SNOWMASS VILLAGE " Back when he was living in Lomira, Wis., halfway between Milwaukee and Oshkosh, Paul Dankers founded the Lomira Community Theatre. Some 30 cast members, plus a crew of another 20, would participate in the group's annual productions " often of works by Stephen Schwartz, best-known now as the composer of "Wicked."
"I love musical theater," Dankers explained of launching a stage troupe in a town of 2,000.
But it is his love of the other aspect of community theater " the community part " that seems to have been just as much of an impetus for founding Lomira Community Theatre.
Since moving to the Roaring Fork Valley nearly five years ago, Dankers has connected to the community of local performers in nearly every route imaginable. The Snowmass Village resident has sung and played flute and oboe with Symphony in the Valley; appeared last summer in Theatre Aspen's production of "Seussical"; played piano accompaniment for the Aspen Elementary School musicals and sung with the Aspen Choral Society and at the Aspen Chapel's Bach concerts. Dankers, who came to the valley to teach music at Aspen High School " where he instituted a music component into the International Baccalaureate program " had his most prominent local appearance with the lead role in Aspen Community Theatre's "Pippin" (another Stephen Schwartz creation); he was also music director of ACT's "She Loves Me."
"This is how I am," said the 37-year-old, who holds several degrees in music education. "When I'm in a community I immerse myself in it, try to put things together for people. I'm shocked when I hear of a local musician I don't know."
Dankers' main gig for the past two-plus years has been music director at the Snowmass Chapel. His primary task is to arrange and play music for Sunday morning services, but he has an expansive view of the job description, doing work on the computer and phone systems. Closer to his heart, Dankers has instituted the Winter Culture Series which since November has presented a piano recital by Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, a jazz concert by local vocalist Jeannie Walla, a performance by Symphony in the Valley, and Ars Lyrica, a local group that includes Dankers and plays classical music and contemporary pop songs on Baroque instruments.
The current show in the series is "Forever Plaid," Stuart Ross' celebration of the original boy bands " the vocal quartets of the late '50s and early '60s like the Four Freshman and the Four Lads " and the songs they sent up the charts: "Heart and Soul," "Chain Gang," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" among them. The production may spring not so much from a love of musical theater or longings for community, but Dankers' deep admiration for the talent. The show " which opened last weekend and has performances this weekend and next " has Dankers surrounded by four men who have left their mark on local stages: Franz Alderfer, who starred in last fall's ACT production of "Chicago"; Adam Leath, a former cast member of Aspen's Crystal Palace dinner theater; John Goss, who also takes on directing and choreography chores in "Forever Plaid"; and musical director and pianist David Dyer.
The story in "Forever Plaid" is appropriately goofy: A bumbling vocal foursome, the Plaids, are on the way to their first major gig when they are run down by a bus full of Catholic girls on their way to see another pop quartet " from Britain and bearing guitars and mop-top haircuts, they make history on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The Plaids find themselves in heaven " but still able to sing.
There is an arc to their story: "These four characters are somewhat nerdish, uncomfortable, and by the end of the show they're somewhat sexy," said Dankers, who plays Jinx, a singer prone to nosebleeds when hitting high notes. And dialogue connects the tunes. But the heart of the musical is the music itself, which audiences tend to get caught up in.
"Last weekend, you'd see everybody mouthing the words," said Dankers. "Or singing along, like when John Goss sang 'Sixteen Tons.' Not that they were invited to. But they did."
As a boy in St. Croix Falls, Wis., not far from Minneapolis, Dankers took it upon himself to further his musical participation. After singing in Sunday morning Baptist services, he would scamper down to the church basement and pick out the hymns on an upright piano. A woman heard him and informed Dankers' parents that the boy should have proper training. At his lessons, Dankers would memorize by ear what his teacher played, when he was supposed to be sight-reading the music. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and then, because he wanted an experience as far as possible from his Midwestern roots, went to the University of Southern Mississippi for his master's.
As he was leaving the interview with The Aspen Times, Dankers remembered one more local endeavor he hadn't mentioned. All winter, he has been giving vocal lessons to the monks at St. Benedict's in Old Snowmass.
"It's the greatest experience," he said. "They're the most soft-spoken, gentle people. And they really want to learn how to sing well."