Challenge Aspen campers back on stage with “The Greatest Showman” this week

Nik Abowitz, front, rehearses Tuesday, July 19, 2022 for Challenge Aspen’s Friday screening of ‘The Greatest Showman’ at the Arts Campus in Willits.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

A celebratory number of ‘The Greatest Showman’ got nearly three dozen people moving inside the Arts Campus theater in Willits on Wednesday, around the middle of a week of rehearsals for the Challenge Aspen production of the comedy circus-based music.

The show deceives the value of community and inclusion by telling the story (loosely interpreted) of entertainer PT Barnum and the start of his circus business.

Organizers see it as a particularly fitting production for participants in Challenge Aspen’s long-running Magic of Music and Dance Camp, part of the nonprofit’s year-round recreational, educational, and cultural (REC) programming for kids. People with Disabilities. The camp concludes with a public performance at noon Friday at TACAW in Basalt.

“It’s a message that I think they can all relate to, ‘come one, come all’ and they come together every year for this week of camp,” REC program manager Callie Dickson said during the interview. a rehearsal lunch break on Wednesday.

“In ‘The Greatest Showman,’ there are honestly a lot of people with disabilities and people who don’t have a place, and then they all come together and make this awesome show,” Dickson added. “And I think a lot of these guys really resonate with that.”

It’s also a message that Challenge Aspen is trying to spread in its own circles and beyond, according to REC program director Deb Sullivan, who joined Dickson and other Challenge Aspen staff and participants under a tent to lunch Wednesday.

“The sense of community and inclusion — those are like my themes for the week, I’m really trying to push that,” Sullivan said at lunch.

For many attendees, this wasn’t the first time they’d rehearsed “The Greatest Showman.” And it’s not just because the camp was already halfway there.

Challenge Aspen was also planning to produce the musical last year at TACAW around the same time; the team made it through Wednesday before a positive case of COVID-19 halted production in 2021. And the year before, the virus ended music and dance camp before even as it begins; organizers had already begun planning that year’s production in the spring when the pandemic hit.

This year, organizers are hoping “the third time will be the one,” Sullivan said. Sullivan said the theater can hold about 150 spectators for the Friday show, which is directed by Micha Shoepe and features costumes by Ashley Ryan.

The show is free and open to the public, with donations accepted at the door; Free popcorn and cotton candy — part of the circus premise of “The Greatest Showman” — will also be available.

But this isn’t the first iteration of Challenge Aspen’s music and dance camp, according to Sullivan and Dickson.

The Snowmass Village-based nonprofit has offered performing arts programs since its founding in 1995, and the music and dance camp is a “flagship program” for the nonprofit, a said Dickson.

The 19 attendees at this year’s camp include first-timers and others entering their 25th year at camp; the cast list includes local Challenge Aspen regulars as well as visitors.

There are also 15 volunteers on stage with the participants, according to Challenge Aspen volunteer program manager Erin Loftus. Unlike winter programs that primarily involve Roaring Fork Valley residents and secondary homeowners on the volunteer roster, the music and dance camp also draws volunteers from across the country, Loftus said during lunch break Wednesday.

“It’s unique in the sense that people will book their vacation time, just for a week (of camp),” she said.

Director Shoepe is one of the (semi-) local newcomers to the team this year. He was to co-direct the show last year and is at the helm solo this year; the opportunity has been a “magical fit” that combines his experience in musical theater performance and working with people with intellectual disabilities, he said of joining the Challenge Aspen team away Wednesday afternoon.

Shoepe describes this week’s experience as “wonderful madness”. The work is “absolutely energizing and exhausting at the same time”, both “very intense” and “so rewarding”, he said.

Through numerous tweaks — and subsequent readjustments — Shoepe is confident the performers will take the stage Friday with “all the passion and heart we have.”

“It will never be perfect, but it will always be joyful,” Shoepe said.

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