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The Lost Colony dazzles in 84th season

The Lost Colony production at the Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island has been revisioned for its 84th season with stunning new choreography, new musical composition and visual elements that enliven the senses. The show tells the story of the joys and heartaches of the first English settlers in the New World in the 16th century, performed in the very place where the events occurred.

Director and choreographer Jeff Whiting joined The Lost Colony this season from New York City. While sourcing Paul Green’s original play, which is the longest running outdoor symphonic drama in the United States, “In truth,” Whiting said, “this is a brand-new version of the show.”

Those in the Outer Banks who have seen the production will notice several changes in the 2021 season. First, there’s less dialogue. “The way theater works now is a little different from how it was back then. Our attention spans have gotten much shorter, thanks to TV. In order to deliver the show that way I truncated things – some of the dialogue is shorter to focus on the main aspects,” Whiting said.

Second, the play is visually more engaging – choreographed flag routines, drum corps, dance sequences and with costumes almost as appealing as the numbers themselves. “The play itself is actually quite intimate and small but here we are in this giant space, so I took it upon myself, whenever possible, to create visual interest,” Whiting added. Whiting definitely brought his Broadway background with him to Roanoke Island, notably in a vivid storm scene during the settlers’ passage across the ocean, and the Native American hunt scenes with a fascinating puppet ensemble and a musical accompaniment.

One of the biggest changes that returning visitors might perceive is the musical score that follows the show from beginning to end. To accomplish this, Whiting brought in Broadway composer Sam Davis, who took music from the 16th century and music that Paul Greene wrote lyrics to and turned it into a symphonic score. “So all the music you hear is actually based in period music, but he’s just made it fit,” said Whiting. “He really created a beautiful sort of soundscape underneath everything.”

Another significant change in this year’s production is that, for the first time in 84 years, all the Native American roles are being played by indigenous performers. Said Whiting, “that’s important I think in telling the story accurately and it was never that way before. We made the determination that that can never happen again.”

This was an agreed upon goal of the producers of the play, the Roanoke Island Historical Association, which partnered with the Lumbee Tribe to spread the word about auditions. Whiting worked with Jerad Todacheenie, who is Navajo and Tlingit Alaskan, to ensure that the Native American scenes were historically and culturally accurate. “He knew that I wanted to do it respectfully and so he kept on saying, ‘Nope you can’t do that’ or ‘that’s inappropriate’ so I learned so many things about Native American dance and the culture,” Whiting said. “Theatrically, you know, we have a Hollywood version in our head and he kept saying, nope that’s just in Hollywood!”

The audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. Dennis Williams from Morehead City, who saw the play 30 years ago said, “I think it’s more exciting. There’s a lot more going on. I loved the symbolism and the Native American dancing.”

Becky Baylous from West Virigina attended the show with her three children. “I used to come here as a kid all the time. We are a homeschool family and we just studied this in school. There’s a lot more ‘ta da’ than when I was a kid,” she said. Nine-year-old Lily Baylous’s favorite part was the queen’s dress, “except it looked very uncomfortable,” she said.

Change doesn’t come easily for some and there were some in the audience who were surprised by the reimagined version of The Lost Colony.

Jim Goff from Morehead City saw the play 50 years ago: “I remember it being more of a play than a musical,” he said.

There are challenges to directing a show that’s so deep in the hearts of so many in Roanoke Island and the whole Outer Banks area. “There’s so much history and so many people in the community hold it very, very dear and everybody holds something different sacred. When I first was brought on, I came down and I met with a lot of the alumni that have been in the show and I asked everybody, ‘What should I not touch? What is it that would be painful for somebody to lose?’ and I found out quickly that almost everything is painful for somebody,” Whiting said.

What community members did agree upon as sacred was the final march when the colonist leave the fort. Though he admits tweaking it just a little, a significant change comes at the end when Whiting added a historically relevant scene where John White returns three years later to the empty fort. “I felt it was important to know that part of the mystery, that the father came back. I guess it was just assumed [in prior seasons] that everybody knew that.”

Why – after almost 450 years of history and 84 seasons of the play – is the story of The Lost Colony still important today? According to Whiting, “It’s a message about dreamers – the courage that it took this group to face the unknown. I think the message is true that if you believe in your dream you have to stick with it and that’s what these guys did.”

The Lost Colony runs Monday to Saturday through August 21. Ticket information can be found at www.thelostcolony.org.

A Dare Night will be held Friday, June 18 when Dare County and Currituck County residents can enjoy a free ticket to the show when they bring in three non-perishable food items. Food will be donated to local food pantries. Dare Night tickets must be reserved by calling the box office at 252-473-6000.

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