There are few shows that celebrate no guarantee of talent.
The Ashland Musical Variety Show, however, casts anyone who walks through their doors from kindergarten on up.
This year, the oldest participant is in her late 70s. Dancers and singers include a wide swath of occupations — and even elected officials.
The barbershop quartet is transformed into a 12-man group belting out the 1950s hit “Book of Love.” Earth, Wind & Fire’s memorable “September” becomes “November,” performed by members of the county’s Board of Supervisors and School Board in a nod to their election month.
Held every other year for more than three decades, the show brings together more than 400 people on and off the stage with up to 800 in the audience at Randolph-Macon College’s Blackwell Performing Arts Center. This year’s shows are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Jim Head is an ROTC instructor at Patrick Henry High School by day and a drummer for the variety show by night. If he’s not at rehearsal, he’s constantly talking up the show, he said.
“Half the town is on the stage, and the other half is out there,” Head said at a rehearsal last week, pointing to the theater seats from behind his drum set in the orchestra pit.
The variety show touts itself as building community through the “arts.”
“And that’s stretching the term,” joked co-director Sue Watson, one of the four who founded the variety show in 1982 as a fundraiser for the Hanover Arts & Activities Center. The group put it on again in 1983 before deciding to scale it back to every other year.
It’s not hard to imagine why. Coordinating and rehearsing 25 acts with 400 people — many of whom have no real musical or performing experience — is quite a feat. But that doesn’t stop organizers and participants from pushing their limits.
Childhood best friends and lifelong Ashland residents Debby Lauterbach and Sharon Coleman have been in the show eight or nine times. This year, they are tap dancing in a modified version of “One” from the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line.”
The song is ambitious considering the original musical is about professional dancers striving to impress a Broadway director. Lauterbach and Coleman had never tap danced before rehearsals began. They’ve been practicing three or four times each week to get the steps right — and it’s working.
“I just wanted to do something different,” said Lauterbach, a retired teacher. She added the show serves as a reunion of sorts for the town and beyond. “There’s something so heartwarming about getting together with your neighbors on a cold night and singing and dancing.”
“You get everyone,” Coleman said. “It’s not a talent show. It’s a variety show.”
But as set designer Nadine Romstedt says, the show can be about discovering talent, too.
“You can let your inner Broadway self come about no matter what level you are,” she said, adding that some of the show’s younger alumni have gone on to perform on Broadway. “I don’t think there’s any other town that does it.”
Costume manager Chris McKelvy says she “keeps trying to retire, but I keep coming back.”
“They like to dress up and escape,” she said. “It also builds confidence.”
Co-director Lorie Foley has been helping run the show since 1997 and brings her background in theater. She said that if she did not limit the number of acts a person could perform in to three, “they’d sign up for 10.”
“The amount of energy and time commitment and organization to get all these people is an enormous task,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”
This year’s show is titled “Ashland, Our Valentine Town,” a nod to the late Dougee Zeno, the composer of Ashland’s “unofficial” official song. Zeno died in September.
The words of the song, “Ashland, Ashland,” were written by then-Herald-Progress editor and publisher Marion Herget for the show in the 1980s and has served as the closing song — and town anthem — ever since.
“The best people live on both sides of the tracks. It’s Ashland, where no one is a stranger long. And friends live side by side and join hands in song. ... It’s our Valentine Town,” the song goes.
Addy Klinger and Carly Ault, both 12, are in three performances each and can’t get enough.
“It’s being with your friends. It’s fun to just do it,” said Addy, adding that this has become her musical outlet.
“You get to meet new people,” said Carly, who said the hard work is worth it.
What makes it worth it?
“The people having fun watching it,” Addy said. “It’s cool to see which new acts come up.”