After a year-long break from live performances, University of Nebraska-Lincoln musical theater students premiered a musical film about a social media influencer to a sold-out crowd.
“The Real Gemma Jordan” is an original movie musical written by Anna K. Jacobs, with music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki. It features a cast of UNL students and is directed by a UNL faculty member and an alumnus.
The musical film follows Gemma Jordan, a social media influencer and Lincoln resident, as she embarks on a journey to discover the identity of an internet troll stealing her identity. Jacquelyn vonAschwege, a junior interdisciplinary studies major from Kearney, stars in the lead role. Alisa Belflower, coordinator of musical theater studies at UNL, and Alex Jeffery, a UNL alumnus and filmmaker with Bespoke Works LLC, co-directed the film.
“The Real Gemma Jordan” premiered Feb. 5 at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, selling out the theater days before the event took place. Belflower said the film was developed to replace a stage production that was impossible to put on because of COVID restrictions in 2020. Belflower created a production that could be produced and shown in spite of COVID restrictions, but could still contribute to the experience of her students. “The Real Gemma Jordan” is the first feature film created by the UNL Opera and the theater program.
Belflower said she had the budget to create a stage musical, but a live production was unlikely due to the pandemic.
“I began to think, what if we just commissioned a movie musical?”
To save money for the commission, Belflower said she picked a subject about college-aged characters so the actors could wear their own clothes. She also said the film was shot outdoors to save money on sets.
The movie was filmed in Lincoln and surrounding areas in August 2021. Belflower said that the film captures the natural beauty of the state, which some residents may have grown accustomed to, in a refreshing way. Filming in Lincoln had many aesthetic and logistical benefits.
“In Lincoln, you can get some larger city aesthetic, but you can also not drive very far and get a very rural aesthetic, which was very convenient for us,” she said.
Lincoln residents will recognize a number of filming locations, such as Lincoln Community Tower Square Park, the Lied Center for Performing Arts and The Mill Coffee House. Jacquelyn vonAschwege, who portrays Gemma Jordan, said filming in Lincoln was a unique opportunity with significant prospects.
“I feel like there’s not a lot of outlets for this kind of project here, and this could be a segue into bringing that kind of media to Nebraska,” vonAschwege said.
Many of the premiere attendees were friends and family of the cast and crew, members of Friends of Opera at UNL and community members who wanted to support the film. The audience reacted positively, both in how the film represented Nebraska and how it exemplifies the growth of arts in the state.
Kat Hubbell, an unofficial member of the Friends of Opera, said the film was a fabulous collaboration between students and professionals. She also said she would love to see the scope of these types of projects broadened.
“It was such a great opportunity for students to experience something out of the ordinary than what they do with their studies normally,” Hubbell said.
Nate Ostdiek, a friend of cast member Jill Stark, said he felt pride in seeing Nebraska on screen in the film.
“The film taking place in Nebraska was really cool. When it was showing the fields my heart just swelled,” he said.
In her remarks before the film premiered, Belflower also thanked Jeffery and his company for their work on the film. She said their willingness to work with students inexperienced in filmmaking contributed to the students being able to do their best work on screen. She also thanked the audience for supporting a new endeavor for her and the students.
“It has been a real joy to see audiences enjoy and embrace new works,” she said.
The musical theater department has had to endure many negative effects from the pandemic. Belflower noted that her position is being eliminated at the end of the year because of pandemic-related budget cuts.
“I hope that the level of artistic excellence that is brought into campus remains, but I won’t be in a position to contribute to that anymore,” Belflower said.
Belflower said she cannot comment about the future of the musical theater program after this spring, but she is directing a production of “She Loves Me” for the university as her last production at UNL. The stage musical will premiere at the Kimball Recital Hall in March.
“I have worked and collected professional favors to raise the standard of musical theater at UNL to being a place where nationally renowned, and internationally renowned composers want to come here to work with me and my students that I have trained, and it’s very sad for me to leave that behind,” Belflower said.
Still, the opportunity for growth remains strong in Nebraska. Belflower said that the film school at UNL is producing films annually. She also said Andy Park with Nebraska Repertory Theatre is producing new works for the stage.
As a student directly involved in the arts in Nebraska since high school, vonAschwege said she is hopeful for the continued growth in opportunity for artists and audiences alike.
“I just feel like there’s so much potential for Nebraska to have a great, thriving arts community. … There’s some cool opportunities here and I think it really shows.”