Return to Paradise

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Theatre on the Ridge’s Judy Clemens (executive director) and Jerry Miller (artistic director) and a smattering of the cast and crew from Radioland’s Return to Paradise.

Neal Road is eerily dark after the sun goes down. As with many areas in Paradise post-Camp Fire, there are few buildings, let alone lights, that remain along the road, and as soon as the Skyway is out of sight, it feels as though one is driving into nothing.

However, about three-quarters of a mile down Neal is a literal sign of hope. The lighted marquee of Theatre on the Ridge seems to float like a single guiding star on the horizon, and it’s hard to not get a little emotional upon reading the words “Return to Paradise” and “#paradisestrong” in the welcoming glow.

Theatre on the Ridge (TOTR) is still standing. And tonight (Feb. 14), the players will be back on its stage to open the first show at the venue since the Camp Fire, Radioland’s Return to Paradise, a radio-show-style musical curated specially for the stricken community as a “love letter to Paradise.”

Founded in 1975—and at the Neal Road location since 1979—TOTR is the longest-running community theater in Butte County. Executive Director Judy Clemens has been with the company for 42 years, and she is among the dozen or so from the theater’s core who lost everything in the fire. (Only three of the homes of TOTR’s board and staff of volunteers who lived on the Ridge survived.)

“Everybody’s so happy and hopeful that the theater survived,” Clemens said.

It took two weeks for crews to clean and repair the smoke damage at the theater before the actors could come back in. And Clemens and Jerry Miller, the theater’s artistic director (whose Magalia home was spared), agreed that launching the Radioland production—and doing so this soon—was the right thing to do.

“Let’s go up there and they will come,” was Miller’s response.

Even though there are still so many displaced residents, some even forced to move from the area—including a portion of the theater’s season-ticket holders—the hope is to bring people together to heal through theater.

“I think we are really going to serve a purpose,” Clemens said.

Since Radioland’s debut more than a decade ago, the radio-show format of Miller’s musical revue—featuring a variety of vocalists taking on both popular songs and spoofs of familiar tunes—has proven malleable. It’s met different themes for many subsequent productions.

This time, Miller—who is also directing—has assembled a playlist with Paradise in mind, and watching the cast rehearse the mix of broken-hearted and celebratory tunes, it’s easy to imagine that the audience—and the performers—will experience a much-needed release.

John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” is transformed by Steve and Kelly Oberlander (performing as the Mount Joys duet) from a nostalgic roots-rocker into a quietly beautiful and achingly poignant tear-jerker: “Well I was born in a small town/And I live in a small town/Probably die in a small town/Oh, those small communities.”

And guitar-and-gut-bucket duo Jeff Hohimer and Patrick Allen Brown (aka the GarFinkles) have some fun with John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and Miller’s updated lyrics: “Take me home, Butte County roads.”

In addition to an impressive roster of lead vocalists—including a rotating list of special guest stars, such as The Bidwells, Loki Miller and members of The Railflowers—the show is powered by a four-piece band of local acoustic ringers, Rich Reiner (mandolin, guitar), Rebecca Herring Reiner (bass), Ken Lawson (guitar) and David Bilinksi (banjo, Dobro).

Clemens gets into the act as well, singing her hand-chosen song, the rousing “Home,” by Phillip Phillips. “I picked that specifically because it’s just what I want to say,” she explained.

The song’s theme of finding comfort during crisis is a perfect fit, and Clemens sticks to the original lyrics almost all the way through, only deviating right at the end to sing with a lump in her throat:

“Paradise is still our home.”