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Medora Musical kicks off with a few changes

(Linda Sailer / Forum News Service) Bill Sorensen speaks of his latest attempt at magic with Queen of the West Emily Walter unsure of his talent, during dress rehearsal Thursday at the Burning Hills Amphitheater in Medora, N.D

MEDORA, N.D. -- The allnew Medora Musical kicks off the 2013 season with upgrades to the amphitheater and high-energy western entertainment by the Burning Hills Singers and Coal Diggers band.

The show, which opened Friday, continues through Sept. 7 in the Burning Hills Amphitheater. The musical starts at 7:30 p.m. rather than 8:30 p.m. as in previous years.

"The reason is we listened to our audience," said Randy Hatzenbiler, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. "Our seniors love it, people with smaller children, they love it."

The amphitheater has new handrails, walkways and fresh paint. All the changes are designed to keep the show fresh and new, he said, adding that feedback from the audience is always welcome.

Theater upgrades

Amphitheater Manager Kinley Slauter said the upgrades were deemed necessary because it has been 20 years since the amphitheater was rebuilt.

"Most noticeable is the sound control was moved to the lower level, so the sound operator gets to listen to what the audience hears," he said.

Concrete was still being poured Thursday evening. "We're coming down to the wire," he said.

Slater has worked 17 seasons with the show.

"I think Medora is really a great place to live," he said. "I'm a Medora resident year around."

The rainy months of May and early June challenged the staff and entertainers to be ready by opening night.

"The show will go on and I expect it to be quite fantastic," Slater said. "I think moving the band to center stage has not really changed the show, but it allows us to do some things quite differently."

One of a kind

Musical producer Curt Wollan said the rain was a challenge to the entertainers. They rehearsed in a nearby gymnasium, but their stage time was limited.

"It put us behind with rehearsals, but we'll still give a good show," he said.

Wollan described the Burning Hills Singers as talented, smart entertainers.

"There's a lot more dancing in the show than we've ever had," he said. "They were quick to learn and put up with the cold -- a lot of them were from the Southern states."

With the many changes this season, Wollan compares the musical to Thanksgiving dinner.

"You have turkey, stuffing and green bean salad, but somebody brings a brandnew dish to dinner," he said. "So many people like familiarity and yet many people also like something different too."

The musical, sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, is dedicated to America's 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Wollan was mindful of the musical's mission when he choreographed musical adventures of Roosevelt while he ranched in the Badlands.

"We have the saloon scene where Roosevelt punches out a drunken cowboy, we've got his bear hunt and we talk about the beautiful Elkhorn Ranch called the cradle of conservation," Wollan said.

He envisions Roosevelt sitting on the veranda of his ranch and realizing the need to create a national park system for generations to come.

Wollan has dedicated 28 seasons to the musical. He met his wife in Medora and his children grew up there. His son, Chet, is in the show, while daughter, Lexie, is an assistant director/choreographer.

"The Medora Musical is one of a kind, that's for sure," he said. "It's a big, outdoor, Wild West extravaganza dedicated to our 26th president and all the other legends of the area."

New co-host

Another feature of the show is the addition of Bill Sorensen, as co-host with Queen of the West Emily Walter.

"He's a comic and magician who can't get anything right -- he's very funny and very endearing," Wollan said. "He knows how to work a crowd and has tons of experience."

Sorensen and his family have been involved in Medora for more than 30 years.

"Medora has been a labor of love," Sorensen said. "I have had the opportunity to watch my four daughters grow up in this place. I never expected to be doing this for this long, nor did I anticipate the overwhelming support that I've received from the thousands who have come to Medora over the years."

Raised in Bismarck, Sorensen came to Medora in 1976 after college graduation. He performed in a show titled "Bicentennial Theater" in the restored town hall.

"Later, we put together the first 4-M Revue with Clyde Bauman, alias Mylo Hatzenbuhler," Sorensen said. "We were going to do it one year, but it grew into a big portion of our lives."

Sorensen's career has included working as a businessman, boxing manager, public speaker, state legislator and mayor of Bismarck.

"I tell my friends I share something in common with Teddy Roosevelt," Sorensen said. "I'm running away to Medora and can forget about everything else."

Sorensen appreciates the opportunity to work with the musical cast.

"It's a big deal for me," he said. "I'm looking forward to this summer and excited about the things to come."

A Wisconsin native, Walter was a Burning Hills singer from 1993 through 1995. She is one of the few entertainers approved to portray the legendary Patsy Cline by the Patsy Cline estate. She has traveled extensively around the world playing roles that vary from Shakespeare to Annie Oakley.

"I've traveled the world, but Medora holds a special place in my heart," Walter said in a news release. "So it was impossible for me to turn down the chance to come back to co-host the show."

Cast and musicians

Twelve entertainers make up the cast of the Burning Hills Singers: -- Mark Bailey Capalbo, New York City -- Dan Crary, Billings, Mont. -- Cari Downing, Rock Island, Ill. -- Kevin Korczynski, Bel Air, Md. -- Steve Laister, Beaumont, Texas -- Candice Lively, Strawberry Plains, Tenn. -- Laure McKeal, Waco, Texas -- Kayla Rickter, Morristown, Tenn. -- Carolyn Schmitz, Wells, Minn. -- Lindsey Spencer, Lexington, Ky. -- Gerry Williams, Durham, N.C. -- Chet Wollan, St. Anthony, Minn. The musicians are:

-- Ed Avila, bass

-- Mark Bohn, drums

-- Nick Kellie, guitar

-- Josephine Michener, fiddle

-- Roger Rettig, pedal steel -- Jim Stevenson, keyboards

"The talent of this year's cast and band is outstanding," Slauter said in a news release. "We always strive to recruit the best, and we've found it in these performers. We're confident that our audiences will agree."

Special entertainment

-- High Voltage, a high-flying and flipping acrobatic team that has entertained around the world. The team has been featured on TV, most notably on America's Got Talent, Monday Night Football and the Ellen De-Generes Show. Voltage performs now through July 22. -- Kermit Apio, who has appeared on television and radio, and is the 2009 winner of the Great American Comedy Festival. He will perform July 23 through Aug. 15.

-- Cirque Zuma Zuma, an African circus act, will entertain audiences with rhythmic dance, music and acrobatics. The act was a finalist on America's Got Talent and has been described as an African-style Cirque du Soleil. It performs Aug. 16 through Sept. 7.

"Every year, our goal is to offer something for everyone while also trying to top what we did the year before," Slauter said. "We're confident we've achieved that with this year's three variety acts."

Medora Musical


When: 7:30 p.m. nightly through Sept. 7

Where: Burning Hills Amphitheater, Medora

Tickets: Lower level are $35 for adults, $16 for students (entering grades 2-12). There are special packages for Kids Day, Seniors Days and Military Day.

Information: Call (800) 633-6721 or visit