Musical at the Mishler Depicts Kids with Cancer

Jul 11, 2014

Michael Kooman, composer of "Dani Girl."
Credit photo by Kristine Allen

“Dani Girl,” a musical written by Altoona native Michael Kooman, will be performed Saturday night, July 12 at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona. The show is about a child who’s in a hospital fighting cancer.

“It is such a humorous, emotional, important show,” says Karen Volpe, manager of the Mishler Theatre and Special Events Coordinator for the Blair County Arts Foundation.  She is also the director for this production of “Dani Girl.”

“It’s about a little girl, Dani, who has had cancer all of her life.  The Show takes place in a hospital room and in her imagination.  Because she deals with the disease through her imagination,” Volpe says.

Compser Michael Kooman, who was born and raised in Altoona, wrote “Dani Girl” with lyricist and playwright Christophe Dimond.

“For a child, when you’re living day in and day out in the hospital, they’re going to find a fun way to look at life,” says Kooman.

“Our goal was to really find humor, in this story. To find the happiness and the heart.”

The show is set at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Kooman says he and Dimond, actually interviewed children at that hospital as they prepared to write “Dani Girl.”

“There are these children who are facing death on a daily basis,” Kooman says.  “And they don’t look at it the way that we look at it. So they sometimes maybe do their own little funeral service for their teddy bear.”  The musical includes a scene where Dani and a friend sing a “Requiem” to her stuffed bunny.

“Dani Girl” is full of laugh lines. But writing this musical was very personal for both Kooman and Dimond.  Kooman had a childhood friend in Altoona, Brian Morden, who died of cancer at the age of 19.

‘’Brian and I were nextdoor neighbors,” he says.  And he was my first friend, and my first best friend. And I remember getting into a lot of trouble with him,” Kooman remembers, with a laugh. “We had a lot of fun, and we just – we played I think almost every day in the summer.  He became diagnosed at the age of 16 with Ewing’s Sarcoma. It was very difficult for everyone.”

Saturday night’s production of “Dani Girl” is a benefit for the Brian Morden foundation, named for Kooman’s firend.  (brianmordenfoundation.org). The foundation raises funds for research, and helps kids with cancer.

Kooman says his writing partner, Chris Dimond, had a nephew named Danny, who died of cancer at the age of 11.  In the musical, the character of Marty is obsessed with old movies, as the real-life Danny was.

“So we both had this personal experience with cancer ,” Kooman says of his writing partner, “and childhood cancer.  And Chris had always really grappled with that issue, trying to make sense of it.”

Dimond had written a play called “Dani Girl”, inspired by his nephew’s illness.  And together, Kooman and Dimond made that play into their first musical.

“We sort of used our own experiences in the writing of it, and just went with it, and had a lot of fun,” Kooman recalls.

Yes, he means fun. In the show, Dani and her hospital roommate, Marty, have all kinds of imaginary adventures.

Kooman explains. “Dani and Marty, are dealing with this very difficult issue, in a way that is full of hope, and it’s full of imagination.  It’s full of fantastical adventures.” Those include trips to the stratosphere, a stint on a game show, and a voyage inside the imagined anatomy of a teddy bear.

“it’s the way a child would really look at these things,” Kooman says. 

“They don’t really get bogged down in the way that we, as adults, might.  So it’s hopefully capturing that childlike essence.”

There’s one more thing that’s very unusual about this show: the main characters in this production are played by adults instead of children. The reason? People tended not to laugh when the roles were played by actual kids.

Kooman explains. “We found that having adults play kids made it easier to laugh at the funny parts of the show.  And it also provided a little distance form it.  You know, when there’s an adult playing a kids, we inherently, as audience members, go “Oh, this is a play.”  So we’re able to take a subject that’s as personal to many people as cancer, and really sort of take a different kind of look at it.”

Kooman hopes the quirky humor of “Dani Girl” will help the audience talk about their own experiences with cancer.

“We’ve all been touched by cancer in some way,” he says.

“Someone in our life has had cancer.  And it’s OK to talk about it.  And it’s important to talk about it.  And sometimes humor is the best way to get in the door, into talking about this.  And that is certainly the way that we approached this show.”

“Dani Girl” by Kooman and Dimond has been performed around the country, and published by a major publishing company: Samuel French.  On Saturday, it will come to Kooman’s hometown, Altoona, for the first time. 

There’s just one performance of “Dani Girl”: Saturday evening at 7:30 in Altoona’s Mishler Theatre.  Tickets are available at the Mishler Theatre Box Office or online at  http://mishlertheatre.org/cms/2014/06/dani-girl/

You can find out more about Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond at http://www.koomandimond.com/

To find out more about the Brian Morden Foundation, visit

http://brianmordenfoundation.org/