WSU Opera & Musical Theatre to premiere 'Waltzing in Heaven'
A world premiere musical written in memory of Wichita State University football player Ronald Gene Johnson and the WSU Football Team members who died in a plane crash on Oct. 2, 1970, will be performed in conjunction with WSU’s 38th annual memorial of the tragic event. The memorial itself will take place at 9 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, on the WSU campus.
“Waltzing in Heaven” will be presented at WSU at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 2-4, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, in Wilner Auditorium. Johnson’s father, Howard Leon Johnson, collaborated with Janie Peak, Rick Lopez, and Vickie and Scott Beck to bring the musical to the stage.
Amid the devastating sorrow, Ronnie Johnson’s father just wanted one thing: Howard hoped at least to have the ring Ronnie always wore to remember him by. Thirteen years after the tragedy, the ring was miraculously found and returned to Ronnie’s parents. “Waltzing in Heaven” is based on Howard’s poetry, which helped to console him in his grief.
“WSU Musical Theater is honored to present this uplifting tribute in memory of all the young lives lost that day,” said Marie Allyn King, stage director for the musical.
Last spring, Howard told The Wichita Eagle, “One boy had a stadium named after him. Another had a street. I wanted this to be a way for people to remember my son. Because he was musical – he played the piano and any kind of horn you can name – it seemed appropriate.”
The Johnson family plans to be in Wilner Auditorium to celebrate the memory of their loved one.
Though the play deals with sadness and loss, the spirit is uplifting. The characters, all down-home western folk reminiscent of those Howard knew during his days raising Charolais cattle, use humor and faith to move ahead. Jim Rhatigan, dean of students at the time of the crash, said, “It’s a life-affirming play – in a country and western setting.”
To ensure an authentic country sound, Wichita band The Home Rangers (Richard Crowson, David Hawkins, Stanford Greer, Mike Lee, with fiddler Rob Loren) has been woven into the production, and the musicians will be onstage for the entire show.
An all-student cast is led by Jeremy Wright as Charlie; Jordan Love as Bill; Kim Liebenberg as Aunt Olga; Ross McCorkell as Uncle Olie; Josh Atkins as Don; Jacob January as John; Christina Hink as Mary Lou; Hallie Craycraft as Patty Lynn; Casey Violette as Sal; Kasey Armbruster as Birdie; and Matt Starkey as Buzzie.
In the chorus of “good country folk” are Daxton Bloomquist, Abri Geist, Stacy Keele, Laura Leisinger, Alyssa Schmidt, Sarah Schwartz, Katelyn Snyder, Craig Richardson, Nick Clark, Nicholas Seeley, Zac Winter and Brian Yeakley.
Scenery and lighting design is by David Neville, costumes by Betty Monroe and sound by Nick Smith. Choreography is by Amy Baker, and music direction by JuleAnn Troutman.
“Waltzing in Heaven” is rated G.