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Area Voices: Musical ‘Firebringer’ makes its debut in Grand Rapids

11 people posing together in cave people clothing.
Grand Rapids Players
The cast of the Grand Rapids Players' 2024 production of "Firebringer."

Director Jake Anderson joined "Area Voices" to discuss Grand Rapids Players upcoming production of “Firebringer” and what it’s like bringing a new musical to the Grand Rapids area.

GRAND RAPIDS — For local theater buffs, it is exciting to present a modern musical to audiences.

Most likely, it will be the first exposure to the show for a large part of the audience. This gives a chance for the performers to truly bring a new experience to their audience. Grand Rapids Players Director Jake Anderson considers it an opportunity.

“You can do more with a show that you don't expect the audience to have preconceived notions about what it's supposed to look like, what it's supposed to sound like," Anderson said.

Firebringer is a comedy musical that tells the story of a tribe of cave people at the dawn of humanity who are figuring out the world and the experiences of discovering fire.

Anderson explained more on Area Voices.

“It uses a lot of satire in its scripting to put a lens on a lot of current contemporary issues through what happens on stage," he said. " ... It's always nice when a comedy can not only just make you laugh, but make you think as you walk away.”

Poster of a sabretooth head and mammoth head looking at a woman holding a fire torch.
Grand Rapids Players
Show poster for the 2024 production of "Firebringer."

Firebringer found popularity when the original production was posted on YouTube in 2016. The show was funded by a Kickstarter campaign and produced by StarKid Productions, a musical theater company founded at the University of Michigan.

Used to traditional musicals, the Grand Rapids Players Board of Directors needed some more explanation at the suggestion of Firebringer.

“The major pitch that we made for this was bringing in shows that are not the old standards, some newer stuff, some things that haven't been seen as common," Anderson said.

The board approved.

Team effort

Since Firebringer is a musical, Anderson is not alone putting on this production. He is joined by Musical Director Adam Giebner and Choreographer Grace Ann Derfler. Anderson trusts both to make their own decisions on dancing and music.

He might tell them what position the character needs to end up in for the next scene or give permission to cut a few measures in the song. “It's pretty much just a 'yes' or 'no' kind of thing through those decision-making processes.”

There’s a bit of trial and error when putting a musical together, combining choreography with music while also being entertaining. This is Anderson’s first time directing a full-blown musical.

“I do a lot of ‘OK, let's try this,’ and they do it ... [or] ’No, that didn't look good, scrap that.’”

He said he believes the talented cast has the ability to roll with the changes.

Two versions

What happens when a community theater organization puts on a play that might have explicit language? Together, the decision was made to present the Friday and Saturday night shows with the explicit version of Firebringer and the Sunday matinees will be a non-explicit PG-13 version. The hope is to appeal to more people and reach a larger audience.

At first, it was questionable if it was feasible to put on both versions of the show. The cast would essentially have to memorize two different scripts, but the company of actors agreed to do the extra work.

“Fortunately, I have a talented enough cast that you just announce, ‘Hey, we're doing a clean run tonight,’ then that's what rehearsal is and off they go.”

They also added a visual aid for the cast to remind them which kind of show they are doing. There are different costumes for both versions. It was Anderson’s uncle Peter who came up with the idea, and Anderson thought it was brilliant and added it to the production.

Anderson said he is hoping people enjoy the show. But he’s also hoping the community is willing to come see a riskier play like this, and that the community will support the theater group for taking a risk. Local arts, especially in rural places like Grand Rapids, need audiences to keep them going.

“I mean, nothing against the classics," Anderson said. "They are classic for a reason after all, but it is nice from a creative perspective to tread new paths now and again.”

Firebringer’s opening weekend is March 15-17, continuing the following weekend March 22-24. The explicit shows will be on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and the non-explicit PG-13 version on Sundays at 2 p.m. You can get tickets on the Grand Rapids Players' website.

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Area Voices is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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