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Danny Boyd, Larry Groce revisit 'Paradise Park' with Theatre of West Virginia

Neither Danny Boyd nor Larry Groce ever expected to find themselves going back to “Paradise Park,” part of a trio of films Boyd wrote and directed in the early 1990s.

They’re about to do just that.

Friday night at the Theatre of West Virginia in Raleigh County, Boyd and Groce will be returning to “Paradise Park” when the musical adaptation of the 1992 film makes its debut.

“Paradise Park” wasn’t a horror film but a fantasy-driven comedy/drama about the residents of a Southern West Virginia trailer park who are told that God is coming to visit them and will grant them each one wish. The rest of the trio included the horror films “Chillers” and “Strangest Dreams.”

Boyd, who wrote and directed the low-budget film, said, “To me, this was always the best movie I made, but the one that had the least success.”

The film earned a couple of awards on the independent film festival circuit but was largely ignored by the rest of the country.

“It had the worst show-biz luck,” Boyd said. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and it didn’t get the life I hoped it would.”

Eventually, Boyd sold the rights to the film, where it languished in obscurity for years.

Gross, the host and one of the creators of “Mountain Stage,” starred in the film, which also featured appearances by country music stars Porter Wagoner and Johnny Paycheck, as well as professional wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes.

He said the movie had a good message.

“I liked the heart of the script,” Groce said. “People care about each other. To me, the trailer park was a little microcosm of West Virginia. The people there aren’t necessarily all buddies, but, in the end, they all come together.”

The songwriter was at the premiere of the film years ago but said he probably hadn’t seen “Paradise Park” in over 20 years.

It was something he did but hadn’t thought much about in a while.

Boyd had moved on, too. Then, a few years ago, Boyd was asked to be on a filmmakers panel at the Rocket Boys Festival by “Rocket Boys” author Homer Hickam.

At the festival, he met Scott Hill, the director of the festival and the general manager for the Theatre of West Virginia, which produces the annual summer outdoor dramas “Honey in the Rock” and “Hatfields & McCoys.”

At the festival, Hill introduced himself to Boyd and said, “‘Paradise Park’ is my favorite film.”

Boyd said he thanked Hill.

“I always appreciate hearing that kind of thing,” he said.

Then Hill brought it up again and told Boyd that “Paradise Park” was his favorite movie ever. When Hill mentioned it again, Boyd told him, “You know, you could own it.”

“So, he bought the rights,” Boyd said.

Hill said, “It really is one of my favorite movies. I went to the premiere of ‘Paradise Park’ at the Little Theater in Charleston back in the 1990s.”

So the theater manager acquired the rights and began to wonder if the film could be adapted to the stage.

“It had such a good story,” he said. “And, to me, it was very much a West Virginia story. I thought it might work on stage.”

Hill contacted Boyd and told him what he had in mind. Boyd liked the idea immediately.

“This was always a musical to me,” Boyd said.

The film had two musical numbers and a lot of music written into it.

“I’ve always called it my ‘hillbilly opera,’” he said.

Hill suggested Boyd reach out to Groce about writing new music for the stage show.

The pair met over lunch, where Boyd explained what it was Hill wanted them to do.

Groce said, “I don’t know if I can do this, but you definitely should.”

Boyd told Groce the same thing.

So Boyd agreed to adapt the film for stage, while Groce signed on to write songs.

Neither had done anything like this before.

“I was a screenwriter,” Boyd said. “I had to get a book and learn.”

Groce hadn’t written many songs in years, but they were both excited about taking on the project.

“That’s one of the best parts,” Hill said. “Larry Groce doesn’t get really excited about much, but he got excited about this. Seeing that happen was like marking something off my bucket list.”

As with other musicals made from films, changes had to be made to translate the story to the stage.

Boyd trimmed or combined a couple of characters. Some of the dialogue and a few of the scenes were changed to make the musical more family-friendly.

The film contained some profanity and a little nudity, but the biggest changes were made because of technical restrictions.

“In the film, there’s a character with a sign around his neck that says ‘Man will Work.’ He never says anything, but he’s perpetually looking for work,” Groce said. “In the film, there are all these fantasies the characters have. He dreams of being Santa Claus and giving out presents.”

“He wants to give, not take,” Boyd explained.

“For that scene there’s snow and a big costume change, which you can do in a movie, but there’s only so much space to work with on stage,” Groce said.

Instead, the fantasy scenes and chunks of the expositional dialogue have been replaced with songs.

“But it’s done in the modern way of musicals,” Groce said. “The songs move the story forward.”

The songs also help color the characters within the musical. Groce went with a variety of styles — everything from Broadway-style numbers to big band, rock, country and bluegrass music.

Groce wrote the lyrics and came up with the tunes but brought in “Mountain Stage” guitarist Ryan Kennedy to help arrange music.

Ron Sowell and Kennedy, along with Groce, produced the backing instrumental track for the musical and recorded with Johnny Staats, Bob Thompson, Chris Stockwell and others.

“The music is phenomenal,” Hill said. “They recorded some of the best players in the state.”

Groce said he recorded a demo version of each song for the performers on stage to use as a guide, but his voice was only used once on the soundtrack.

Boyd said the songs added dimensions to some of his characters, filling them out in ways he hadn’t considered when he wrote the film almost 30 years ago.

“And Larry wrote this all in a really short time,” Boyd added. “He started late fall of last year — almost Christmas, really — and had it basically done late January or in February.”

Groce came up with 18 pieces of music, while Boyd worked through 14 drafts of his script.

Part of what interested Groce about the musical is how many of the issues raised in “Paradise Park” are still the same.

In the film, the governor, played by Porter Wagoner, shows up at the trailer park where he’s badgered about poverty, the lack of well-paying jobs and poor teacher pay.

“It’s the same issues today,” Groce said. “Twenty-six years later, it’s the same stuff.”

The answers haven’t changed much either, Groce said.

Everyone has to decide what’s important to them and whether they want to stay or whether they need to go.

Groce, a native of Texas, has made West Virginia his home for 46 years. He made his choice a long time ago.

“West Virginia is more anecdotal than statistical,” he said. “We always do poorly in those lists about good places to live, but a lot of that has to do with what the polls are looking for.”

Groce said the state fares poorly in quality of life but ranks higher compared to other states with being neighborly.

“We know each other,” he said. “If you need to get something done — like haul something off your property — you can probably get that done without having to call somebody. The good things are hard to describe in statistics.”

Groce said tourism struggles to get people to come to West Virginia, but once people come for a visit, they come back.

“They get it,” he said.

“Paradise Park” puts the best foot forward possible for the people of the state, Boyd said.

“But it’s universal,” he said. “I’ve had exchange students from Russia tell me they loved the film, that it reminded them of home. It’s about rural places and values.”

Boyd and Groce said they wanted the musical to capture the heart of the film, while being entertaining on its own merits.

“It’s been a wonderful project,” Boyd said.

But a challenge, he added.

“Would we do this again?” Groce mused. “Well, maybe. We’re talking about it.”

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @lostHwys on Twitter.

He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap/ and read his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth/

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