The Denver Center’s musical take on the East Troublesome Fire doesn’t quite add up

As we slog through another wildfire season, it’s sometimes difficult to remember and keep track of all the fires that ravaged the West last year. It was just last October that the town of Grand Lake, CO was the epicenter of one of the worst conflagrations in the state’s history, the East Troublesome Fire. And while the world’s attention has since shifted to other disasters and fires, the community of Grand Lake is still very much living though the aftermath

The fire killed two people, destroyed more than 400 houses and burned 194,000 acres, making it the second largest fire in Colorado history. The stories that came out of the terrifying days in Grand Lake before a snowstorm helped tame the fire are equal to the number of people who lived through it.

It’s not an easy thing to tackle on stage, but the DCPA Theatre Company gives it a shot with Wild Fire, a music-driven account by Jessica Kahkoska of that fateful week less than a year ago, as told by a handful of representative characters from the town of Grand Lake. There’s a reporter, a park ranger, a rancher, a historian, a high school student, a fire marshal and a pastor. Along with a few other musicians on stage, some of the characters also pick up instruments along the way. This gives the show an informal feel, matching the dialogue, which is based on interviews with some of the town residents.

Rob Morrison and Jasmine Forsberg | Photo by Adams VisCom

Directed by DCPA Theatre Company’s artistic director Chris Coleman, with music direction by Mark G. Meadows, Wild Fire has thus far only had three performances: one in Denver at the Levitt Pavilion, another at the Dillon Amphitheatre and the final one in Winter Park. The music is mostly folk, although there’s a bit of soft rock and blues in the mix as well.

Kahkoska’s script, derived from more than 30 interviews, relies on first-person accounts of events, strung together chronologically and culminating in the worst days of the fire, when it spread with stunning speed. And while there’s certainly some rising action and a few interesting songs, the overall effect isn’t particularly dramatic, or theatrical. It’s more like a concert with some dialogue in between the songs, and it comes off a bit preachy or didactic.

With the entire series of stories told in much the same way by the characters, without a lot of interaction with one another, there’s a flatness to Wild Fire inherent in the script that made the two-hour show (presented with no intermission) seem overly long. The stage at the Levitt Pavilion where I saw it is pretty large, but since the characters are talking directly to the audience most of the time, it limits the options to add any kind of accompanying dance or interesting blocking.

There is, of course, a strong Colorado component to Wild Fire. Kahkoska is a Colorado playwright and the songs were all written by local artists: Cary Morin, Chimney Choir, Daniel Rodriguez, Elephant Revival, Gregory Alan Isakov, and SHEL. It was curious, then, why only one of the cast is a Coloradan (Marcus Robinson). There are plenty of local actors with the chops to bring this piece to life, especially after 18 months of limited work due to the pandemic. Casting director Grady Soapes has a great eye for talent, but in this case he and Coleman would have been better served to keep it local.

Marco Robinson | Photo by Adams VisCom

The story of the East Troublesome Fire is full of action and drama, replete with inspiring stories about a community coming together during a difficult time. It’s also an important reminder of how climate change is manifesting itself in our here-and-now. Wild Fire as a concept has a lot of promise, but in its present iteration it simply lacks its own fire. It’s tempting to compare it to the musical version of Working, where the first-person accounts are centered around a bunch of musical numbers. But is that kind of thing even appropriate for a disaster story where scores of people lost their homes — and two their lives?

Probably not. If you’d asked me if it’d be possible to create a theatrical version of, say, The Big Burn — Timothy Egan’s riveting account of The Great Fire of 1910 — I’d say no. It’s the kind of story that lends itself well to a film documentary, but not necessarily to live theatre.

Maybe a heavy metal version would be more interesting?