This week, a senior project production will venture through an alligator-wrestling theme park to delve into themes of family, loss and imagination.
“Swamplandia! The Musical,” an original adaptation of Karen Russell’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, premieres tonight at the Calhoun Cabaret. With the book written by Andrew Bezek ’13 and music and lyrics composed by Benji Goldsmith ’15, the show tells the story of a family that lives on an island off the Florida coast and runs the titular alligator-wrestling theme park. Stage manager Aviva Abusch ’18 highlighted the show’s ability to weave unusual elements into a broader discussion on serious subjects.
“[Goldsmith] and [Bezek] took a story that most people would not think to turn into a musical and they did it,” Abusch said. “It is entirely wacky, but also mature and impactful in a way that people might not realize when they hear the title and the premise.”
At the show’s outset, the passing of the family’s matriarch and star alligator wrestler, Hilola Bigtree, sets the plot in motion. Throughout the musical, characters must discover their own methods of coping with the loss of Hilola and moving on with their lives. In the process, a number of strange elements are introduced, including a ghost, a hell-themed rival amusement park and a swamp queen.
Goldsmith said that when he first read Russell’s novel, he immediately recognized its theatrical potential. In composing the music for the show, Goldsmith explained that he blended two different harmonic styles — diatonicism and chromaticism — in order to distinguish between the play’s real and supernatural elements.
Abusch said that given the show’s setting and focus on family tradition, the music becomes important in representing the distinct lifestyle of the Bigtree clan.
Max Sauberman ’17, who plays Chief Bigtree, the family patriarch, highlighted the show’s realistic portrayal of human emotion.
Cast and crewmembers interviewed said they faced unique challenges during the production process. Alison Mosier-Mills ’17, the show’s producer, said that the production’s complex lighting, props and costume elements were difficult to cowordinate in a venue as small as the Calhoun Cabaret. Sauberman explained that the actors were forced to develop their own interpretations of characters without any previous productions of the show to use as reference. But he noted that the show’s originality also allows the cast members to take a large degree of ownership in their characters.
Abusch also emphasized that with its combination of humor, drama and suspense, “Swamplandia!” is designed to appeal to a wide range of audiences.
Performances of “Swamplandia!” run through Friday evening.