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From Aug. 21 to Sept. 14, Ride Again Productions will present a new musical called Killer Diller in Studio Six of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Adapted, written, and directed by Chapel Hill, NC actor/director/playwright Paul Ferguson (Good Ol' Girls and The Devil's Dream), Killer Diller is based on a comic novel by Clyde Edgerton (Raney, Walking Across Egypt, The Floatplane Notebooks, Redeye, Where Trouble Sleeps, and the soon-to-be-released Lunch at the Piccadilly).
Several of Edgerton's novels have been adapted for the stage and/or the silver screen. "Raney, Walking Across Egypt, and The Floatplane Notebooks have been adapted to stage," says Edgerton. "Raney and Walking Across Egypt have been made into films, with Walking Across Egypt, starring Ellen Burstyn, available at Blockbuster. Killer Diller has been filmed with Fred Willard, J. Michael Higgins, and Lucas Black, and is currently in post-production."
Paul Ferguson's brand-new two-act musical based on Killer Diller was initially workshopped in a one-hour version during the 2002 North Carolina Literary Festival. The latest-and-greatest version of Killer Diller will feature more than a dozen traditional blues and gospel and new songs written by Clyde Edgerton, Turner Walston, and Billy McCormick and performed by a quintet — keyboards, bass (stand-up and electric), guitars, dobro, and drums — led by songwriter Billy McCormick and including songwriter Turner Walston on guitar. Glenn Mehrbach will serve as the show's vocal director and arranger.
Critically acclaimed North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton drew on personal experience when writing Killer Diller. "In 1987, when I moved into an old house in Durham," says Edgerton, "I found out that across the street slightly to the right was a diet house. Straight across was an empty lot. Slightly to the right was a half-way house. Two houses down on the same side of the street was a Baptist Church.
"The setting was too rich not to at least start a novel and see where it went," says Edgerton. "I pulled a character, Wesley Benfield (played in the musical by John McGrew), from an earlier novel, Walking Across Egypt, and stuck him in the half-way house. Made up a character named Phoebe (played by SaRAH! Kocz), who is a resident of the diet house, and with whom Wesley falls in love. Then I turned the Baptist Church into a Baptist college and gave both main characters reason to be connected somehow to the college.
"In real life," Edgerton confesses, "I called the police to find out about the half-way house. What kind of half-way house was it. The police said not to worry — they got more complaints about the diet house than about the half-way house."
In Killer Diller, Edgerton says, Walking Across Egypt's former juvenile-delinquent hero "Wesley Benfield finds himself in a half-way house and in love with an overweight woman from a diet house. He is attempting to hold together a gospel band directed by a religious college administrator while discovering that the band has possibilities as a blues hand. His carnal desire for his girlfriend, and his love of the blues appear to cloud his hopes for life as a Christian and for his relationship with an elderly mentor, Mattie Riggsbee (played by Sharlene Thomas)."
Edgerton emphasizes that Killer Diller is not a message musical. "The purpose is to tell a story," Edgerton says, "and if someone gets a message that they believe is important, helpful, or wise, that's fine with me."
For Clyde Edgerton, Killer Diller is about "the main character's obsession with a National Steel Dobro and his love of blues music; the satire of some modern academic and religious fundamentalist thinking and action; [and] the like/dislike aspect of members of two ethnic groups working together for one goal."
Reading Killer Diller made an indelible impression on Paul Ferguson. "I read Killer Diller when it was published in 1991," Ferguson recalls. "During that first reading — and through many, many more — I loved the characters, the themes, the orality of the language, the humor, the subversiveness, and the number of sacred cows that were slaughtered. And the novel has always been a visual experience for me; reading it creates an 'inner movie' in my mind — that, of course, invites staging."
What he likes best about the story, Ferguson says, is that "the characters learn to love one another and find their true paths as bluesmen — and that they discover music (art); and break down barriers to love, race, understanding, and enjoying food."
How has this play expanded and evolved since the original workshop production? "Well, it's longer," Ferguson quips. "Just kidding — but that's true, too."
Clyde Edgerton says, "The length [of the script] has doubled, and also I know Paul has thought deeply and at length about thematic considerations. This is his work, not mine, and on stage, the story must become different than the story in the novel. I appreciate Paul's creative approach and his simultaneous attempts and desire to stay 'true' to the novel."
Ferguson adds, "Over the past two years, [Killer Diller has] developed from workshops of 15 minutes and one hour (at the North Carolina Literary Festival) to a two-hour play with 15 songs," Ferguson explains. "We have learned which stories in the novel we can tell and which ones we can't — although letting go of anything has been like losing good friends. Since we've been fortunate enough throughout the play's development to have regular input from Clyde and from workshop audiences filled with Southern writers, audience response has influenced the adaptation."
Ferguson adds, "The draft that will be played onstage is the 10th in the two-year development period. Some portions of each script are new, some have been cut, some substantially rewritten, and some are as they were on day one."
For those who haven't read the novel, Ferguson briefly outlines the plot and characters: "Wesley Benfield, a former juvenile delinquent and current halfway house resident, is trying to decide whether he should be a preacher or a bluesman. He is also falling madly in love with Phoebe Trent, a resident at a Christian weight-loss center down the street. His friendship with his African-American roommate Ben Ashley (C. Delton Streeter) and Ben's girlfriend Shanita (Ericka Ross) is developing as they write blues songs together — and plan their escape to Myrtle Beach — the 'Big Time.' Their band, 'The Noble Defenders of the Word,' includes that hoochie lead singer, Sherri Gold (Kimberly Wood) and their partly autistic friend Vernon (Vince Eisenson), who believes he's a car.
"As Wesley struggles to escape the strict supervision of Ted and Ned Sears (Carroll Credle and Wade F. Dansby 3), brothers who run the BOTA (Back On Track Again) halfway house," Ferguson says, "he accepts the gentler guidance of Mattie Riggsbee, the older lady who has — against her better judgment — semi-adopted him."
Ferguson adds, "The major challenge in staging this play is to capture 'the spirit of the story' of Clyde's novel. This is a transformational and tricky process that always does damage to the richness of a fine novel as you reduce it to the 'two hour traffic' of the stage. But it can be done if you're collaborating with a creative team as talented as the one I'm lucky enough to have: songwriters Clyde Edgerton, Turner Walston, and Billy McCormick, whose songs are as hot as an August afternoon and as sweet as fresh watermelon.
"The songs and music also help to compress the novel's multiple stories and evoke the ambience of its constantly shifting locations," claims Ferguson. "Our designers (set by Wade Dansby, lighting by Steve Dubay, sound by David Kemp English, costumes by Gabrieal Griego) created a non-literal stage world for the characters to inhabit, so we can try to evoke many different places — including the 'interior landscape' of Wesley's quite... ah... vivid musical and sexual fantasies."
Paul Ferguson says, "I am more grateful than I can say for the gift of Clyde Edgerton's novel — and for his guidance while adapting it. Killer Diller makes its points by moving directly into your heart — and then lodging in your head. And that's my favorite path. Finally, I want to express my lasting gratitude to my wonderful producer, protector, and long-time partner in rebellion, Andrea Powell Ferguson. It is people with her business savvy, wisdom, sense of humor, and scary determination who enable projects like Killer Diller to come into the world."
Ride Again Productions presents Killer Diller Thursday-Friday, Aug. 21-22 and 28-29 and Sept. 4-5 and 11-12, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 23 and 30 and Sept. 6 and 13, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 31 and Sept. 7 and 14, at 3 p.m. in Studio Six of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $15 Friday and Saturday evening and $12 Thursdays evening and Saturday and Sunday matinees, except $10 students with ID and $5 student-rush tickets available 10 minutes before each performance. 866/463-8659 (High Sierra Tickets). Ride Again Productions: http://www.rideagain.org/. Clyde Edgerton: http://www.clydeedgerton.com/ [inactive 12/03].