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New musical is a family affair, with major support from The Grift

MIDDLEBURY — Local playwright Dana Yeaton has a lengthy history of creating funny and inspiring dramatic productions.
He probably never imagined that he would help create the talent to act out his words on stage.
But that’s the case with his latest offering, a musical called “My Post-Traumatic Cruise Ship Cabaret,” which stars none other than his daughter, Vanessa Dunleavy. The decidedly homegrown musical — featuring the very popular local band The Grift and directed by Ethan Bowen — will debut at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on Thursday, April 2.
“Of course you want to spend time with your kids, but creative time with your kids is really of a different order,” Yeaton said on Monday before a “Cruise Ship Cabaret” rehearsal. “When you collaborate, you have to be equals. You trust the other person, and you keep noticing how things get better because you trust the other person. It makes your relationship (with your child) grow up.”
Vanessa Dunleavy, now 29, graduated from Middlebury Union High School in 2003. She is pursuing a career in theater and is currently an Equity (union) actor based in New York. She is blessed with a great singing voice that has served her well in landing roles in musical theater productions. Her budding résumé includes a yearlong tour for the production “Catch Me If You Can.”
Yeaton, and his wife, Frankie Dunleavy — a former, longtime language teacher at MUHS — are clearly proud of their daughter’s achievements
“I’ve been following her around, watching her and, of course, looking at the YouTube videos that pop up with her performing, keeping my file updated on what she is capable of,” Yeaton said.
And he judged her to be well capable of taking the lead in the musical that Yeaton wrote expressly with his daughter in mind: “My Post-Traumatic Cruise Ship Cabaret.” The musical — a labor of love and gift from father to daughter — is somewhat of a biographical endeavor for Vanessa. She is a veteran of two, six-month tours as a cruise ship performer, belting out tunes with the accompaniment of a band.
“We are adapting her story, to some extent,” Yeaton said, though he added most of the plot line is fictional. “I got to see her (perform at sea), I got to see that lifestyle for the entertainers and that vacation style for us and everyone else.”
He noted people “play rich” on a ship, dressing up for dinners and other events and receiving pampered treatment.
“And at night, we got to gloat, ‘That’s our girl up there,’ and that’s a big stage that she’s on, and the production values couldn’t be higher,” Yeaton said.
Those cruise ship experiences provided fodder for Yeaton’s musical, featuring copious input from Vanessa, who gets writing credit on the play, and music by The Grift.
Here’s the plot line for “My Post-Traumatic Cruise Ship Cabaret”:
Vivi, the lead, was part of a successful pop duo before being jilted by her partner. Now she is back on the cruise ship, feeling defeated. Another element of the story: Vivi is injured in an attack on one of the island destinations of the cruise ship. She has her hand bandaged and is committed to rising above it all to perform a great show that “will actually matter, unlike everything else she had done up to then,” Yeaton said. “She knows she’s had a big setback, but the show is her attempt at reconciling — in a way making believe that things are better than they are.”
The cruise and the resulting show represents a turning point in Vivi’s life.
“She feels like she’s spent her early career singing sweet songs about nothing … and she’s not going to do that anymore,” Yeaton said. “She’s going to sing sweet songs about something — she just doesn’t quite know what.”
The narrative of the story flows through the dozen original songs put to music with the considerable talents of Clint Bierman and Peter Day of The Grift. The band’s many fans will have an opportunity to see the boys — decked out in tuxes and imparting an Eastern European vibe — behind the equally elegant Vanessa (aka Vivi).
The five collaborators — Dana Yeaton, Dunleavy, Bierman, Day and Bowen — have been working diligently polishing the musical, to be performed at the THT April 2-4, at 8 p.m.
Bowen, the director, is an old family friend of the Yeaton-Dunleavy family and someone that Vanessa refers to as a “second father.” Both Bowen and Vanessa Dunleavy co-starred in a show that Dana Yeaton wrote back in 2003 called, “The Big Random.”
Yeaton could not be more pleased by the way things are coming together for “Cruise Ship Cabaret.”
“Until we all agree on something, we don’t have it yet,” Yeaton said of the collaborators’ ability to resolve any differences of opinion.
Bierman has had a great time putting the song lyrics to music. He has artfully adapted the words to a variety of genres of music, including ska, gospel, rock ’n’ roll, pop, power ballad and electronic dance.
“They are all very catchy songs,” said Bierman, who promised a Grift CD featuring all the tunes. “(Yeaton) writes the words, and I am here to figure it out.”
Bierman added he has been in awe of Yeaton’s abilities as a wordsmith.
“He is a magician with words,” said Bierman, who is already yearning for another musical collaboration with Yeaton. “I’m lucky he came to me (with the project).”
Musical theater is something that was foreign to Bierman and his band mates. He has now gained more respect for the genre.
“It’s a new thing for The Grift,” Bierman said. “It’s very exciting. It’s really cool.”
Vanessa Dunleavy can’t wait to perform before what she hopes will be packed THT houses.
“It’s wonderful,” she said of the artistic collaboration with her dad. “It’s nice for me, coming back after doing this professionally for a number of years, feeling like I have confidence in myself and my craft. This is something we sort of went through together a number of years ago and it’s really cathartic to hash through things, figure out which parts of the story we want to tell and what’s totally made up.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
VANESSA DUNLEAVY, BACKED up by The Grift’s Clint Bierman, Jeff Vallone and Peter Day, belts out a song during rehearsal for the upcoming Town Hall Theater show “My Post-Traumatic Cruise Ship Cabaret.” Dunleavy, who co-created the show with her father, Dana Yeaton, and members of The Grift, is a Middlebury Union High School graduate now living and performing in New York City.
 
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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