The Decaturian is Millikin's student-run newspaper. The opinions reflected may not be those of Millikin as an institution.

The Decaturian

The Decaturian is Millikin's student-run newspaper. The opinions reflected may not be those of Millikin as an institution.

The Decaturian

The Decaturian is Millikin's student-run newspaper. The opinions reflected may not be those of Millikin as an institution.

The Decaturian

“The Spell of Red River”: A New Musical at Millikin


“The Spell of Red River,” a new musical by EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn, is sure to enchant audiences with its queer magic. It will premiere on Thursday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Virginia Rogers Theatre.

The show officially started rehearsals in February, but its development began long before. Theater professor and “Red River” director Lori Bales commissioned the musical to fill a gap she saw in the theatrical canon for diverse, female-driven narratives. As queer writers whose work prominently features women and LGBTQ+ characters, Chary and Gwinn were the perfect duo for the job.

The two have collaborated on a number of shows, but “Red River” is the most ambitious musical they’ve written together. They began writing the show in January of 2022 for Millikin’s New Musicals Workshop and subsequent staged reading. Chary handled writing the script, Gwinn wrote the music, and they both wrote the lyrics. They continued to develop the show over the next several years until it was ready to become a full-fledged production.

The timeline of developing “Red River” was unusually fast for Chary and Gwinn. Rather than seeing this as just a challenge, however, they believe the tight turnaround kept their work fresh.

Story continues below advertisement

“It was a gift because there wasn’t a whole lot of time to second guess the choices we were making. I think that that gives it a sense of cohesion, which is one of my favorite things about it,” Gwinn said.

“Red River” is set in modern day Nashville, which is reflected in its music’s contemporary pop-country sound. The story follows a witch named Vel, played by senior BFA musical theater major Whitney Turner, who has the power to uncover memories about events or people by touching inanimate objects associated with them. Throughout the show, Vel uncovers her family history, finds her magic and learns to process her grief after losing her mother. While the show touches on heavy topics, it also has a healthy dose of humor.

Since Chary and Gwinn developed the show through the workshop process at Millikin, they took into account what sort of roles and story beats would speak to the musical theater students who would bring it to life. Many students expressed interest in inclusivity and quality queer representation, which Chary and Gwinn happily delivered.

“To see the way that the students are able to connect to that material or find something in it, in the same way that we’re able to find something in it—that’s the best thing,” Chary said.

The show’s inclusive range of characters has allowed students to see themselves represented on stage for the first time. Collette Phillips, a senior BFA musical theatre major, has been able to explore her own gender identity through her role as Foster, Vel’s nonbinary partner.

“I have, for as long as I’ve been doing theater, never played or seen a gender queer role,” Phillips said. “It’s a part of myself that I’ve never been able to tap into as an actor, and this show let me do that.”

“Red River” incorporates many different LGBTQ+ characters without focusing on the discrimination and hatred that queer people often face. Rather, the story celebrates queer joy throughout history—a deliberate choice on Chary’s part.

“So many queer stories, and particularly stories about queer women, are overlooked or put into the background or end in tragedy. So it was really exciting and important to me to put something on stage where it’s like, we just have a queer romance, and that’s just a thing that happened,” she said.

Another thing that influenced Chary and Gwinn’s creative choices was the pandemic. Many were losing or had lost loved ones to COVID, and that grief had a heavy societal impact which came through in the writing of “Red River.”

“We didn’t actually set out to write something that dealt with those themes, but it was on a lot of people’s minds,” Chary said. “The thing about grief and loss is that you can’t really deal with them unless you deal with them, and that’s what the play is kind of about.”

Emily Ostrowski, a senior stage management major who is stage managing the show, found “Red River” helped her process grief she hadn’t realized she still needed to work through.

“I’m able to watch Vel go on this journey of grief which is so normal for humans, but I think we don’t talk about it enough. It can be a years-long process of grieving over someone… so these are all very important topics,” Ostrowski said.

Putting on a new musical has also come with challenges for the cast and crew, who received script and music changes throughout the rehearsal process. Ostrowski was frequently responsible for making sure the script stayed updated. She put a lot of work into keeping the production on track throughout the rehearsal process.

“What I really love most about stage managing is seeing it all come together,” Ostrowski said. “This is probably the most interesting show I’ve ever worked on.

Lily Bryson, a junior BFA musical theater major, has also loved working on “Red River.” Bryson plays Silver, a member of the college research group that calls themselves the Technocoven, which functions as a sort of Greek chorus. Having played Silver in both the staged reading and the full-scale production, Bryson has enjoyed the chance to delve deeply into her character and bond with her fellow cast members. Since “Red River” is a new musical, the cast wasn’t able to hear the full score until they started working with the band, a moment that was very special to Bryson.

“It took my breath away the first time I heard it,” Bryson said. “I love the show’s musical texture, and it’s just so catchy and fun.”

Gwinn worked hard to make the score stand out, writing a lot of folk-inspired country pop pieces with a dash of theater magic.

“The music has a cinematic sweep to it,” they said, “which was a huge challenge and a lot of work, but really exciting, too.”

This collaboration with the university has been beneficial for Chary and Gwinn too, who have loved working with Millikin SOTAD students.

“I don’t know if I can speak highly enough about the BFA students at Millikin and their ability to render the music quickly and accurately. That kind of skill level and talent and artistry is pretty rare in the professional world, much less the academic world,” Gwinn said.

Audiences are sure to find as much to love about “Red River” as the cast, crew, and writers. The show offers a unique viewing experience in so many ways. Though the plot is complex, Phillips encourages audiences not to worry too much, as everything makes sense in the end.

“Prepare to go on the journey with the characters,” she said.

The show has plenty of magic, adventure, and comedy to entertain audiences, but it’s also deeply emotional.

“It’s fundamentally a show about how love is a very transcendental force, in a lot of different forms,” Bryson said. “It’s just a very beautiful story that’s going to get you right in the heart, but make you laugh along the way.”

“The Spell of Red River” is running Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. at Virginia Rogers Theatre in the Center for Theater and Dance. Students can get free tickets at the CTD box office from 5:30-6:30. You can also purchase tickets online at the Kirkland website here.



Leave a Comment
About the Contributor
Sophie Nicholson
Sophie Nicholson, Copyeditor

Comments (0)

All The Decaturian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *