Sheryl McCallum poses as she sings onstage in Miss Rhythm - The Legend of Ruth Brown

Musicians Put the “Music” in “Musical”

If you’re lucky enough to be a part of the theatre community in Denver, you’ve probably heard of local legend David Nehls. An actor, composer, lyricist, musician, musical director, arranger…the list of his accolades and affiliations reads long and impressive. Currently, he’s conducting the band and playing the keys in the world premiere production Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown, a show he co-wrote with local performer Sheryl McCallum.

Headshot of David Nehls

David Nehls

“If you’re coming to the show and sitting in the audience, you will see five musicians onstage, when in reality, there are fifteen musicians working on this show,” Nehls said. In addition to the band, McCallum sings with Ruth Brown’s iconic sass, and Nicole deBree steps in as McCallum’s understudy. That’s seventeen people, when the audience will only ever see six onstage.

The live music scene in Colorado is booming. Theatre musicians are finding gigs everywhere and often, meaning they may or may not be available for every matinee and evening of the six-month performance at the Garner Galleria Theatre. “The rehearsal process is hair-raising,” Nehls confessed. “Usually you have a set group of musicians and a set of subs who can step in if someone gets sick. In this case, we have three subs per instrument. That just makes sense for us, and we make it work.”

The technical aspects of performing on the Garner Galleria stage have been the biggest roadblock. “We can’t always hear each other on that stage, and we still haven’t cracked that nut,” Nehls explained. And with a rotating set of musicians, who may be playing all together for the first time during a live performance, it’s a never-ending obstacle. “Keeping this show simple has helped. Unlike something like The Other Josh Cohen [a previous DCPA Cabaret production] which had a lot of movement, actors playing instruments, musicians switching instruments during the show, this feels less like performative theatre in that sense. We really wanted it to feel like audience members are coming in and seeing a show that Ruth Brown herself would have performed in the 1950s.”

Sheryl McCallum poses as she sings onstage in Miss Rhythm - The Legend of Ruth Brown

Sheryl McCallum in Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown. Photo by McLeod9 Creative

On the positive side, the rotating aspect keeps the group on their toes. “We’re finding that no two shows are alike,” Nehls said. Not that the audience would notice, but this group of musicians turned friends riff off each other during the performances. As Nehls described it, “There’s a kind of looseness we’re trying to emulate, a vibe that feels very relaxed and has room for creativity.” The band even responds to audiences, who have been very vocal throughout the run so far. “It’s fun to see what they’re excited about.”

For Nehls and the other musicians, Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown is something special. “I’m very proud of our Denver theatre community and the musicians in the theatre community. The way they have stepped up since the pandemic; to see them playing a new genre of music or committing to a world premiere production like Miss Rhythm. There’s such representation in this community that I think is so special, and it’s not something every community has,” Nehls said.

Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown is playing through October 15. Don’t miss out on the chance to see this unique production – and even if you’ve already seen it once, the musicians are guaranteed to give you something a little different next time around.

Miss Rhythm — The Legend of Ruth Brown
Now through Oct 15 • Garner Galleria Theatre