The musical comedy opening tonight at Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul should have played its last performance in 2017.
Instead, writer/composer Keith Hovis spent the past 2 ½ years adding and dumping songs, scenes and characters, and now hopes that "Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant" has become the show it was meant to be.
"We made some choices to make the central message — about community and home and finding your way when you've hit a wall — come through," said Hovis, 32, who was still tinkering last month.
"Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant" reunites four friends 20 years after a tragedy during a competition in the small Minnesota town where they grew up. A macabre death during a tap dance routine resulted in the pageant's cancellation. Now, facing disappointments in their adult lives, they've decided to restage it to figure out who would have won. The pageant is the show's second act, also functioning as a metaphor for reconciling who we are at 30 with who we thought we'd be.
The show has been through 14 drafts since a one-hour version debuted at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, with the actors who'll do it at Park Square: Zach Garcia, Kelly Houlehan, Ryan London Levin and Leslie Vincent.
They thought they were done with the show, but the following timeline reveals that it wasn't done with them:
Hovis, who had written a couple of Fringe Festival shows and composed for Theater Mu, needed a Fringe idea.
"I had a completely different idea [a satire of horror movies] that I got four actors to work on, and it wasn't happening," said the Minneapolis musician, who found himself turning 30 and grappling with expectations about where he was "supposed" to be at that age.
"I grew up in Princeton, Minnesota, and I was thinking about that a lot, and this just took off," said Hovis, who also works as director of communications for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
When he learned he'd won a spot in the Fringe, things got real.
"I presented the idea to the actors, who are all good friends, and I let them know this wasn't exactly what they signed up for but if they trusted me, I'd do my best," Hovis said.
Vincent, who plays a "bitchy, snarky" contestant, remembers getting an e-mail about the pageant idea: "I was like, 'Yeah. Of course. It's Keith. I'll do it.' "
The first draft came easily and, with a second draft complete, rehearsals began.
The actors helped define the piece.
"I want actors who are able to say, 'You have too many words in that phrase' or 'The key is too high.' Not everyone can look at a new piece of music and know why it's not working, but I lucked into that," Hovis said.
That luck would guide him over the next two years.
Aug. 3-13, 2017
Performances at the Fringe were a hit with audiences, critics and one vital supporter.
"I'm friends with Leslie, so I went to see her show," said Laura Leffler, Park Square's associate artistic director. "You know what the magic of a really good Fringe show is like, when the audience is with you and there's this electricity that happens? This was definitely one of those."
Right away, she envisioned it as a full-length musical.
"I started thinking, 'Hmmm, there's more to this,' " Leffler recalled.
Late August 2017
"I was working on season planning with [Park Square co-founder] Richard Cook and he was interested in finding shows that would appeal to a younger audience, so I said, 'Hey, I saw this thing at the Fringe. It was great. Maybe?' And Richard said, 'Bring 'em in,' " Leffler said.
Hovis said, "About three weeks after the Fringe, I got the call."
Hovis and the cast performed the show for Park Square administrators.
"I thought, 'Obviously, this is never going to happen, but I'm thrilled Park Square even considered doing this,' " Vincent said.
But Park Square was more than considering it, said Leffler, who wound up signing on to direct:
"People were dying at the pitch, laughing so hard they were crying.
"Having Richard witness that was great because he said: 'I'm a 70-year-old person and this is not my show,' but he could see how much it resonated with staff members in their 20s and 30s."
Dec. 15, 2017
Leffler e-mailed Hovis that the show made Park Square's 2018-19 season, news he shared with Vincent.
"I cried," Vincent said. "Because it's our heart. Our friendship is in it and this joy and laughter, and for someone to say, 'Hey, I'd like to see more of that,' what an honor!"
Feb. 14, 2018
Park Square's public announcement meant that Hovis needed a second act.
"They gave me the early half of 2018 to get stuff down on paper, write songs, get ready for a workshop," he said. The finished show has about 20 songs, but almost that many have been cut.
Over those months, Hovis said, he experimented with many directions that didn't feel right, searching for the one that would.
A first workshop performance sent Hovis back to his desk to refine the piece, since viewers found it confusing to have the actors play multiple characters.
According to Vincent, one of the most evident changes is the depth of characterization.
"There's a lot more heart now," she said. "One thing Keith wanted to address was diversity in a small town. My character is queer and I'm also queer, and Zach is Mexican. His character, Travis, has always been Mexican, but there's more now about what that would mean."
October 2018-January 2019
Some elements didn't work in the second workshop, including townspeople who appeared throughout the show, so Leffler suggested a "drastic" overhaul. Also 86'd? The tap dancer's ghost, who came back to haunt her schoolmates, and five songs.
With an 11th draft completed, Hovis scored the show.
"This is the first time I've given a full score to the music director and said, 'I'm trusting you to bring this to life.' It's been interesting to watch other people interpret it," he said.
A reading took place, with different actors, to see how the material stood up on its own. Hovis said a key was balancing satire with affection.
"I resonate with the character of Val [Vincent's role] because I also grew up gay in a small town, and I know we all have our conflicts about our hometowns," Hovis said. "I hope the show leaves the audience with the idea that, in the midst of trying to find yourself, one thing you have on your side is your community."
May 14, 2019
Rehearsals began, including new scenes and half of a new song.
"On the first day, we had a design presentation and they showed us the set and our costume boards and talked us through the special effects. I was like, 'Wow. People I have never met have spent a lot of time thinking about this world and these characters,' " said Vincent, whose mind drifted back to the Fringe costumes, which were ordered from Amazon or made by friends.
Late May 2019
A "major" rewrite altered the ending of the first act and required a new song.
June 21, 2019
It's finally opening night, and Hovis is philosophical.
"You could look at the musicals or plays that have been around a long time and I'm sure someone could still say, 'That could have been tweaked,' " Hovis said. "But I think there's a time to step back and say, 'I'm proud of what I made and it's time for the audience to respond.' I hope they do."