“The higher the hair, the closer to God, so girl, think big…it’s a religious experience….”
So goes a refrain in one of the original songs written and composed by Ken Jillson for his newest production, “Final Arrangements: The New To-Die-For Musical,” in its first “reading” for Bare Bones Theatre at the Laguna Playhouse on Monday, Oct. 10.
The musical takes place at Rita Mae’s funeral, known in the south as “a home-going celebration.” Comprised of 15 songs performed by a mostly African-American cast of 10, the story may unfold in a funeral home, but mournfulness is overarched by fond memories and a celebration of a life apparently well lived.
Jillson is best known locally for founding Big Splash, a benefit for the Orange County AIDS Services Foundation. The production, initially begun from the backyard pool of his Laguna Beach home, at its 24th finale in 2009 had evolved into an elaborate revue. Staged on the Festival of Arts’ grounds, the show included voiceovers by film and recording stars and a large cast.
Splash served Jillson well with hands-on scriptwriting experience. It also led to his introduction to Lauren Simon, who serves as his dramaturge for “Final Arrangements.”
But Jillson’s production of “WHIK 2” gained him admission to the Dramatists Guild of America. The original show was first performed at the Artists’ Theatre in 2007, and its sequel “WHIK 2” re-surfaced in 2010, further spotlighting the exploits of Sparky Stevens, a country music station DJ pursued by groupies, a nagging wife and impassioned by country music and those who perform it.
“I adored country music as a kid. I had a little transistor radio that I got with S&H Green Stamps glued to my ear,” recalled Jillson.
His latest production further mines his own personal experiences. At age 17, Jillson recalled the trauma of his father’s death and the absence of a funeral service. “He essentially vanished from my life,” he said.
Heaven knows why, but Jillson said one day he dressed in a dark suit and drove to a funeral parlor. Asked why he was there, he stammered that he had come looking for a job. As he recalls, the funeral director hired the clean-cut young man on the spot. So, if not a career, a window into an often unseen part of life opened up.
While serving as a part-time funeral director, Jillson was particularly impressed with the “home-going celebrations” and their theatrical character. “There was a star, hand-clapping music, wonderful clothing, lots of drama and magical backstories,” he said.
Inspired, he began to listen closely to Motown tunes and making notes. But, fate threw a curveball. Although Jillson tried to obtain song rights from Berry Gordy, the mogul refused. Frustrated, he recalls asking a friend for advice, who suggested, “write your own music.”
Overwhelmed, he stuck the script into a drawer until he saw the musical “Kinky Boots,” whose tunes left him lukewarm. “There were no ‘ear worms’ no tunes that really stayed with you,” he recalled. “ Suddenly I wanted to create tunes that stuck,” he recalled.
“Final Arrangements” reflects an amalgam of Jillson’s own life experiences, including high school friendships with African American students and interacting with families of different cultures at the funeral home about their spiritual ideas. He wrote the book, songs and composed the music.
“I always thought it would be magic if you could call 1-800-HEAVEN and speak to a loved one who passed. I would love to talk to my dad,” he said. “So the gist of the story is live your dreams today, tomorrow may never come and, I am doing just that.”
Michele Spears directs “Final Arrangements,” and Roxanne Ward serves as musical director.
Its cast of stage veterans includes Jennifer Leigh Warren, Jasmin Richardson and Amber Mercomes. They gather at the Curl’n Comb Beauty Salon in Savannah, Ga., to extol the virtues of architectural hair, among other accouterments, as a way to attract a hot man and consequently follow the religious dictum concerning “growth and multiplication.”
Life includes a “hot man,” embodied here by Neil Taffe, who woos Rita Mae and alters her charted course.
An actress and singer, Warren’s returns to the Playhouse after having starred in “Having It All,” “Lonesome Traveler” and “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”
“It’s not a show about death, but about life,” she said.
“Final Arrangements: The New to Die For Musical,” only Monday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m., Laguna Playhouse. 606 Laguna Canyon Rd. Free but RSVP to [email protected]