Evan Santiago

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — On a cloudy August day in New York City a group of theatergoers gathered at the iconic Feinstein’s/54 Below to witness the first performance of a musical created by artists with ties to Winthrop University.

Hailee Beltzhoover, a current Winthrop student majoring in theatre performance, and graduates Jessica Fichter (2008) and Sean Riehm (2019) were part of the creative team behind “Dandelion: An Original Musical.”

The story follows Jane, a high school senior, and her unstable, opioid-addicted mother, Delilah. The two come face-to-face with guilt and sacrifice, as Jane is forced to choose between going away to college or staying home to care for her mother.

“It’s kind of just that universal battle, of how obligated am I to stay with my parents or to stay true to me; something that really everyone deals with,” said Beltzhoover, who plays Jane and helped develop the concept of the show.

“This show specifically paints a really, really clear image of the struggles of mental illness and addiction.”

Development of the project began in 2017 when Beltzhoover and Riehm reached out to Fichter, their former high school drama teacher, who is currently based in New York City, with the idea to write a play together.

As the trio began fleshing out their vision for the story, they soon decided it could best be told through music.

Next, they recruited Dallas-based singer-songwriter Colleen Francis to join their team, who composed the original music and lyrics for the show.

Bill Zeffiro, a veteran New York City musician, rounded out the creative team with a contribution of additional music and lyrics.

As the project progressed, the team often found themselves collaborating during four- to six-hour-long conference calls.

“This story is inspired by real life events and comes from a lot of personal experience for all the writers involved,” said Riehm, who worked on the book for the show.

The first draft of the musical was approximately 180 pages, but was later cut to about 140 pages, because Riehm said it was essential the writers kept the story as lean as possible.

“We’re playing with a lot of heavy material so we don’t want (the show) to drag at all or for people to lose the momentum of the story,” Riehm said. “The story speaks for itself and the collaborative effort that we’ve all put into it has generated such an amazing thing.”

After two years of development work, the team was given an opportunity to perform at Feinstein’s/54 Below, a 147-seat cabaret and restaurant located just steps from Times Square. The venue, located in the basement of the world-famous Studio 54 nightclub, has hosted stars such as Jane Lynch, Jenifer Lewis, Molly Ringwald and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“I was driving home from Columbia (South Carolina) and (Fichter) calls me and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a concert version of ‘Dandelion’ at 54 Below on Broadway.’ Just like that,” said Beltzhoover.

Riehm said he never imagined his work would join the list of works performed within the confines of the well-respected club.

“I think in a lot of ways it was surreal, because this thing, that had been a Google doc for two years, is now up at one of the most venerated and legendary cabaret and performance venues in New York City,” he said. “The same stage that Broadway legends have graced.”

The Aug. 14 performance — which was a concert version of the musical, rather than a full production — received a standing ovation from the audience and positive reviews from critics.

“Dandelion was a very creative and striking piece of theatre and I look forward to seeing it in its entirety,” wrote Max Berry, a reviewer for the Showtones theater blog.

“Dandelion matches the emotional highs and lows of other contemporary musicals that have dealt with a character’s psychosis,” wrote Chris Struck for Cabaret Scenes, the magazine of the American Song Book Association.

“There was a sense of identity to the musical that was brought by a talented cast as well as a plot that was varied in tempo and intensity,” said Struck.

Winthrop student Sadie Glaze was one of a number of supporters from the Carolinas who was in attendance at the show’s debut.

“Dandelion was incredibly moving. The actors did a great job performing it, but I would like to see it become bigger and really get produced, because I think it has the chops,” said Glaze.

The creators said the next step is to push “Dandelion” forward until “the right person” picks up on the story.

“It’s really just about keeping every door open and exploring and opening as many doors as we can and keeping the right people around it,” Riehm said.

“The accepted, tossed-around standard is that it takes around seven years for a new musical to be developed and then make it to Broadway,” he said. “That being said, (we have) every hope and every intention of (“Dandelion”) making it to Broadway, because I don’t see any reason for it not to.”

Riehm said the creative team’s next goal is to get an official reading of the show organized, so they can get started on a fully-produced version of the musical.

“We’re just continuing to try to get it up on its feet until actually getting a realized (full) version of it, which would be a dream come true,” Beltzhoover said. “That’s this business, though. You keep working at it, you keep putting it out there and hope for the best.”

* Jessica Clapper produced the podcast interview with Hailee Beltzhoover.