Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
After a two-year delay caused by the pandemic, the Native musical production, “Distant Thunder,” will finally get its world premiere.
The Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma will open its 2022 season on March 23 with the musical, which originally had been slated as part of Lyric’s 2020 season.
It will be staged outdoors at the new First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City with a limited, one-week run, from March 23-27.
The story is written by director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett and her actor/writer son, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who is Amskapi Pikunni (Blackfeet), Black and Scandinavian and who plays Darrell in the show. The production features music and lyrics by Chris Wiseman and Shaun Taylor-Corbett, with additional music and lyrics from Robert Lindsey-Nassif and Michael Moricz.
"I am so looking forward to the prospect of helping de-marginalize the culture and contemporary issues of Native people,” Lynne Taylor-Corbett said. “We are honored to have this opportunity on the doorstep of 39 tribes."
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“Distant Thunder” was first developed by Native Voices at The Autry in Los Angeles in 2012, then received a lab development in 2013, a reading in 2015, and a fully-staged reading in 2018 with Amas Musical Theatre. Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented a concert reading in 2017 prior to the creative team partnering with Lyric Theatre for a full-scale production.
Much of the plot of “Distant Thunder” stems from a trip mother and son took to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, when Shaun was 15.
Clash of cultures
The story centers on a brash, young attorney who journeys back to his reservation home in Montana to broker a deal that will benefit his Blackfeet Nation tribe. He must face his painful past and his reclusive father, and come to terms with what it is to be Indigenous in the United States.
Reconnecting with a childhood sweetheart, he eventually rediscovers his identity and begins to realize that his business deal could destroy her language school, further erode Blackfeet culture and taint their land. The cultures clash and then unite through music, dance and stories.
Asked how it feels to finally have a show date after the delays, Shaun Taylor-Corbett told Indian Country Today by email that the pandemic opened new doors for the production.
“Creator had a plan for us, and we are back, this time with Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma at the First Americans Museum in OKC,” he said. “The museum wasn't even built in 2020 so this venue was only possible because we were delayed.”
The pandemic hit just as the production was gearing up in Oklahoma, he said.
“It is truly a blessing and we are so grateful because nothing was guaranteed once COVID hit,” he said. “On the last day before we were delayed in OKC at Lyric in 2020, we had our 1st run-through. In our circle, we checked in with each other and said we would come back no matter how long … All of the things we've learned along the way and the life and struggles that we have lived will go into this show and make it even more special.”
The two-year break provided "time for thought and reflection,” he said.
“I was able to spend time with friends in the Blackfeet community and attend Okan, which grounded me in a way that I think has transferred into the greater message of the show,” he said.
Shaun Taylor-Corbett starred in the original production of “In The Heights” on Broadway, and has also taken the leads as Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” and Juan in “Altar Boyz.”
Those roles inspired him and his mother to make a musical for Native people, he said. He spent two years as a company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Lynne Taylor-Corbett has a likewise impressive resume, including two Tony Awards nominations and a Drama Desk Award for “Swing!” on Broadway. She received Drama Desk and Lortel nominations for “My Vaudeville Man” and “Wanda’s World.”
She adapted and directed “The Lion King” for Disney’s production in Hong Kong, and her choreography can be seen in feature films “Footloose” and “My Blue Heaven.”
Her dance works have been commissioned by the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Carolina Ballet, where she is resident guest choreographer.
Adapting to change
The down time and revival also provided new cast members, including a young actor from Oregon who plays the lawyer as a youth and fancy dances in the show. He is the son of one of the performers.
Because the production will be outside on the grounds of the First Americans Museum, it is being re-imagined in that space. It will also now be a one-act musical rather than two, which should work better for the audience and the cast.
Michael Baron, Lyric’s artistic director, said the production will reinvigorate the theater.
“Bringing new works to Lyric Theatre's stage creates relevant and meaningful experiences and provides a rare opportunity to engage with the future of musical theatre,” Baron said in a press statement.
“Each new work tells the story of our condition, the culture of our time and adds to the canon of musical theatre," he continued. "Now, more than ever, we need to remember the importance of new musical works in their ability to give voice, share experiences and celebrate the lives of diverse peoples and cultures.”
For more info
Details about the production of “Distant Thunder” is available at LyricTheatreOKC.org or at the box office at (405) 524-9312.
*Correction: Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who plays Darrell in the show, is Amskapi Pikunni (Blackfeet), Black and Scandinavian. He was a company member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from 2017-2019. His mother and co-author, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, is not Indigenous.
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