Blue Ridge Adaptation of Heidi Closes Season at Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre

BRDT at Sale TheatreClassic Novel Transported to Virginia in New Musical for Family Audiences   

By Tina L. Hanlon


The original version of this article appeared as a news release on the Ferrum College web site on July 29, and in the Franklin News-Post [Rocky Mount, VA], Aug. 4, 2011
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Production photos in Ferrum College Flickr album

Heidi poster mountain picture
When a plucky orphan girl is left abruptly with a reclusive grandfather in a mountain cabin, she quickly wins the affections of the gruff old man, the goatherd Peter, and their goats and Peter's old Granny. Then a heartless aunt drags her away again to live with a rich girl confined to a wheelchair in a mansion, where city life and severe homesickness cause both comical and heart-rending complications for Heidi.

Readers everywhere associate this story, from Johanna Spyri’s classic novel Heidi, with Switzerland's spectacular mountain landscapes. Remaining popular throughout the world since it was published in Switzerland in 1880, in English in 1884, and in dozens of languages since then, Switzerland's best-selling novel has been adapted in many theatrical and film productions. This summer Heidi moved to a Virginia mountaintop, as the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre closed its 2011 season with five performances of an innovative new adaptation by playwright R. Rex Stephenson and music director Emily Rose Tucker.

While Stephenson has adapted many classic novels in the past, this is the first one he transported to a different part of the world. Spyri's novel has much in common with countless real-life and fictional stories of Appalachian culture: celebration of breathtaking mountain landscapes, devotion to family and traditional folkways, struggles with hardship for those living off the land in rugged mountain homes, conflicting views on the need for education in families without easy access to school, culture shock and homesickness when circumstances require relocation to cities. Conflicts arise among outsiders and preachers and reclusive rural characters. Some mountain farms in Virginia also have goats, and Heidi's love for the goats that provide food and friendship in her mountain home is a memorable feature of the novel. In their musical adaptation Tucker and Stephenson used Appalachian arrangements of American children's songs and spirituals along with their own new songs to enhance the story's blend of lively and sentimental themes.

Stephenson, who also directed the play, added an intriguing twist to the plot by linking Heidi's lack of freedom and unhappiness in the city with the memories of former slaves in post-Civil-War Virginia. In the Swiss novel Heidi's aunt takes her from her grandfather's mountain home to live with a rich family in Frankfurt, while the Blue Ridge Heidi is tricked into staying with the Sesemanns in Richmond, a few decades after it was the capital of the Confederacy. Ashlee Heyward, a Ferrum College student with an incredible singing voice, played the maid Jane (replacing the "scornful" maid Tinette in the novel); she sympathizes with Heidi and sings one poignant and one rousing spiritual that she learned from her mother. When Heidi’s sleepwalking and homesickness are discovered, Clara's father and doctor ask Jane to stay in Heidi’s room. At the end of Act 1, when Heidi doesn’t know that she'll be sent home in the morning and despairs of ever seeing the mountains again, Jane tells her about hoping for freedom before slavery was ended. When Jane got discouraged, her mother sang "Steal Away," Heidi sleeps while Miss Rottenmeier lectureswhich includes the words "steal away home" and "I ain’t got long to stay here." Since Heidi's need for freedom is a major theme of the novel, this intertextual addition to the story deepens both the novel's themes and the cultural implications of setting Heidi in Virginia.

(At left, Heidi falls asleep while Miss Rottenmeier lectures about etiquette.)

Later, when Clara is discouraged about learning to walk, Jane leads the two children and another servant in singing "Sit Down Sister." The vigorous repetition of "sit down" and "I can't sit down" provides exuberant encouragement to the sweet girl who gains strength in the mountain air when she visits Heidi in Act 2. Audiences laughed at the lines "Who's that yonder dressed in black? / Must be the hypocrites a turnin' back," since the rest of the song is so hopeful; in the story, the village hypocrites don't keep Heidi's grandfather, Uncle Buck, down and the domineering Aunt Deidra and Miss Rottenmeier don't succeed in spoiling the children's lives. In several comical and heartwarming scenes, Jane's easy friendship with the children and butler Sebastian prevents the interracial theme from becoming heavy-handed. Sebastian persuades Jane to enjoy some sherry secretly when ordered to stay up watching for a ghost and they fall asleep leaning on each other. Back in the Blue Ridge Heidi introduces Jane as a friend "who used to be not free, but now she is!" When Miss Rottenmeier sings "I Hate that Child" after Heidi seems to invade her domain in Richmond, Jane and Sebastian make faces behind her back while chiming in to turn her own words against her. With only one changed pronoun shifting the song's point of view from Miss Rottenmeier's resentment of Heidi to the servants' distrust of her, the song becomes a clever outpouring of double meanings.

Peter with his mother, Granny, Heidi and Jane in dress rehearsalStephenson also made the story Appalachian by weaving comments about the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains throughout the dialogue and song lyrics, and by changing the book that Clara's Grandmamma shows to Heidi into a book of Blue Ridge folktales. Heidi realizes the stories in it are like the Jack Tales Peter's Granny has told her and her familiarity with them motivates her to learn to read. The anachronism of depicting a book of published Appalachian folktales in the late nineteenth century is overshadowed by the emotional appeal of connecting the oral traditions of the mountains with book learning in the city, strengthening the links between the rural and urban grandmothers who are both devout and kind, the best surrogate mothers that Heidi has. It is a stretch in the novel, after all, when Grandmamma's Bible storybook has illustrations of mountains that remind Heidi of Swiss Alps, while the gift of a book about the Blue Ridge in the play reinforces the reality that only Miss Rottenmeier has stereotypical prejudices and thinks of the mountains as "uncivilized" territory.

(At right, Peter with his mother, Granny, Heidi and Jane)

The mention of Jack Tales in the play resonates with young actors and audience members who know the tales so well from Stephenson’s adaptations, which have been performed all around this region and beyond by the Jack Tale Players for over thirty-five years. In Act 2 Heidi unpacks the folktale book and a book of Bible stories Grandmamma gave her, so she has the latter to read the Prodigal Son story to Grandfather as Heidi does in the novel. Linnea Hendricksen's 1991 essay about rereading Heidi as an adult links "the folklore of wishing" with Grandmamma’s Bible stories and teachings about prayer, about seeking the benefits of not always getting exactly what we wished for (144).

Like many good novels, plays, and films in which isolated and mistreated heroes seek their place in the world, travel away from home on adventures, and return home with treasures that are both material and psychological or spiritual, this adaptation builds on the patterns of old folktales. "Grand Journey" TrioThe dialogue contains appealing repetitions of phrases such as Grandfather's "Makes no difference to me," which seems gruff at first but quite indulgent by the time Clara visits his home and asks to sleep in Heidi's loft. The main characters include three children with no siblings and each has a parent or grandparent with no spouse. Heidi's best friend Peter acts out his jealousy when Clara visits the mountains, like the resentment of some siblings and friends in old fables and folktales that dramatize archetypal sibling rivalry. Aunt Deidra and Miss Rottenmeier are like self-centered evil stepmothers who care nothing for the children's welfare (as Mike Trochim pointed out during the Saturday Seminar discussion), while the two grandmothers in the country and city are like wise and magic helpers in folktales. Heidi is a little like a Cinderella character when she acknowledges that Miss Rottenmeier would like her to sit in the corner and keep her mouth shut, even though she is a sweet child who is generous to everyone, while the pretentious woman treats her like an annoying "urchin" and "yokel," trying to rob her of her identity by calling her Adeline instead of Heidi. Granny, on the other hand, tells Heidi stories about her mother and father, helping her reclaim her identity and figure out "what's to become of me" (as Heidi sings in her first song).

The village has a group of three gossips and Heidi with her traveling companions Jane and Sebastian make a jolly group of three when they take her back home and sing "What a Grand Journey." Their rousing song about "we three all alone" who "travel through the Blue Ridge foothills," facing their fears so that Heidi can "be home at last" is inspiring and also hilarious when child and adult actors parade across theRachel as Heidistage backwards, waving and carrying trees and telegraph poles to give the illusion that the travelers sitting on a trunk are on a moving train. They carry with them treasures that are not lavish but will bring comfort and pleasure to humble mountain folk, and Clara sends more gifts later, including the important white rolls that Heidi tries to hoard in Richmond because she desperately wants to take soft rolls to Granny. At the end of the play, Granny's final comments about calling the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains home and her invitation to visit them on Buck Mountain are reminiscent of the conclusion in some Appalachian folktales.

Rachel K. Blankenship (pictured at right) played Heidi with irrepressible charm and spirit. Without elaborate sets or any real or imitation goats on stage, Heidi convinced the audience of her love for her grandfather, mountains, friends and the goats through her heartfelt words and music, her looks of longing, and affectionate gestures. The cast also included Emily Rose Tucker as Granny, Michael R. Trochim as Grandfather, Ruth Trochim as Clara, Richard Jordan Estose as Peter, Jody D. Brown as Grandmamma, and Bussy Gower as Aunt Deidra. Kayla Kennedy skillfully played the villain that the audience loves to despise, the ruthless Miss Rottenmeier who schemes to get rid of Heidi in the city and schemes even more deviously in Act 2, manipulating Grandfather and Heidi in a desperate attempt to keep her job after Clara no longer needs her. Everyone else in the Sesemann household 3 Gossipsloves Heidi, including Jane, Grandmamma, Sebastian (Nate Buursma) and Mr. Sesemann (Drew Rothaar), along with their friend Dr. Classen (Chris Wolfe).

Other cast members from the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre company, who had been energetically acting, singing, and playing a variety of instruments all summer, portrayed other mountain villagers. Mallory Stehle, Mary Allison, and Kenneth C. Barron III were hypocritical town gossips who made Heidi's grandfather, Uncle Buck, an outcast. (Three gossips are shown at left in dress rehearsal.) Abby Smith was Peter's mother Bridget, while Susanna Allen was the preacher's wife, Mrs. Shively. Allison and Barron also played teachers in amusing schoolroom scenes in which the children have fun coaxing them to depart from their strict routines. Village children were played by local youth, ages eight to sixteen, who auditioned for this family show: Emily M. Anderson, Maggie Blankenship, Haley Bowling, Nolen-Lynn Boyd. Talmidge Boyd, Dave Carter, Berhan Grimes-Whited, Tyler Grimes-Whited, Jordana Faith Hicks, Lydia Ruth Hicks, Kelsey Narmour, Caitlin Narmour, and Nellie Elizabeth Philpott.

Tyler Grimes-Whited (9), one of the youngest cast members, commented that at the audition, "We just played and sang some songs, and it was FUN!" He and the others learned in rehearsals that performing in professional theatre requires hard work and concentration, too. The full chorus of children participated in about half a dozen songs in different scenes, while some children also had brief singing or acting parts individually. At the preview performance, Tyler's mother, Lana Whited, thanked the professional actors for working so well with the children. Another audience member, Beth Shively, praised them for acting with the children and not over the children on stage.

Nellie McCaslin Endowment logoThe production, like other annual family plays, was underwritten by the Nellie McCaslin Endowment. McCaslin, a distinguished scholar and professor of educational theatre who visited Ferrum as consultant and actor over a number of years before her death in 2005, called Stephenson’s summer plays for families “a unique and highly successful example of intergenerational theatre.” She praised the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre for productions in which local and professional actors, young interns, teenagers and children work together.

Heidi has a strong focus on relationships between children and adults. Stephenson, who has three daughters and two grandchildren, says he got to like Heidi more the more he read the book, noting that "she is bright and caring and lives out her own goodness." She doesn’t stand up for herself when she fears hurting someone else but "she’s not a wimp," either. He added that the grandfather needs her and wants to keep the purity in her that he loves. He keeps giving her tests when she suddenly moves in with him and she passes them unconsciously, without trying, by loving everything she sees on the mountain instead of asking for something different. Stephenson also observed that the story "really moved to Appalachia a lot easier than I thought it would originally, without distorting the character. Children are children, whether they are in Virginia or Switzerland. They all have the same loves and hopes and desires."

Costumes by Kristina Stump, including several symbolic hats, enhanced the contrast between the colorful array of mountain people of all ages and the more elegantly dressed city-dwellers. Audiences enjoyed seeing stern Miss Rottenmeier appear in a long nightgown and frilled cap when she decided the house must be haunted and ordered servants to stay up watching for a ghost that was mysteriously opening the front door at night. Technical director Jeffery Dalton provided a mountain backdrop flanked by areas of the stage that represented Granny's house, where Granny sat during most of the play as cast dancing to "Three Dukes"narrator, and the homes of Grandfather and the Sesemanns.

I asked Stephenson how he felt about having to leave out so much of Heidi's experience in the high pastures with Peter and goats and beautifully detailed scenery, since The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre does not have the physical space or resources for elaborate sets or scene changes and a play of under two hours cannot include everything in a full-length novel. The playwright responded that movies can photograph lavish scenery but an adapter always has to make choices and he wanted to deal with the characters. Phyllis Bixler, who was unsatisfied with attempts to represent the garden's growth in film adaptations of The Secret Garden, observed while analyzing the Broadway musical The Secret Garden that gardening and a bird character can't really be depicted on stage, but they can be evoked in song. The wonderful original songs in Heidi, such as "I Have Named All the Stars," "Don't Cry My Dear Friend," and "What a Grand Journey," along with Granny's narration and Heidi's dialogue, eloquently express her rapturous devotion to her mountain home. With Granny in the role of narrator, there is meaningful interplay between the blind Granny’s perceptions, symbolic light images from the novel, and her conversations with Heidi and account of sights that Heidi describes to her.

Tucker also wrote beautiful music for a hymn text in the novel, "Today We Languish in Grief and Anguish," and a lively alphabet rhyme that Heidi leads the school in singing as Peter struggles to read. Earlier, when Mrs. Shively tries to get Heidi into school—while Grandfather resists the corrupting influence of society, Peter has convinced Heidi that reading is too hard, and Peter's family despairs over his lack of education—the round "Heidi Must Go to School" expresses the conflicting opinions of children and adults. The children's amusing singing games include the traditional "Three Dukes," "Pop Goes the Weasel," and "Shoo Fly." They are woven into the plot to celebrate Heidi's new friendships in her mountain home, her ability to entertain Clara and befuddle Clara's tutor, and her return to the mountains.

Other traditional songs arranged by Tucker for this production include "Careless Love" and "Home Sweet Home," for sentimental moments of forced departure and reunion. The harmony in "Careless Love" is heartbreaking as Granny begins with "Now I wish my eyes were dry," and then Peter and Bridget, several child and adult villagers, and finally Grandfather join in from their separate locations on stage after Aunt Deidra takes Heidi away. At the end, however, everyone in the play is united to sing "Home Sweet Home" except for the two villains, Deidra and Miss Rottenmeier. Musical interludes throughout the play between scenes weave the feelings associated with individual songs through the larger patterns of related events. In addition to Peter's fiddle-playing and occasional instrumental music by other cast members, the accompanists throughout the play were Susan Spataro and J. T. Spataro.

Since the language of the classic stories Stephenson dramatized in the past has been so important to him, I wondered how he would feel about adapting this translated text. He said that he had read Twain and Stevenson and Dickens so much since his own childhood that he not only used some of what they do say in the novel but he could hear how the characters would speak as he wrote his dialogue. Although his previous adaptations skillfully weave the language and rhythms of the original texts through each play, we wouldn't expect that with Heidi because American audiences know the novel through different translations—we are not attached to the author’s style in the same way that we are with Alcott, Dickens, or Twain. In fact, unlike Mary Lennox’s experience in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911), when the lonely orphan moves from India to Yorkshire, Spyri’s novel does not indicate whether dialect is an issue for Heidi as she adjusts to life up the mountain and then makes friends in Frankfurt. Heidi's frank manner of speaking and amusing faux pas dramatize the class differences when she stays in the city, but Spyri did not comment in the novel on her need to learn different dialects.

Stephenson worked with several translations of the novel, including an abridgement he did not like. He primarily used simple, straightforward language, not attempting to insert a lot of dialect into the script because he thought that would get in the way of the story moving forth. Rachel Blankenship, a native of Patrick County in the Virginia Bllibrary display photoue Ridge foothills, sounded just right as Heidi. The other actors were from all over the country, but they had been sounding Appalachian and singing traditional Appalachian music in dozens of performances of Appalachian folktales for at least a couple months, or a couple years or many years in some cases—and they do it beautifully with a variety of traditional instruments. Although Stephenson is from Indiana, more than thirty-five years of experience dramatizing Appalachian folktales here make him well qualified to change Heidi to an Appalachian girl. He incorporated so many small details and feelings from throughout the novel into this adaptation, even with the significant change in setting and the blending of phrases from different translations, that this play is more faithful to the novel than the best-known film adaptations, which exaggerate Grandfather's temper or add sensationalized scenes to the story.

Katherine Grimes, an associate professor of English at Ferrum College, led the Saturday Seminar on August 6 before the dinner and performance. She showed the audience an abridged version of the novel that she loved as a child, and a beautifully illustrated edition with paintings by Ruth Sanderson (see Sanderson's cover at right in library display by Tina Hanlon). Grimes is an expert on Southern literature who has written about motherless children in fiction. After presenting background on the author, playwright and composer, she engaged the audience, ranging from young members of the cast to senior citizens among the audience, in discussing themes and feelings that the novel and play share, with some preview of new elements introduced in this dramatic adaptation.

Local libraries and the Ferrum College Bookstore collaborated with the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre in a book promotion that gave children who read the novel Heidi a voucher for one free ticket to the play. Details are explained on the Ferrum College page "Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre Offers Free Tickets to Kids Who Read." Some local families started reading the novel last winter and thinking about how they envisioned the script and casting. Whether or not their ideas all made it into the ears of the playwright and the play, these children are engaging in more critical thinking about the characters and the connections between Heidi’s Switzerland and Appalachia as they continue to enjoy the pleasures of live theatre in their community. At the Saturday Seminar, Berhan Grimes-Whited (10), one of the cast members, contributed insightful comments about the themes of jealousy and friendship in the play.

Emily Rose Tucker
Johanna Spryi
R. Rex Stephenson
Emily Rose Tucker
Music Director
Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre
Composer, Granny in Heidi
Johanna Spyri
1827-1901
Author of Heidi
R. Rex Stephenson
Artistic Director
Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre
Adapter of Heidi

Heidi previewed at the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre on August 2 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees were August 3 and 4, with evening performances on August 5 and 6. A Saturday Seminar on August 6 at 6 p.m. provided an opportunity for conversation about the play.

A DVD recording from one of the performances is available from Cable Channel 12.

The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre is located on the campus of Ferrum College. A three-course buffet precedes matinees and Saturday night performances. Actors in the company serve the meal, which is suitable for both adults and children.

Call 540-365-4335 or visit the web site www.blueridgedinnertheatre.com for information.

Below: Rex Stephenson (in front shadows) directing the cast of Heidi. Granny and Heidi are standing forward in center, with Peter and his fiddle to their left across the gap. Miss Rottenmeier is at far left.

Rex Stephenson Directing "Heidi"


References

Bixler, Phyllis. "The Secret Garden 'Misread': The Broadway Musical as Creative Interpretation." Children’s Literature 22 (1994): 101-23.

Hendrickson, Linnea. "The Child Is Mother of the Woman: Heidi Revisited." The Image of the Child. Ed. Sylvia Patterson Iskander. Battle Creek, MI: Children's Literature Assn., 1991. 141-47.

McCaslin, Nellie. "The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre: A Recipe for Success." Stage of The Art. Winter 2002: 16-17. Full text at this link.

Spyri, Johanna. Heidi. Illus. Ruth Sanderson. New York: Ariel Books/Knopf, 1984.

Quotations from Rex Stephenson are from interviews on June 18 and July 26, 2011.

"Heidi in the Blue Ridge Mountains" is a paper presented by Tina L. Hanlon at the Children's Literature Association Conference, Hollins University, June 23, 2011. Parts of that paper have been added to this article.

"Heidi Adaptation Coming to Ferrum College This Week." News 7 Sunday Morning. WDBJ-7.com. 31 July 2011. Video and text. Short interview with Emily Rose Tucker and Jody D. Brown about upcoming BRDT musical by Stephenson and Tucker, with rehearsal photos of cast.

Photos of three gossips, Heidi sleeping at the table, and cast dancing by Jeffrey Dalton, and other dress rehearsal photos by Lana A. Whited, Aug. 2, 2011.

Many photos of this production, by Ken McCreedy, are available in the Ferrum College Flickr albums.

Photos of my Heidi display in Stanley Library, August 2011

Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre Web Site


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