By MATT CRANE
After 30 years, the Summer Scholars on Stage program will once again raise the curtain for its newest original musical comedy.
“Don’t Panic! (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse)” premieres tonight at 7 p.m. in the McComas Hall theater at Mississippi State University.
Program director Joe Ray Underwood said it was hard to believe the production marks 30 years for the summer theater camp.
“We never dreamed we’d be doing this for 30 years,” Underwood said. “It’s endured and taken on a life of its own.”
Underwood said the students have been amazing to watch throughout writing and production camps.
“There are kids here who would rival any American Idol group,” he said. “The talent level is just remarkable.”
Underwood said after 30 years of mentoring students and shaping the program, many former Summer Scholars participants have used the camp as a stepping stone for careers in theatrical entertainment.
“This lets people find their niche, and some pursue it professionally,” he said. “We’ve got former kids on Broadway, touring with albums, acting in movies, writing plays and some involved with the technical aspects of theater.”
Set to music, “Don’t Panic!” tells the story of a 30 year high school class reunion that happens to coincide with mysterious end of the Mayan calendar, and an even more mysterious apocalyptic zombie breakout.
Featuring songs like “Age of Aquarius,” “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Not While I’m Around,” the production was written by 17 campers participating in a preliminary writing week, a process Underwood said encourages creative expression from a collective perspective.
“Group writing is very different, so getting a consensus about what you’re doing is a real challenge,” he said. “I think the whole thing has been quite cleverly done.”
Costume designer Amy Fortenberry said the connection between actors and the costumes they wear is critical to the success of any production, and the process has been very collaborative.
“They’re developing habits like actors which is amazing,” Fortenberry said. “It’s great to see the younger generation continue this tradition of creating and educating through theater.”
Costuming assistant Mandy Hackman said each act has a very distinctive look and feel, and the process for creating costumes for the zombies has included burning, bloodying and dirtying clothes.
“The world is so big in this show,” Hackman said. “Costuming helps the kids develop their characters, and it puts the world of the show in perspective for them so they can put it in perspective for the audience.”
Fortenberry said being back in a theater camp setting has been the greatest gift for her and has enjoyed seeing the campers’ faces light up when the show begins to come together.
“They are so creative and so willing to work,” she said. “It’s a really good show, and they have worked so hard.”
Underwood said community members wanting to attend “Don’t Panic!” can expect a great musical comedy that has an added bonus of being free to the public.
“It’s a high energy show and it has fun music,” he said. “People should come see us if they want to get away, laugh and see young people at their best.”
“Don’t Panic! (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse)” begins tonight at 7 p.m. at the McComas Hall theater. A final performance will be held Saturday at 1 p.m.
Admission is free, but donations to Summer Scholars are welcome.