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With eyes on a film, Fargo-Moorhead stars get first crack at new 'Philly and the Dreamer' musical

A musical with Concordia College ties will be performed at two free shows at the school this week.

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McKenna Brye (right) stars in "Philly and the Dreamer" at Concordia College.
John Lamb / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Rebecca Rizzio graduated from Concordia College in 1999 but never put her alma mater too far behind her. So when she was looking for a place to stage a musical she’s been developing, she looked back to the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre.

The director and a cast and crew from the community will present free performances of music from “Philly and the Dreamer” on Wednesday and Thursday nights on the Concordia stage.

The show is written by Minneapolis musician John Cal, based on his experiences trying to make it with his rock band Philly in the late 1970s.

Cal and Rizzio met a few years ago when she heard he was looking for someone to direct and help develop his work.

“I was really inspired by this guy who wrote a musical, but he isn’t a theater guy, just a musician,” she says.

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Rebecca Rizzio directs a rehearsal of "Philly and the Dreamer" at Concordia College as Andrew Bates looks on.
John Lamb / The Forum

Before starting work on the musical a decade ago, Cal had stayed away from the spotlight and spent 35 years selling insurance. Most of the roughly 25 songs in the show Cal wrote in the late 1970s for the actual band, Philly, named for the lead singer, whose real name was Phyllis.

“The music is more impactful than the band was back then,” she says. “If the band had made it, we’d know who these people are.”

She refers to the music as “classic rock meets Broadway. It’s catchy with beautiful harmonies that you really don’t hear that often.”

She and Cal were working on the show in workshops and getting closer to stagings until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters in 2020. As theater came back to life, they started considering a place outside of Minneapolis to stage an informal production. A return visit to Moorhead last summer opened her eyes and ears.

“I came to see ‘Cinderella’ at Trollwood last summer and holy cow, what talent,” she says.

She was particularly impressed by McKenna Brye in the title role.

“I saw her and I thought, ‘That girl is good. Those kids would do an awesome job.’”

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Arianna Grollman, McKenna Brye and Samara McDermid perform a number in "Philly and the Dreamer."
John Lamb / The Forum

This got her thinking that Fargo-Moorhead may be a good place to stage an early production of “Philly.”

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She reached out to people she knew from her time at Concordia, like Director of Theater David Wintersteen and Director of Choral Activities Michael Culloton. Soon after, a call went out to community performers and musicians to try out for parts.

“It’s a Fargo-Moorhead project,” says Music Director Andrew Steinberg, who says the show brings in performers with not only ties to Concordia, but also local troupes like Trollwood, Theatre B, Act Up and Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre.

This week’s production features a live band led by Concordia music professor Russ Peterson and featuring his Post-Traumatic Funk Syndrome bandmates Chris Gould and Doug Neill as well as Tom Christiansen, Evan Wood and Steinberg.

Drew Swenson was drawn to audition after a suggestion by Theatre B's co-founder, Wintersteen. Swenson landed the lead male role, Johnny, a songwriter based on Cal.

“He’s a dreamer. He’s got aspirations to be a producer and songwriter,” Swenson says.

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The cast of "Philly and the Dreamer."
John Lamb / The Forum

The romantic relationship between Johnny and Philly, played by Brye, is dramatized in the show, which, in real life, was more platonic and professional.

This week’s performances will forego sets, dialogue and much acting, instead focusing on the music. Rizzio will offer narration to move the story forward between numbers to help put the songs in context, fleshing out the story a little bit as well as colorful characters like Philly’s manager, a mobster.

“I’ll tell the story a little, but won’t get into all of the details,” she says.

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Instead, she says these shows will focus on the music as she hopes to bring back a full theatrical production next year.

“Before we do a full show, we want to introduce the music,” she says.

Rather than setting a goal of making it to Broadway, she’s hoping to film the full staged show in the hope that it gets picked up by a distributor and makes it into movie theaters and streaming services.

“We could be the musical to come from Minneapolis. This could be the musical born in Fargo-Moorhead. They’ve really embraced it here,” she says, referring to the cast and crew. “It goes back to Concordia’s mission, ‘to influence the affairs of the world.’ A hit musical with a positive message can make a positive impact in a big way. It’s an inspiring show full of possibilities.”

If you go

What: “Philly and the Dreamer”
When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday
Where: Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre, Concordia College, Moorhead
Info: Tickets are free but must be reserved at eventbrite.com

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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