WWhen it comes to American tall tales, passed down orally for generations, the telling has always been as much a part of the story as the content itself. The characters in them are larger than life and the details are stretched beyond the point of being believable.
And yet they live in our collective memories and delight us from childhood to adulthood, which is why Richard Gremel and David Ragland have teamed up again to bring an original musical to Live Theater Workshop’s children’s theatre.
From Friday, July 15 through Sunday, July 31, Tall Tales: Legends of America has five storytellers re-enacting the stories of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry.
It uses singing, puppetry, shadow work and performing set pieces and props to recreate the magic of these traditional American stories.
“The idea was to really help uncover an audience that might be unfamiliar with some of the myths and folklore surrounding American history,” said Ragland, who has been creating plays and musicals with Gremel for 15 years.
“He loved the idea of rearranging some of America’s folk songs to fit and then mixing in some originals.”
The five actors move in and out of each other’s stories, sometimes telling, sometimes taking center stage. Gremel said he wanted to focus on the idea of storytelling and how we tell stories to each other.
“We hear stories when we were kids, we hear them at school, we tell stories to other people,” Gremel said. “These stories of these characters have been passed down through the years; They had different renditions. They were all told in different ways.”
When Gremel started writing this musical, he looked up as many American fairy tales and folklores as he could before settling on the three. Ultimately, he chose this trio because the trifecta of stories had morals to teach.
John Henry taught that you set your goals high and look to the future while trying to achieve your dreams. Paul Bunyan’s moral is that you should always lend a helping hand and help someone you see in need. Being kind to others was important to Pecos Bill.
“That moral kind of shaped the rest of the play,” Gremel said. “Children can benefit a lot from those morals, but I also think if we have adults in the audience, they’ll also benefit a lot from a reminder of those morals and what they can take away from these stories that they’ve heard in their past.” That kind of morality still rings true today.”
Ragland said an overarching goal of the show is to inspire young people to be the best version of themselves.
“One of the overarching themes is that you can tell your own story and also be a legend,” Ragland said. “The song’s theme song is called ‘You Can Be A Legend Too’. It’s a play to empower our children and young people – that they really can make anything happen if they put their mind to it.”
Much of the set is minimal to keep focus on the story. Gremel and Ragland both said they make the most of the story’s theatrics to make it visually appealing and interesting.
Paul Bunyan, for example, carries around a puppet of his blue ox. The tornado that Pecos Bill lassoes consists of a swirling tube of fabric. When Paul Bunyan cuts redwoods, there is a ladder representing the tree.
“The presentation will be fresh and will also surprise audiences who expect to see something more traditional,” Ragland said.
“We have a lot of fun visuals, we have shadow puppetry, we use props in a way that we wouldn’t normally use to create these characters, and the costumes are a lot of fun,” Gremel said. “It’s just going to be a great experience to watch and see.”
The cast consists of Tyler Gastelum (Paul Bunyan, ensemble), Rafael Acuna (Pecos Bill, ensemble), Gianbari Bebora Deebom (John Henry, ensemble), Brian McElroy (ensemble) and Amaya Ravenell (ensemble).
Gremel said that although they did readings during the development of this show, he couldn’t have imagined what it would be like once the actors started bringing it to life.
“Our only actor playing Paul Bunyan really turned him into this gentle teddy bear,” said Gremel. “In that moment he formed a strong bond with that ox. Even when you see a puppet on stage, it just feels so real.”
He also has high praise for Deebom, saying that she “does an amazing job of bringing real heart to the John Henry story”.
Ragland said she manages to capture not only the Henry character, but the other unnamed characters she plays as well.
“If she’s playing John Henry, you’ll see how she uses her lower registers and she’ll have a pretty stoic attitude.”
said Ragland. “Then when she’s in one of her other roles, she’ll be more playful and have traditional Western accents.”
All actors, he says, are good character actors with strong singing voices.
Gremel enjoyed watching the sophisticated variety of physicality each actor brings to their roles. He credits them with bringing a lot of ideas to the show on how to make things work.
“I told the actors at the beginning, if you have an idea, bring it up, because this is really about us telling stories and using what we have,” Gremel said. “It was really a great collaboration.”
Because the stories are folk tales, Gremel wanted the music to capture the sound of classic folk music or bluegrass. A former member of the Tucson Boys Chorus, he said he was also drawn to old country western songs. They were genres that he felt suited this show well. He found some traditional songs like “A Lumbering” that went well with the show. Other popular songs include “Home on the Range” and “Get Along Little Doggies”. There are also new songs.
“If you didn’t know any of the traditional songs, it would be hard to guess which is traditional and which is original,” Gremel said. “David just did such a great job of making everything sound like it would all fit together.”
Ragland hopes people of all ages will come to see the show.
“It’s a unique presentation built around some of the stories and folklore you grew up with, but these are new recordings,” Ragland said. “The marriage of music and dialogue really elevates the overall experience.”