As West Virginia — the only state created by the Civil War — celebrates 150 years of statehood this summer, the oldest Civil War drama that’s still performed will again re-tell the birth of the Mountain State at Cliffside Amphitheatre.
Since 1961, “Honey in the Rock,” the beloved outdoor musical drama by Kermit Hunter and composer Jack Kilpatrick, has kept the state’s story alive, performed each summer for thousands of West Virginians and tourists.
Since 1970, actors and dancers of Theatre West Virginia have performed “Honey” and “Hatfields and McCoys” on the outdoor stage at Grandview Park.
“This is (West Virginians’) state theater,” said Toneta Akers-Toler, founder of WV Dance Company and staff choreographer for TWV. “There are beautiful theaters in several places in West Virginia, quality work, but this theater was built as the only place you can come to see the history in West Virginia.
“This plays a special role in southern West Virginia, because it tells our history.”
Actors and dancers were preparing Friday for the Tuesday opening of “Honey” and Wednesday opening of “Hatfields,” braving a rainstorm to rehearse on the outdoor stage.
Andrew Adolf, 21, of Buffalo, New York, recently graduated from Niagara University in his home state with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in theater performance, snagging roles in “Honey” and as Randall McCoy Jr. in “Hatfields.”
They’re his first professional jobs, he said, and his arrival in the state on May 20 marked his first visit to West Virginia.
“This is my first time here, so it’s kind of awesome that I’m immersed in the state history through shows,” said Adolf. “I’m just, literally, learning about different facets of the history.
“I didn’t realize how much of a legacy there really was between the split of West Virginia and Virginia,” he added.
Living farther north, he wasn’t as familiar with the impact of the Civil War on the states down South.
“It was always ‘Gettysburg’ for me,” he explained. “So it’s cool to hear a little bit more of a southern history point of view.”
Adolf’s enjoyed the natural beauty of the state, hiking at Grandview with other actors when he’s not working.
“The landscape is like nothing I’ve ever really seen,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Akers-Toler said the summer productions at Grandview have been woven into the local historical tapestry over the years, becoming a part of the state story yet creating an artistic community behind the scenes that now reaches beyond the state.
Akers-Toler, 58, was given a contract by Jerry Rose, an original choreographer for the dramas, when she was 17 years old.
“I’ve worked here every summer except for two,” she said. “My family is gone now, and I’ve moved back to Becklely to do arts.
“This has been such a part of my life, and my child’s life.”
Akers-Toler’s husband also works for TWV at Grandview, and her family isn’t the only one in the production.
Production/Company Manager Annie Bellinger, 28, of Maquokata, Iowa, is spending her third summer at TWV.
Her husband, Chris Bellinger, is directing “Hatfields” and also acts in the show, while her sister and brother are also involved in production.
Bellinger’s 17 weeks pregnant with her first child — a baby girl — but she’s not pushing for her daughter-to-be to join TWV immediately.
“Since all the rest of us are in theater, somebody has to be a real person,” she quipped.
Bellinger said the community has “embraced the cast,” with a local Starbucks delivering coffee and Papa John’s bringing free pizza.
“For quite a few actors, it’s their first time with the elements,” she said, explaining that extra care has to be taken with voices and movement during outdoor shows.
While many in the cast are newcomers, audiences will recognize some familiar faces, like that of local actor Andy Woodruff.
Woodruff has been in every summer show for the past 48 years.
“He was a child actor, and now he’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, head of the Hatfield clan,” said Bellinger. “He’s played every part every year.”
Terry Chasteen and Brooks Cline are also returning cast members, she added.
Dancer Barbie Yurick and her family have been involved in many of the TWV summer productions over the years.
This year, Yurick’s children, dancers Nick Yurick and Alice Yurick, are both in the show, said Bellinger.
Particular focus has been placed on “Honey” this year in honor of the 150th birthday of West Virginia, but audiences will also love “Wizard of Oz,” which has been performed in 2000 and 2005, Bellinger said.
This year, the “Oz” set is big, comparable to the 2000 set, established to appeal to Boy Scout Jamboree visitors.
“We were looking for something that would draw the families that are staying around waiting for their boys to finish up Boy Scout camp,” she said. “Little boys like things that explode, so we will have fireballs for the witch, and there will be fog.
“The ‘boys’ (in the cast) are excited,” said Bellinger. “They’ve been playing with fireballs lately, and they think that’s great.”
Ten children ages 8 to 18 have been added as “munchkins,” she said.
“Oz” opens July 12.
“Rocket Boys, The Musical,” based on Homer Hickam’s novel “Rocket Boys,” opens August 15.
“The second act takes place in the coal mine,” she said. “We have to wait until it gets dark enough, so the show’s at the end of the summer.”
Showtimes are 8:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and $9 for children under 12, with special AAA rates.
Residents of Raleigh, Summers, Fayette, Mercer and Wyoming counties who bring a staple food item for the Salvation Army will get in free on opening nights of “Honey” (June 11) and “Hatfield” (June 12). Additional ticket information and performance dates are available online at www.theatrewestvirginia.com .
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