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December 15, 2018

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Linking Vegas, Idaho and ‘Idaho!’ with a gem of a road trip

Idaho! The Comedy Musical

John Katsilometes

“Idaho! The Comedy Musical” writing partners Buddy Sheffield and Keith Thompson are shown in September 2015 at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot.

‘Idaho! The Comedy Musical’ Dress Rehearsal

A rehearsal for Idaho! The Comedy Musical at the Smith Center on June 16, 2016. Launch slideshow »

'Idaho!' Co-writers Visit Idaho

Buddy Sheffield, co-writer of the musical Launch slideshow »

Not to speak for an entire state, especially in which I have not resided since age 12, but I feel a little trepidation from Idaho about the upcoming production of “Idaho! The Comedy Musical” at the Smith Center.

That trepidation is summarized succinctly: “Are they making fun of us?”

No. They are making fun with us.

The full-o’-tater spoof on Gem Staters opens tonight for previews at Reynolds Hall, with the gala opening set for Saturday night. This particular project has held a special interest for me ever since such numbers as “The Boys are Never Put Out” were performed a decade ago at the original Composers Showcase of Las Vegas at Suede restaurant. In an event I recite often, the great Vita Corimbi of “Menopause The Musical” performed the song, and afterward I told my family that a musical called “Idaho!” was actually being developed in Las Vegas.

The response, initially, was, “You’re kidding.” As the years passed and the musical took shape, it was … well, see above.

The musical harks back to an even earlier period than the Showcase, when co-writers Buddy Sheffield (known as a top TV and theater writer who worked on the Fox series “In Living Color”) and Keith Thompson (music director of “Jersey Boys”) began working on the musical about 15 years ago. The first reading of the “Idaho!” was in 2005 at UNLV’s Paul Harris Theatre. The two continued to shape the show until a full script and set of 29 songs — snippets and reprises induced — had been conceived and finished last year.

Examples of the duo’s deep-fried and supersized frivolity: character names Cassie Purdy (Jessica Fontana), Jed Strunk (Paul Vogt), Whip Masters (Nathaniel Hackmann), Uncle Fate (Jay Rogers) and Mavis White Eagle (Carmen Ruby Floyd). A lyric sample: “Life can be such a ball if you just grow a pair,” and, “All the sheep are takin’ cover just in case all the gals are too quick!”

Mel Brooks meets “Oklahoma!” is the point and premise. Sheffield’s idea was not to spoof Idaho itself, but to parody the concept of theatrical convention. But it didn’t hurt to match some of the references in Idaho with “Idaho!,” and he routinely reminded those who asked him about the musical, “Idaho is not the butt of the joke.” For Sheffield, Idaho is just a handy setting, and an easier rhyme than “Wyoming. “But as we learned as the musical’s date and creative lineup were announced, none of those bringing “Idaho!” to the stage had spent time in the state.

Whimsically, last September we took a trip to the state. Joining were Sheffield and Thompson; Smith Center President Myron Martin and Chief Operating Officer Paul Beard; set designer Andy Walmsley; director Matt Lenz; and choreographer Michele Lynch.

The visit included a stop at a Boise brewpub, where my mom, Kathleen Sanna, represented the city’s unofficial welcoming committee with T-shirts and little “Idaho Potato” lapel pins. She managed to get into a back-and-forth with Thompson about Idaho wine, as Thompson asked skeptically about just how good a wine from Idaho could be, reminding of Steve Martin’s line as “The Insolent Waiter” in “The Muppet Movie,” when he laughably offered, “Sparkling Muscatel, one of the finest wines of Idaho.”

Thompson had been asking about the wines of Idaho, saying. “I am a really serious wine connoisseur,” and Mom answered, “Allow me to defend my state, we have some really good wine here.” She promised to ship a couple of bottles of Idaho wine to Thompson, who grinned at the thought and said, “I would love that.”

Our trip, in a Cadillac SUV doubling as our covered wagon, wound through the Idaho State Capitol, where we gathered around the unoccupied desk of Gov. Butch Otter for a quick photo. We ventured to Idaho City, about an hour’s drive from Boise Airport, ducking into old buildings made by carpenters with rudimentary tools more than a century ago.

Requisitely, we visited the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, checking out the antique tools used to plant and harvest potatoes, and as Sheffield learned, the french fries he’d been eating at the McDonald’s while growing up in Mississippi and his current home in North Carolina were indeed grown in Idaho.

We met up with my father at the Lava Hot Springs Inn, at the entrance of the little resort town of the same name that is about a two-hour drive north of Salt Lake City off the beaten path of I-15. Dad owns the B&B, which is originally the Lava Hot Springs Hospital. The medical facility was built in 1926 and might or might not be haunted (Walmsley seems to believe it really is haunted, as I am not sure he slept the night we were there).

We loped across the street to the South Bannock Museum where much of the medical equipment from the original Lava Hot Springs Hospital was on display, sharing space among such aged artifacts as period gowns and suits, tattered topographical maps of the region, musical instruments, and athletic gear from the long-ago-defunct Lava High School.

With some serious goading, Thompson took to a turn-of-the-century (the 1800s-1900s) melodeon and played a bit of, “Heck It’s a Heck of a Day” from “Idaho!,” which serves as the first showcase of the musical in the Gem State.

Later, the entire group took to the inn’s main hot bath and spent so much time in the water I feared we’d all coming out wrinkled like a bunch of over-boiled taters. As Martin said, “Well, we just had our first full production meeting in the hot baths!”

A final visit to the famous (at least, regionally so) Tiede family farm near American Falls, where nearly 1,000 acres are dedicated to Ranger and Burbank potatoes. Thousands upon thousands rolled off conveyor belts and filled the giant potato cellars, a process largely unchanged since the Tiede family began farming just after 1900, when “Idaho!” is set.

The learning process included education about the people who immigrated to Idaho, a mix of Basque ranchers, German and Dutch immigrants, many Mormons (especially in the southern part of the state) Chinese gold miners, merchants and farmers. The state is far more diverse than one would imagine.

In an essay he wrote about the visit, Sheffield said, “Essentially, everywhere we went we met people, warm and welcoming people, who seemed genuinely interested in us and what we were about.” Idaho is indeed a meat-and-potato place, in every which way, and two of those warm people were my parents, who are attending the premiere of the musical on Saturday night as guests of Martin and the Smith Center.

Expect us all to toast this reunion at the postshow “I-Da-Ho-Down” party at Symphony Park. And about that Idaho wine? Connoisseurs can know the two bottles shipped by Mom to Keith were a cabernet from Split Rail Winery, and a dry Viognier from Cinder, both in Garden City.

Soon after he received the bottles, Keith sent a note to Mom and me saying he was enjoying the cabernet while relaxing at home one night. “It’s actually good!” he remarked. So a connection has been forged between Vegas, Idaho and “Idaho!” Serve it up.

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