Twenty-minutes before the show, and I’m in the women’s dressing room, interviewing the female members of the cast. I ask them to describe The Medora Musical. “Cheesy!” they all cry out. “Cheese-ical!” “Haven’t you ever heard of cheesical theater?”
Jane Sammsill, a great dizzy blonde says, “it’s fun, but we’re like this—“ and cranks her face into the most fabulously grotesque smile, a parody of happiness, eyes screwed up, mouth open, teeth bared in a rictus of joy. She sticks her index and middle fingers into the gap between her teeth like she’s pretending to blow her head off. I thought it was just a cynical gesture—a bit brutal, perhaps, but then maybe doing The Medora Musical for 30 performances in a row with no dark night does that to you. Then Natalie chimes in: “yeah, two fingers” cracks her face into a similar smile and also inserts her fingers into her mouth, making it clear that it isn’t a joke—it’s the standard by which they are rehearsed to hold a big enough smile during the show.
Their facial agility reminded me of competitive cheerleader friends who practiced face acrobatics for national competitions. They ran through expressions like a deck of cards: pre-rehearsed smiles (both open and closed mouth), contortions signifying effort, concentration and surprise. Throughout The Medora Musical, I noted the similarly engaged faces of the Burning Hills Singers, as they struck looks of sentiment, confusion, inspiration and delight without pause, even when the stage is dark.
Matthew Griffin, a big bear of a man who emcees the show as a paternal town father, explained that the performance style reflects the size of the amphitheater (it seats 2,800; people reach their seats via a seven-story long escalator ride), the expectations of the audience, and the story they’re trying to communicate.
“Even though I’m wearing a headset microphone…there’s this huge sound system…I have to be enormous physically, in terms of my body, my voice, my face, everything is exaggerated, everything is huge, no subtlety at all.”
Certainly, “subtle” and The Medora Musical don’t go together. The opening number, an explosion of kick ball changes and chasses, paralyzed my descriptive powers—my notes simply read: High energy, energetic, happy! Dancing! Singing! Boogie! The Burning Hills Singers, in little white-fringed cowboy outfits with matching boots, hats, neckerchiefs, and toothy open-mouthed smiles, confidently drum out the moves, singing “If the house is a’rocking, then don’t bother knocking—just come on in!”—kick ball change, grapevine, turn!—come on in, because there’s a party going on! Happy! Singing! Dancing! Boogie! We’re going to have fun!
The fun reached a veritable fever pitch with “2001: A Clog Odyssey.” It starts in blackout; the audience can only see glints of shiny costumes against the set, a replica of Medora’s main street. The refrain of Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays, and the performers punctuate the mournful five notes with simple clacking steps (duh dah duh-duh dah). What sounds like the opening to Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” fades in as the windows of the buildings start flashing with binary patterned colored lights; that’s when the costumes themselves start lighting up in alternating patterns. Suddenly, the stage goes bright and we’re in the middle of a clog dance number, with the Burning Hills Singers yipping and wearing thousand voltage grins and huge crinolined silver skirts, clogging their hearts out—ending with a bang, as fireworks shoot out the top of the set.
Nothing subtle about that, no, though the style remains so consistent throughout that it almost seems natural. And we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? How did it end up that you can sit in an amphitheater watching “2001: A Clog Odyssey” with 2000 other people in a barely extant ghost town, a town not a town, in the empty outer reaches of North Dakota?
The answer lies, as it so often does, in the confluence of a few men with vision.