Wayland Performers Take Roles in Texas

July 18, 2018

Music students learn from experience during the summer run of the Texas musical in Palo Duro Canyon

Performers pose for a picture after the play.
Wayland students Edward Funderburke (from left), Erin Pearce, Franchesca Fuentes, Elizabeth Johnson and Professor of Opera and Musical Theatre Dr. Brian Kuhnert pose as a group after a performance of the musical Texas in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

CANYON – The Pioneer Amphitheatre at Palo Duro Canyon State Park is fittingly named for the Pioneers who settled the area and made West Texas what it is today. This summer, however, the amphitheater is hosting Pioneers of a different sort – those who come from Wayland.

Wayland Baptist University Professor of Opera and Musical Theatre Dr. Brian Kuhnert has been a cast member in the musical Texas for the past 16 years. Kuhnert plays Colonel Henry McClean, a lead role in the production. He is not the only long-standing connection to Wayland in the cast, however, as Dennis McMenamy, who attended the university in the mid-90s, has been part of the show for more than 20 years. McMenamy portrays Tucker Yelldell.

The cast also features four of Kuhnert’s students. Erin Pearce is in her second year in the canyon production. She is a chorus member and portrays Rachel Tatum, a support character. She is also the understudy for the role of Parmalee Flynn, one of the lead characters.

Edward Funderburke is also in his second year as a chorus member. He is joined by Franchesca Fuentes and Elizabeth Johnson who are in the play for the first time.

For Pearce the experience has been invaluable.Erin Pearce dances with her partner.

“This show is such a marvel,” she said. “The scale is so grand. We have like 36 dancers, 16 singers, a bunch of leads, countless techs, front of house people. We have fireworks, pyrotechnics going off all night. We have huge water cannons that go off and military grade explosives in the show.

“A show of this scale is rare even within the world of professional performing.”

And it helps having her professor and mentor close by.

“It’s interesting to have him as a co-worker and as a mentor,” Pearce said. “I get to work with him which is a really unique experience because at school, he is directing things and he is not with us on stage very much.”

The uniqueness of the experience isn’t lost on Kuhnert who enjoys seeing his students as co-workers.

“We are more like peers when we’re out here,” he said. “It’s interesting for me to kind of get to see that side of them. And it’s interesting for them to get a chance to see me in a different light, too.”

Kuhnert has played Colonel Henry for the past 12 of his 16 years in the cast. It’s a role he enjoys, despite the demand on his time. Coming off of a packed school year, the 68-show schedule makes for a busy summer. But for Kuhnert, the people he works with and the change of pace make it worthwhile.Dr. Brian Kuhnert sings during a performance.

“I was telling somebody the other day, I think of all the various years by the people who were in those casts. I can recall certain seasons by specific people,” he said.

While he enjoys the camaraderie, the challenge of nightly performances provides the change of pace that Kuhnert said can be educational for his students. Most Wayland performances have a short, three-night run. The summer production that runs nightly for nearly three months is completely different.

“It’s not something you prepare for a one, two or three night run and then you’re done,” Kuhnert said. “It’s actually kind of a little bit of a grind of just having to go out and do the same show, or pretty much the same show, every single night and treating the audience like they deserve your best every single time.

“That’s easy to do in three or four shows. It’s a lot harder to do over 68 shows.”

“It’s not like doing shows on the weekend,” said McMenamy, who enjoys working with the young Wayland students. “If they are planning on being serious performers, you’ve got to do 68 shows in a row.”

The importance of the experience isn’t lost on Pearce.

“That’s just a lot of raw experience to have under your belt; so that helps with confidence and comfort in performing,” she said. “This is giving me professional experience, working with a professional company. And as a performance major, that is really important to me. It’s really putting me out into the world that I’m seeking to work in professionally.”

Kuhnert said watching his students succeed at this level of production is gratifying.

“It’s what we all hope for every single one of our students that they’re going to get out and find their place,” he said. “It’s great to see them succeed in things that are beyond academic and beyond collegiate level.”

Pearce, who will be a junior this fall, hopes to parlay her experience and earnings from the show into a performance opportunity in Europe next summer.

“I got something like 10 offers this year for different programs all over Europe and the United States,” she said. “I was hoping to go to Bulgaria, but that costs a lot of money. I’m going to audition again this year and see what I can get.”

But for now, Pearce and the rest of Wayland’s cast members will continue to perform in the shadows of the canyon wall as Texas plays out its 53rd season.