Millikin’s School of Theatre & Dance presents “The Spell of Red River” May 2-5

The original production is the first commissioned musical by Millikin’s New Musical Workshop.

Spell of Red River cast

DECATUR, Ill. – When “The Spell of Red River” cast takes the stage at Millikin University’s Virginia Rogers Theatre for the musical’s opening night on Thursday, May 2, 2024, it will be a historic event. 

The School of Theatre & Dance’s (SOTAD) production, written by EllaRose Chary and featuring music and lyrics by Brandon James Gwinn, will be Millikin's New Musical Workshop's first commissioned original production musical. 

“The Spell of Red River” is the culmination of several years of hard work and collaboration made possible through the generous support of Charlene Callison and Larry Balsamo. The production is directed by School of Theatre and Dance Professor Lori Bales, with music directed by Artist in Residency Kevin Long.

Spell of Red River Poster

In 2021, frustrations with the inability to find musicals with predominantly female casts led Bales to consider commissioning a female-centered musical production. Although the vast majority of Millikin’s Theatre students are female, most musical works are male-centered. 

“We are always looking for works that have a lot of women because that’s the majority of students we serve in SOTAD, but new musicals with modern themes that focus on women basically do not exist. I’ve gotten increasingly frustrated about it and for all the amazing women we train who didn’t get to do the things they wished they could do,” Bales said. “We asked for a new musical that provided roles for at least 12 women and/or non-binary characters with up to five periphery roles for men, and EllaRose and Brandon delivered. There are a whole lot of women up on that stage, and we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Charlene and Larry’s gift.” 

Spell of Red River actors
Millikin students Gabriella Galluzzo and Cate Phillips rehearse for "The Spell of Red River." Photo by Francesca Zaccor.

The journey of "The Spell of Red River" began in 2022 with the first workshop. Since then, more workshops and rehearsals have tested and honed the skills of our dedicated Big Blue cast. 

“Our writers came back in 2023 with a draft, and we staged the draft and let people see the whole show. They then went away and rewrote a little bit and got a final draft in May 2023. The general trajectory of getting a musical made is 5-10 years, and we were able to do this in three years,” Bales said. “Overall, our cast is extremely gifted. This show is new, so they had nothing to watch or listen to. It is constant adjustment for them, and they have been great about it. They had to reach down inside themselves, and they had the truly incredible experience of creating the character.”

“The Spell of Red River” centers around Vel, a witch who has a unique aptitude for psychometry—the ability to conjure memories about an event or person by touching inanimate objects associated with them. When Vel inherits a mysterious school building in her recently deceased mother’s hometown of Canonsboro, TN, she goes searching for the answers to questions about her family history that her mother took to the grave.

Millikin senior Whitney Turner plays Vel, and the Musical Theatre major has been perfecting her performance since early 2023.

“It has been such a joy to have some time to dig into this character. I really connect with this story of being connected to your family in a time when it is kind of hard,” Turner said. “I think it hits home with grieving for those we have lost during a hard time and trying to stay connected to the people around us.”

In “The Spell of Red River,” Vel goes on an emotional journey that tests Turner’s skill as an actor, which Millikin has helped develop. 

Whitney Turner
Millikin senior Whitney Turner (left) plays the lead character Vel in "The Spell of Red River." Photo by Francesca Zaccor.

“Playing Vel is a very emotionally taxing role, and I have to feel a lot of things throughout this performance,” Turner said. “It can be hard to channel those emotions while staying present. That has been a really fun challenge. It is my last semester before graduation, and I feel so thankful and lucky that I got to have this experience.”

Turners feels that the Performance Learning experience the cast has gained from the production has prepared them well for learning new material on a short deadline. 

“This is not easy, but it has been a good challenge. It prepares us for the industry we will go into because this happens all the time,” she said. “You show up for the final rehearsal, and there are script changes and additions. It has been cool to see the script change over time and see where the authors’ thought process goes.” 

Millikin junior Joshua Klaber Higgins has been a part of the “Spell of Red River” production from the beginning. As a first-year Music Theatre major, they were involved with the first writing sessions and are the show's longest-serving cast member. 

“My freshman year, they brought two separate writing teams, and EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn blew us out of the water,” Klaber Higgins said. “When the New Musicals opportunity popped up, I remember telling my parents that I needed to do this. I never really dreamed that a show like that would end up on our stage. After being a part of that first reading, I couldn't wait to see it.”

Spell of Red River actors
Millikin's Joshua Klaber Higgins (second from right) is "The Spell of Red River's longest-serving cast member. Photo by Francesca Zaccor.

Helping to develop a new musical has given Klaber Higgins an inspirational spark and has changed what they would like to do after graduation.

“This show has informed so much of my time here at Millikin, and I learned a lot about where musical theatre is heading. Because of this show, I want to do new work development,” Klaber Higgins said. Some of the shows that I love the most are shows that used to not exist. Realizing that we have the opportunity to develop what that will be for people in the future was something I never considered I could do in an undergraduate program.”

Higgins treasures his memories with all the Big Blue students who have served in the production over the years, and when this run of the show has concluded, those moments will be easily accessible. 

“There is an attachment for me because the show has been a part of my creative growth for so long. We have a line that repeats in the show, ‘Red River runs down/Red River runs down/Breaths life into our tree that brings you back to me.’ It’s part of a beautiful chorus, and the show is about people trying to grasp something they have lost or know they could have,” Higgins said. “I think I have found that this show holds so much love, life, and connection to people – whether they were seniors my first year or who have been a part of the show with me – to know even when the show is over, that friendship and connection isn’t over. All I have to do is close my eyes, and I can hear the music again or look at pictures from the show and remember that period was so important to me and always will be.”

The Spell of Red River

Shows daily from Thursday, May 2 until Saturday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 5 at 2 p.m. 

Virginia Rogers Theatre in the Center for Theatre and Dance on Millikin’s campus. 

Tickets - $25 are available at

The Spell of Red River Poster