Diego Kjelland is a Halloween person, but this year that holiday ripped past as he prepared for another.
The University of Montana sophomore was busy with rehearsals for "White Christmas," the musical based on the music of Irving Berlin. Work started back in October, because the show opens on the Nov. 20 in the Montana Theatre for the School of Theatre & Dance's main-stage season.
Kjelland plays Phil Davis, a war veteran, singer and dancer who comes to help save a little inn with his friend Bill, crooning golden-age tunes like "How Deep is the Ocean" and "I Love a Piano." The musical is based on the 1954 Bing Crosby movie, but is much newer, having premiered on Broadway in the 2000s.
Kjelland grew up around hip-hop and R&B, courtesy of his musical parents, and started playing in front of audiences when he was 10. At UM, where he wants to specialize in musical theater, he's been honing his skills in a diverse set of styles. Last spring, he played a lead role in the production of Green Day's "American Idiot," where he belted pop-punk. Berlin's music, though, calls for him to be "more operatic and stylized in your singing, or else it doesn't work," he said, adding that it needs "that bright tone with a little bit of vibrato."
Last year, Kjelland tried to double major in music and theater but couldn't work it out because of scheduling conflicts. Yet he's just the sort of student this show is designed for.
The school usually picks one musical each season as a co-production between the School of Music and the School of Theatre & Dance. For this show, David Cody, a professor of music, is directing the band.
Director Pamyla Stiehl, an assistant theater professor, said the school opted for a holiday show because last year's "American Idiot" catered to a different audience. (In the spring, they're producing a second musical, Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," which she said is "bitter," "angsty," and "aggressive," where "White Christmas" is a "sweet and smooth confection.")
Stiehl also said it's important to train students in an older style of musical theater that they might need to know as professionals. Stiehl said the School of Theatre & Dance hopes to add a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater with a musical theater specialization option. (The proposal is going through the approval process in the Faculty Senate, according to the school's dean, Stephen Kalm.)
On recruiting trips, prospective students inquired about whether UM had such an option, which Stiehl attributed to hit musicals like "Hamilton" and "Dear Evan Hansen."
Under the specialization, students would take courses in acting and dancing, plus music theory from the School of Music.
The combined skills are, in industry jargon, "the triple threat" — an advantage when auditioning.
"Your employment opportunities just expand greatly when you're also a musical theater major because there's so many avenues for you," she said.
"And I can also speak from having been a professional out there, the triple threat talent is what kept me working and paid the bills," she said.
Regarding the "triple threat," Stiehl said that doing all three at once takes "sweat and skill."
Kjelland compared it to a sport, and said the rehearsals are draining. He might have a big song-and-dance number and that flows right into a scene where he needs to act without appearing to be out of breath, despite wearing a suit with a bow tie and his hair full of gel. Stiehl, who choreographed the show, said four of the dance numbers run more than 10 minutes.
The older style of acting is another thing, too. Kjelland has been studying all-singing, all-dancing actors from the period, like Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly, and the way they speak in the time's preferred tone, high and active, that he's nicknamed the "trumpet machine gun."
Stiehl said the cast is quite young, with many second- and first-year theater students, and they require more training in the old-fashioned musical styles and dance, which includes tap, waltz, partner work and more. She said she wants the cast to know they can "have fun with these cliches" without mocking them, and "treat them with seriousness and warmth and affection and not get snarky about it."
Kjelland said much of the audience might have grown up watching the original movie, so "the biggest no-no would be to make fun of the style or make it seem artificial." He's been working hard at "making my character truthful, fun and honest at the same time."
It's a pro attitude, which makes sense since Kjelland would like to pursue musical theater when he graduates, whether that means Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. He sees "rule-breaking musicals" like "Hamilton" as a positive sign for the future of the form.
For now though, he's happy to expand his repertoire and find the childlike feeling around the holiday that naturally drifts away with age.
The rehearsal process, he said, "it kind of has that energy."