‘An American Hero: USO Show’ July 6 to Benefit Southeast Students Performing in NYMF

Jerry Ford, the Missouri Arts Council’s Individual Artist for 2017, and his Orchestra along with select Southeast Missouri State University students and community members will perform “An American Hero: USO Show” July 6 at Southeast’s River Campus.

The USO Show is being presented in the spirit of Independence Day and as a sendoff to support 30 Southeast Missouri State University students and faculty headed to perform “An American Hero” at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) later in July.

The performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by contacting the River Campus Box Office, located in the Cultural Arts Center, 518 S. Fountain Street, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., by calling (573) 651-2265 or online at RiverCampus.org. Tickets for active military or veterans are $20. Proceeds will help support travel costs of the Southeast group to New York City. Those interested in helping send the Southeast students to the New York Music Festival also may make a donation online at https://impact.semo.edu/campaigns/musicalfestival/.

The evening will feature sounds of the Big Band era with Jerry Ford and his 12-piece orchestra performing ’40s music, including “Woodchopper’s Ball,” “String of Pearls,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Slow Boat to China,” “In the Mood,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)” — classics made famous by Louis Prima, Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, The Andrew Sisters and Glenn Miller.

Three special numbers also will be performed with Jerry Ford and his Orchestra. Cape Girardeau native Brodrick Twiggs will perform the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful.” Clay Hahs will present “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” from Rodgers & Hammersteins’ “South Pacific,” and Tina Trickey will perform “I’m Gonna Get You on a Slowboat to China” by Frank Loesser.

Jerry Ford

Two numbers in the show have Cape Girardeau connections, Ford said. Loesser’s in-laws lived in Cape Girardeau for many years and he was periodically seen in town. In addition, Benny Goodman’s classic Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938 included “Sing, Sing, Sing” featuring Cape Girardeau’s pianist, Jess Stacy, in the featured solo role along with the great drummer, Gene Krupa.

Also highlighted in the July 6 USO Show will be selections from the Southeast produced “An American Hero,” including “Waiting on the Mailman,” “Tighten Your Bootstraps” and “Go Get Your Apron On.” In the spirit of the Fourth of July holiday, Jerry Ford and his Orchestra also will salute the branches of the military and perform patriotic selections such as “A Military Medley” and “God Bless America.”

USO Shows began during the World War II era and were performed to entertain members of the U.S. Armed Forces while stationed abroad, offering them respite from their wartime duties and a reminder of their homeland and American values.

After the USO Show, the cast of “An American Hero” will be on hand for a “meet and greet” in the Cultural Arts Center. Donations will be accepted to help support Southeast’s students and faculty headed to New York City where “An American Hero” is an official selection of the 2018 New York Musical Festival July 23-29. “An American Hero” is a musical co-written by 2017 Southeast alumnus Cody Cole of O’Fallon, Missouri, and Dr. Kenn Stilson, chair of Southeast’s Conservatory of Theatre and Dance, who created both the script and music.

The Jerry Ford Orchestra

The production will offer theatre lovers the opportunity to immerse themselves in an original, powerful, jazz-inspired musical that tells the story of an Irish immigrant during World War II offering a human perspective never before told.

“There are countless stories of love and loss during World War II, but this story is unique, culturally diverse, in its perspective of the war through the eyes of an Irish immigrant who chooses to go against the will of his homeland, fighting for his new country, suffering great loss, and in the process becoming a reluctant American hero,” said Dr. Kenn Stilson, co-author of “An American Hero” and chair of The Conservatory of Theatre and Dance at Southeast Missouri State University.

The Southeast cast and crew will travel to New York City later in July to perform “An American Hero” on 42nd Street, just off Times Square and the Broadway district. Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. July 23, 9 p.m. July 26, 1 and 5 p.m. July 27, and 1 p.m. July 29 at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. For tickets, visit www.nymf.org or call the Box Office at (212) 352-3101.

“It’s a traditional, warm story about an unconventional topic — immigration and PTSD during World War II,” says Director Michael McIntosh, assistant professor of musical theatre, directing and acting at Southeast Missouri State.

Many people are unaware Ireland was neutral during World War II, Stilson said. Between the wars, they gained their independence from England after centuries of oppression.

“They were not pro-Nazi and pro-Fascism, but they hated the British,” Stilson said. “In fact, they hated them so much that Irish men and women who did choose to fight in the war were considered traitors. After the war, they and their families were outcasts. Their countrymen wouldn’t hire them, and their families were discriminated against throughout society. Their children were bullied in schools—even by their teachers. It was only in 2013 that the Irish government officially pardoned soldiers who left to fight the Nazis.”

Stilson says this tragic, intense drama will tug at heartstrings as the leads, “Thomas” and “Mary,” portray love and humanity that transcend all.

McIntosh calls the production “emotional,” saying audiences will get to follow the Irish immigrant as he decides to join the U.S. Army during World War II, a controversial decision with Irish immigrants at the time.

“We get to watch him fall in love, storm the beach at Normandy and ultimately suffer from PTSD (then called ‘battle fatigue’) when he comes home,” McIntosh said. “It’s an important and powerful story, especially in light of the current immigration issues facing our country.”

The dramatic musical centers on the optimistic Irish immigrant, who joins the United States Army, falls in love with and marries a spirited American woman, before being sent to fight in World War II, where he becomes the reluctant recipient of the Medal of Honor. Along the way, he learns the depths of his love of family, the sacrifices of heroes and the true meaning of becoming an American.

Complementing the story line is the music, which is different than that typically associated with musical theatre and with all the hallmarks of Ireland.

“It has a lot of Irish elements, especially through the use of the fiddle,” says Music Director Jenna Lee Moore, assistant professor of musical theatre at Southeast. “There are a lot of different harmonies and vocal textures throughout the show that almost give the ensemble numbers a choral feel.  The music is meant to take you back in time to the 1940s, while still having modern influences.”

Accompaniment is provided by a five-piece New York-based orchestra with Steve Sensenig as the orchestrator; Moore is featured on keyboard. Other musical elements included are a violin, woodwinds, French horn and percussion. Performances will feature ensemble pieces as well as various solos and duets throughout the musical.

“This is very exciting for all of us,” Moore said.

Cole said, “As part of the NYMF, we are given the opportunity to put the show in front of the top industry professionals. It puts us a step closer to getting the show fully produced in New York’s finest theaters and ultimately published and produced across the country.”

Cole started developing the songs and story as a student at Southeast. He approached Stilson to collaborate on the script and story. After more than two years, 75 drafts and two readings, the musical was selected by the Gallery Players, an Off-Off Broadway company, to participate in their “Overtures” Staged Reading Series in Brooklyn, New York, in December 2016.

The staged reading helped Cole and Stilson fine tune the story, songs and characters. It also gave the Southeast students involved with the production opportunities to work with professionals and add New York and Off-Off Broadway credits to their resumes.

“An American Hero” had its academic premiere on Southeast’s River Campus in the fall of 2017. Around that same time, Stilson began the process of submitting the musical to the NYMF for consideration.

The company consists of current Southeast Conservatory students and professional alumni, faculty and staff. Stilson said he’s not aware of other undergraduate programs performing in the NYMF, adding this offers the students valuable experience.

“Our students will have a New York credit on their resumes. It gives them street credentials. Also, they will get exposure on the New York scene. Casting directors, producers, agents and many other professionals attend the Festival,” he said.

McIntosh said the invitation for “An American Hero” to be performed at the NYMF “proves, once again, that our incredibly talented and well-trained students can hold their own with current New York City professionals. Around 500 professional actors auditioned for An American Hero in NYC. The competition is intense, and our students shine.

“It’s an incredibly amazing opportunity for our students and another reason why the Conservatory is such a great place to learn,” McIntosh said. “Our students will graduate with a solid, impressive New York credit that will give them a head start on their careers.

Stilson said Southeast’s Conservatory of Theatre and Dance is thrilled and honored to be part of the NYMF.

“There are a lot of musical festivals around the world, but this is the top one for us,” he said.

The New York Musical Festival nurtures the creation, production, and public presentation of stylistically, thematically, and culturally diverse new musicals to ensure the future vitality of musical theater.

Now in its 15th year, the Festival is the premier musical theater event in the world. The preeminent site for launching new musicals and discovering new talent, the Festival provides an affordable platform for artists to mount professional productions that reach their peers, industry leaders, and musical theater fans. More than 90 Festival shows have gone on to productions on and Off-Broadway, in regional theaters in all 50 states, and in more than 24 countries worldwide. Festival alumni have received a wide array of awards including the Tony Award® and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2013, NYMF received a special Drama Desk Award in recognition of its work “creating and nurturing new musical theater, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”

NYMF is the flagship program of National Music Theater Network, Inc., a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization. 2018 NYMF is sponsored by The City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, PRG, TheaterMania, Clear Channel Outdoor, Tinc Productions and Fox Stage Productions and is supported, in part, by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The NYMF PASS is a great way to experience The New York Musical Festival. With a NYMF PASS, you can get into the theater before individual ticket holders. Passes also offer the exclusive ability to book tickets before they go on sale to the public. Individual tickets on sale now.

The 2018 New York Musical Festival will take place July 9-Aug. 5. For more information, please visit: www.nymf.org.