life. Grandpa (JR Rodriguez) got kicked out of his retirement home because of his wily behavior. Uncle Frank (Beau Mumford) recently broke up with his boyfriend and is in the dumps. Mom and Pop, Richard (Michael Lauricella) and Sheryl (Emily Gorham), are facing a crack in their marriage. Their son Dwayne (Kellen Hanson) is taking a vow of silence, while their vivacious 10-year-old Olive (Chloe Moore) is, trying her best to convince her family to take a trip to the California coast in an effort for her to take the title in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant.

“My favorite scene is definitely a number that the beauty pageant hosts, played by Jordan Hathaway and Samantha Mifsud, sing,” Davis reveals. “It’s hilarious. I’ve actually been distracting the actors because I’m laughing so hard.”

While the show may seem familial in nature, it’s actually very adult-oriented. Heavy themes of suicide and depression, plus adult language are apparent.

“But it does it in this genuinely hopeful way,” Davis assures. “We get to see these regular people in an extraordinary situation learning new things about themselves and their limitations or lack there of. It’s a really lovely snapshot of two days in the life of this crazy family. There are really tender moments one second and then slap stick comedy the next.”

The musical is led by Cathy Street. And though they don’t have rights to James’ famed song from the movie, “Superfreak,” the song “Badonkadonk” will make up for it. Jen Iapalucci is designing costumes, and Carolyn Colby is the properties designer. Benedict Fancy—who oversees the theater department at Cape Fear Academy, where the show is being held—will design the set, lights and sound. “His design for the show is perfect,” Davis praises. Though the hardest scenes have been when the family has to push their VW bus, it’s also one of the most colorful moments of the musical.

“Think retro VW bus in every way,” Davis says.

Opening June 20-July 7, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $20 •
Circus life is tough for Django Salvatori (Steve Vernon) in 1942. With bankruptcy looming and audiences falling off in support, Django is looking for an awe-inspiring act to make sure the show continue on! Enter Ralph (Brett Young), whose act is so unbelievably grand, it once left an audience clapping for three days!

Written by UNCW graduate Justin Cioppa, Keepin’ Up Productions, founded by Susan Auten, is hosting the production at Cape Fear Playhouse. Auten’s familiarity with the story is deep, as she’s friends with the playwright, and  has produced and acted in the show a few years ago at the now-defunct Browncoat Pub and Theatre. Auten also worked on its original debut more than a decade ago at Guerilla Theatre.

“This is one of my favorite shows,” she tells. “It’s very funny, and a little outrageous, but it also has a darker, more serious side to it as well. Those are my favorite types of shows—ones that aren’t just comedy or drama.”

Auten worked with Cioppa while he was doing his film “Bummin’ It,” and again on a play called “Catatsropolis,” along with a few other plays, including “Django,” thereafter. The two became roommates and working confidants.

“I love all the different layers to his writing,” Auten praises. “It’s smart, funny, dark, hopeful and it really allows you the opportunity to have fun, while still having enough meat on the characters to really make you think about their motivations.”

Auten loves the play’s hopeful message—that we all have the capability to change that within us. Directing the play is Robb Mann, who Auten has worked with since 2004. “He’s smart, quick and very knowledgeable when it comes to history, which I thought was important because this is a period piece,” she says.

Auten is acting in the show as a vagrant named Barnes. Steve Vernon is Django; Anthony Corvino will take on the “relatively” strong man; Atwood Boyd is the knife thrower; Nick Smith and Shawn Sproatt are quarreling clowns; and Brett Young is Ralph himself.

Robin Robertson and Shane Bates are designing the set, with Donna Troy doing the scenic-painting to bring to life a desolate circus, and Jeff Loyon on lighting design. Stephanie Aman is doing costumes.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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