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Morris native sings in North Dakota

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MEDORA, N.D. - Justin Droegemueller remembers how he felt last spring driving Interstate 94 into western Minnesota.

He passed billboard after billboard with pictures of his friends, each promoting North Dakota's top tourist attraction. It was then that the Morris, Minn., native realized his summer job was a big deal.

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"I didn't understand how big the 'Medora Music' was out here," he said.

The 25-year-old had only visited nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park as a high school student, never seeing the musical before he became one of a dozen Burning Hills Singers who star in it every night during the summer.

Now, a visitor may stop by Medora and see him kicking up his heels, belting out country songs and delivering gospel tunes.

Droegemueller is among the 20- to 28-year-old singers who will perform 94 nights this summer at the "Medora Musical."

Like Droegemueller, many of the singers are - or hope to be - professional actors, singers or dancers. They are honing their art starring in the two-hour nightly production, which probably will be attended by 110,000 people by the time the season ends Sept. 2.

Droegemueller works back stage at the Twin Cities Children's Theater and has acted at the Black Hills Playhouse and other places.

"I'll be the theater renaissance man," he said of his many duties.

He lives in Minneapolis, but is taking to Medora.

"I love the landscape out here," he said on a hilltop overlooking North Dakota's badlands.

The young performers like Droegemueller know they have a good gig.

Jocelyn Eve Klingbeil, studying to be a social worker, may be most appreciative of all.

"I'm looking at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Klingbeil, one of the few singers not planning to make performing a career.

For Bethany Orn Andrist, it is much more than a one-shot summer job: "The musical means the world to me. ... I just love it."

It's not just the show that Bethany's husband, Levi Andrist, sees as special: "The setting of the show is unique."

You could say that. The venue is under the stars in the middle of western North Dakota's badlands, with the rugged country part of the backdrop - along with elk, horses, lightning and whatever else happens along.

Klingbeil, a Minot, N.D., resident attending Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., is like many of the performers; she grew up going to the musical, a blend of country, oldies, gospel and patriotic music, with a few laughs and an actor portraying President Theodore Roosevelt thrown in.

Others are like Droegemueller and never had seen the performance, or even been to Medora before auditioning. Some were not even fans of the music they now sing every night.

"I'd never listened to country music in my life," said first-year singer Chris Kuhn of West Fargo, N.D. "It's opened my eyes to a new genre."

The singers' musical interests vary.

Chet Wollan of St. Anthony, Minn., leans toward funky rock, although he and sister Alexis spent every summer of their lives in Medora, a definitely western town. Their father, Curt Wollan, was a Burning Hills singer himself in the late 1970s and has been involved ever since, now producing the show through his Twin Cities-based company. He also produces plays and other productions in the Twin Cities and nationwide, including at the Smokey Mountain theme park Dollywood.

Professionals in the company agree Medora is different than their usual gigs.

Bo Price of Wasta, S.D., returned to Medora for his fifth year after performing in North Carolina and Florida. The Burning Hills Singers chorographer, Price said that Medora is more laid back.

"I have worked with chorographers who yell at you," Price said. "We are demanding in a nice way."

Big-city entertainers often have an attitude.

"There is a lot more ego," Chet Wollan said.

Kuhn is learning the opposite.

"One of the best things I am learning is how to be humble, how to take criticism," he said.

There is none of that criticism from audience members, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s.

On a recent warm night when the audience rushed the stage for singers' autographs, there was nothing but praise for the just-completed performance. Many snapped pictures of the singers, who always make time to meet fans.

In all probability, no one knew that Price was sick that night.

"We have to be on every single night," he had said earlier in the day.

Without understudies, he is right in two ways - they have to be on stage and they have to be on their game seven nights a week during the summer.

Shows rarely are canceled (usually only if lightning threatens the amphitheater), although when rain makes the stage slick the dancing may be curtailed.

The Medora Musical and its predecessors have provided entertainment most summer nights since "Old Four Eyes," a drama about Roosevelt, opened in 1958. The drama turned into a musical after Harold Schafer took over the operation in 1965 and it has remained much the same, attracting more than 2.5 million visitors.

It is a good experience for the singers-actors-dancers.

As Price said, many young entertainers perform in front of audiences of 350. In Medora, 3,000 people may show up.

However, it is more than just a performance for many in the cast.

Alexis Wollan said her "heart just starts racing" every summer when she drives Interstate 94 toward Medora and the badlands suddenly appear.

The fifth-year Burning Hills singer said the Medora area is like a dream for her. "It's the scenery. It's the history. It's the people."

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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