Ozarks Technical Community College Fine Arts Department presents Ned Wilkinson's comic (in more ways than one) musical "Julie Bunny Must Die!" Friday and Saturday April 21 and 22 at 7:30 pm and Sunday April 23 at 2:30 pm in Lincoln Hall 211 at 815 North Sherman Avenue on the OTC campus.
Music Director for the show, Phil Forrester, says he was unfamiliar with either the show or its creator Ned Wilkinson—Forrester just recently arrived in Springfield, and Wilkinson, a fixture in this area for many years, moved to Orlando, Florida several years ago. (“This show took him to Orlando,” says Director Jon Herbert. Wilkinson supervised the world premiere production of “Julie Bunny” at the Orlando Fringe Festival in 2010.) Forrester first heard about “Julie Bunny Must Die” from actor Daniel Busch, who played Adam Chase in the original production, and is reprising the role for this OTC staging. “He said this would be a great show for OTC because it’s small cast, small pit (band), it can be done with a minimal set. So I looked at the script and it was great.”
But “Julie Bunny” is still very much a work-in-progress. Ned Wilkinson has continued to do re-writes and add new music. “And that made it even better,” says Forrester. Following the premiere in Orlando in 2010—“Julie Bunny version 1.0”—the show was premiered locally by Springfield Contemporary Theatre in 2011—“Julie Bunny version 2.0.” So this weekend’s OTC production is essentially “Julie Bunny version 3.0,” and there are significant differences as you’ll read below.
The basic storyline concerns a graphic designer, Adam Chase, who is also the creator of a cult-hit comic book, “Julie Bunny: International Spy.” During the show, Adam’s comic-book characters come to life onstage, and he has conversations with them as they try to help inspire his creativity—and try NOT to hinder his personal “real” life. Adam’s comic book is his main creative outlet, since his day job as a graphic designer is mundane and soul-killing. Adam also has girlfriend troubles, and constantly butts heads with a friend of his, and well as with his boss Mr. Brayford. So Adam’s fantasy and reality worlds collide onstage. Phil Forrester says Adam’s comic-book characters represent aspects of Adam’s psyche. “When we have our own internal monologs, the ‘voices in our heads,’ our conscience, they can help and hinder at the same time.” Adds Jon Herbert, “This is very much about the conundrum that every working artist can identify with, this balance that you try to strike between your job, that you have to do to pay the bills and make a living, and your creative work that you want to do, your creative outlet. You find your creative work sometimes begins to interfere with your job and vice versa. And Adam kind of finds himself caught in the middle.”
Phil Forrester says he’s had a lot of fun working with Ned Wilkinson’s music for “Julie Bunny Must Die.” “The only live musician we have,” he says, “is our pianist Nancy Moore. For the rest of the music Ned has actually written and recorded backing tracks”—which is a challenge for Forrester as conductor, because he has to coordinate and synchronize Moore’s live playing with Wilkinson’s pre-recorded tracks. He says Wilkinson’s score “has a lot of nods towards classic musical theater”—everything from “Chicago” to “Jesus Christ Superstar”—in an homage to numerous different musical genres.
“Julie Bunny Must Die” does indeed utilize a small cast—just five actors. But several of them are double-cast. “Each actor who plays a character in the comic-book world also doubles as a character from Adam’s real life,” says Forrester. This sets up several interesting parallels, according to Jon Herbert. For example, Jeff Albertson, who plays the bad guy who wants to kill Julie Bunny in the comic book, “also plays Mr. Brayford, who keeps heaping Adam with loads of very boring, un-creative work. He, in essence, is trying to ‘kill’ Julie Bunny, figuratively speaking. There are really cool parallels.”
Because of the large number of current and former OTC students who came out to audition for the show, the producers were able to have understudies in place—and the understudies will get to take over the roles onstage at the Sunday afternoon performance. Says Phil Forrester, “It’s been just a blast working with these creative minds. Some of them, this is their first time in a lead role. It’s been a lot of fun working with these exceptional students.”
Ned Wilkinson has been able to come back to Springfield to offer his help with the production as well, first for several rehearsals last month, and now he’s coming back for the run of the show. “He worked with the cast, and I got to pick his brain a little bit about the music and the interpretation,” says Music Director Phil Forrester. And Director Jon Herbert says he’s been in “constant communication” with Wilkinson by text and email.
Because Ned Wilkinson is still actively “workshopping” the show—that is, continuing to do rewrites, adding and subtracting various elements to keep perfecting the show—there are times, says Jon Herbert, “where we’re working, and it’s like, ‘Well, you know, here’s something that doesn’t make sense to us,’ and we can check with Ned and ask ‘What if we were to do this?’ ‘Oh, maybe not that, but I like THAT.’ So it’s been this really great collaboration.” Herbert says the script has already changed from when OTC first acquired it, which is “kind of a double-edged sword,” according to Phil Forrester, “when you’re working with a playwright who’s actively working on the show. We got the script sort of one rewritten scene at a time.”
When he first sent the files of his pre-recorded music tracks, Wilkinson warned Forrester that he was still “tweaking” and “working on” the various music cues and songs. “And by ‘tweaking’ and ‘working on,’ he meant ‘completely re-writing!’” he laughs. This is a new experience for Forrester, who is used to having a script and musical score already set in stone. “You’re renting the materials and returning the materials, everything’s very precise. Publishers and rights-holders are very strict with what you can and cannot change, you have to clear everything with them. But with Ned I can say, ‘Hey, we did this with one of the (music) tracks in act one, and as a musician this is really awkward—we need to change this.’ And Ned says, ‘Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Give me a recording of that so I can make the backing track match it now.’ That sort of back-and-forth is something that I have never had the opportunity to do. And it’s been absolutely wonderful.”
Jon Herbert also praises Ned Wilkinson as a collaborator. “He’s been great to work with. He’s very accommodating, he’s very hands-on. But he’s not overbearing." However, he does have the final say as creator of the show. “There was a point where we had a suggestion and he just said, ‘....No....’ And I agreed—I went back and look again and said, ‘Yeah, that’s too much!’”
So if you saw “Julie Bunny Must Die” back in 2011 at the Vandivort, or, especially, if you happened to catch the world premiere in Orlando in 2010, you'll find the OTC production to a markedly different show. In fact, says Phil Forrester, “I believe Ned told me there are only THREE songs from the original that are still there! It’s about a half-hour longer; some of the plot lines and side stories are vastly different from the original. So don’t think this is going to be the same old show that you saw back in 2011—it’s definitely a very, very different show.” Jon Herbert adds, “It’s very, very current, especially if you are invested in ‘geek’ culture and you like comic conventions and the like. This show is very current... and it’s very fun."
Admission for “Julie Bunny Must Die” is free and open to the public, but because of limited seating patrons are asked to order free tickets in advance if possible. For information call the OTC Fine Arts Department at 447-8975; for tickets visit www.eventbrite.com and search "Julie Bunny Must Die." (Actually, says Jon Herbert, all you have to do at the Eventbrite page is type in “Julie” and the OTC production comes up. Apparently, they're the only ones performing Wilkinson's show at the moment!)