By David Burger The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 10/05/2008 12:11:08 PM MDT

At this point in his career, Air Supply singer-songwriter Graham Russell has been reduced to playing a plant in a children’s musical in Salt Lake City. But he says he couldn’t be happier.

Russell, one-half of the famed soft-rock duo, will wear a plant suit during the five-night world premiere of a children’s musical, “Petalbump,” which he wrote and composed. The 90-minute, one-act show will run Oct. 27-31.

“It really has been his dream project,” said friend and illustrator David Habben, who early on worked with Russell and his wife, Jodi, on the project.

“I love the medium,” said Russell, a Park City resident since 1994. “I love theater. I always wanted to write a major theatrical piece.”

After the world premiere in Salt Lake City, Graham and Jodi Russell hope to stage other productions of it elsewhere. Plans are also under way to turn the story into a children’s book and an animated film, with the help of Pleasant Grove’s Sandman Studios.

“We have always seen the first production at the Rose Wagner as a stepping stone to having multiple shows worldwide,” Jodi Russell said.

The story of a woman’s relationship with Petalbump, a fairy, first came to Jodi through several dreams more than a decade ago. “I became interested in everything ‘fairy,’ ² Jodi said, but it was Graham who came up with the idea to write a children’s ballet.

Since Air Supply still records and tours, Graham and the group’s pianist, Jed Moss, began collaborating on the ballet, which took about a decade to finish, while working intermittently. Eventually the musical took form, unfolding the story of Lucy, a woman in her 30s who returns to her childhood home. Lucy’s childhood had become a nightmare after her parents died. She plans on selling the family home, but then discovers some artifacts from her youth that transport her into a fantasy, idyllic world, full of fairies who have been waiting years for her to return. Petalbump is the lead fairy, acting as Lucy’s guide.

“Maybe I wanted to get into that world again, a world of fantasy,” Graham said, explaining the story’s autobiographical notes, rooted in the death of his mother when he was 10. Graham’s wife said the death was traumatic for him, and he didn¹t speak to anyone for a year. (³That is what turned him inward to start writing poetry and music,” she said.)

The play was meant to be a ballet, but Jodi and Graham happened to stop by Vibe, a dance studio in Lindon. Besides ballet, many of the dancers were well-versed in other styles of dance: hip-hop, jazz and ballroom. The ballet was quickly refashioned into a musical including all those varieties.

“We started casting the lead principals of the show through the kids at Vibe and they again blew us away,” Jodi said. “For not only do they need to be great dancers in the show, but also singers and actors. And at the age of 14, they amaze and inspire us.”

The musical will rise or fall on the shoulders of children, because, of the 30 cast members, only two are adults. In Salt Lake City, Jodi plays the adult Lucy and Graham is a, well, plant. “Being a plant, I don’t have to dance,” he explained.

Lindsay Arnold, 14, of Provo, plays Petalbump. She has danced since the age of 4, but admitted some trepidation about the larger role. “It’s nerve-wracking,” she said. “I’ve never sung or acted before.”

Brandon Armstrong, 14, of Lehi, plays Echo, another fairy. He and the dancer who plays Lucy as a child, Brittany Cherry, won the junior division of “Dancing With the Stars” last season.

He, like Arnold, his castmate, didn’t immediately recognize the name of Air Supply, Graham Russell’s band. “Once my mom and dad found out who it was, they started cracking up and started singing all of their songs,” Armstrong said.

With Graham still touring throughout much of the year, Jodi has been the producer, and has assembled a talented crew to accompany the cast and full orchestra. Rose Brown is the head costume designer, Jared Potter is the head set designer, and Nicholas Cavallaro is the lighting director; all three are employed by the Utah Opera. Six new songs have been written by Graham and Moss, with Graham singing one of them, a duet. Moss, the band’s pianist, also plays with Ballet West.

For choreography, the Russells chose Rick Robinson, the co-artistic director of Vibe. Robinson, along with co-artistic director Kellie Messerly and choreographer Alan Salazar, designed a high-energy stage show meant to inspire people to believe in themselves.

With the final rehearsals wrapping up, all involved hope that Utahns won’t be scared off by the label “children’s musical.” The lessons to be learned are cross-generational, cast and crew claim.

“It can touch adults and even the elderly,” Robison said.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it,” Graham said.

“Petalbump teaches Lucy how to be herself and to believe in herself,” Arnold said.
“There isn’t anything specifically designed for children,” Jodi said. “I feel this is a show for families. Living in this high-paced life, we tend to forget the joys and innocence that surrounds us daily, and that is what the adult Lucy discovers throughout the story.”

After each show, there will be a meet-and-greet with the cast. If you’re lucky, maybe Graham will wear not his rock star clothes, but that plant costume. Just don’t expect him to dance. David Burger writes about popular music.

Contact him at or 801-257-8620.