Idyllwild Arts breaks new ground with original musical: ‘Welcome to Sleepy Hollow,’ a musical thriller in two acts

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Actors at Idyllwild Arts rehearse for the upcoming theater production “Welcome to Sleepy Hollow.” Performances will be Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, Dec. 8 to 10, with a matinee Saturday, in Rush Hall on the Idyllwild Arts campus.
Photo by Tom Kluzak

Idyllwild Arts Academy Theatre Department breaks new ground with an original musical based on Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Heather Reba, IAA theater faculty and professional musical theater actor, wrote book, music and lyrics for “Welcome to Sleepy Hollow” and orchestrated her score for the IAA pit band. Reba is the show’s musical director. Theater Arts Chair Bonnie Carpenter directs.

Reba adapted the short story, adding several characters and expanding the Irving tale into a two-act, 15-song musical, with ensemble numbers, duets and solos. “In many ways, it’s a challenge for the students since this is a new piece with no prior production references with which they might be familiar,” said Reba. “They have to spend more time developing character intent and theories to fully flesh out the character.” 

Adding to actor challenges is the fact that the production is being staged in the round in IAA’s flexible space Rush Hall. “There are six entrance points into the space through the audience from which actors will enter and exit,” observed Reba. “Also working in the round, rather than in proscenium [on stage], requires a different orientation to the audience and that, too, has been a learning experience for our student actors. It’s also different to have the audience that close.” 

But as challenging as it is for IAA’s acting ensemble, it will be especially exciting for the audience — actors entering through the audience, actors in close proximity to the audience and a feeling of being in the production rather than just observing it. Add to that the pleasure of hearing a new score for a musical for the first time.

Reba said part of her approach to the Sleepy Hollow book was to leave the ending ambiguous as it was in the Washington tale. What did happen to Ichabod Crane? Was the headless horseman a ghost or a disguised rival for a woman’s hand? Who was the Woman in White? 

“I wanted the audience to wonder about the ending, the mystery of what actually happened,” said Reba. “People want closure and so did our actors, but it’s also fun to come up with one’s own theories of what happened in Sleepy Hollow.”

Carpenter said she seized the opportunity to present Reba’s new musical. “Having Heather Reba in our community presented a wonderful opportunity for our students to work directly with the creator of an original work,” she noted. “Throughout the rehearsal process, the students have intentionally been included as observers and, when appropriate, a part of the conversations in order to understand the collaborative nature of working with contemporary works. It’s not often the creative team is able to have a conversation with the playwright because she is in the room with the group.” 

Carpenter stressed this is the first fully staged musical to be presented in Rush Hall in the round. “Most of our produced musicals have happened in Bowman and this is a major departure from our norms,” she said.  “The kids experience a level of intimacy that is not typical of performing in a clearly defined proscenium space. Allowing the audience of the show to become such an active part in the staging requires a level of trust between audience and actor.

“This production also marks a stronger commitment between the music and theater departments at Idyllwild Arts. Chris Reba, the music department chair, has provided great support both through student involvement and his own sound design experience. The six-piece pit band has two faculty and four students.”

“Welcome to Sleepy Hollow” opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at Rush Hall on the IAA campus. Performances follow at 7:30 Friday, Dec. 9, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10. The production is open to the public with no charge for admission. Seating is limited in Rush Hall. 

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