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By Tim Hipps
IMCOM Public Affairs

SAN ANTONIO – Although the newly renovated Fort Sam Houston Theatre played host to Operation Rising Star, a jazz show, and several town hall meetings, Army Entertainment officials like to consider opening weekend of the 2012 U.S. Army Soldier Show as the theatre’s grand reopening.

“It was made into a television set and there was a jazz show, but this is the first large-scale touring production that’s going to be in here,” artistic director Victor Hurtado said of the 7 p.m. performances scheduled for April 19, 20 and 21. “And it happens to be the U.S. Army Soldier Show.”

Admission is free on a first-come, first-seated basis. The doors will open at 6 p.m.

Making her own debut is Joint Base San Antonio’s Sgt. Shinita Ward, a Dallas native.

At the live auditions, Ward told Hurtado she was concerned she might not make the final cut for Army Entertainment’s marquee event.

“In fact, I’m going to be in the same room whether I make the show or not,” she said. “If I don’t make the show and I go back to my room, everything is going to go dark. But if I make it, everything’s going to be light.”

Let there be light, because Ward is in the cast.

“She’s really good,” Hurtado said. “She’s a great addition to the show – both as a singer and a dancer.”

Ward has been interested in the Soldier Show since she saw the troops perform at Fort Gordon, Ga., in 2008, while she was in Advanced Individual Training. Shortly thereafter, however, she deployed for a year to Afghanistan, where she had little time to consider entertainment.

Upon return to Fort Gordon, Ward was selling popcorn at the Soldier Show, raising funds for the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program. She talked with some of the performers and started feeling better about auditioning for the show.

Her next stop was Fort Sam Houston, where she served as BOSS vice president. Soon thereafter, Army Entertainment moved from Fort Belvoir, Va., setting the stage for Ward.

“I run by this theatre every morning, so I always wondered what it was like inside,” said Ward, who will sing solo portions of Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” and Beyonce’s “Love on Top.” “I’m really excited that the Soldier Show came here, and this is where we get to start our tour.”

Active-duty Soldiers bring the emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and family pillars of military life to the stage in “Army Strong,” theme of the 2012 U.S. Army Soldier Show.

The 90-minute production is designed to accentuate the strengths and resiliency of Soldiers and military Families through modern songs, current hits, vibrant costuming, exciting choreography and spectacular visuals.

“That is in line with the chief of staff’s motto for this year, which is, ‘The strength of our nation is our Army, the strength of our Army is our Soldiers, the strength of our Soldiers is our Families, and that’s what makes us Army Strong,” Higdon said. “So the show is designed to follow that theme, and to highlight the strength aspect all the way through.”

Soldiers will attempt to sing and dance their way into the audiences’ hearts, minds and souls. “Entertainment for the Soldier, by the Soldier,” is the working motto of the U.S. Army Soldier Show, which is designed to deliver a positive message to the troops.

“It’s all about ‘Army Strong – Hooah!’ So we’re moving out and doing that,” Higdon said.

The 2012 edition unveils a state-of-the-art, high-resolution LED video wall – 13 feet tall by 28 feet wide – featuring photographs of Army life on a virtual backdrop revolving from scene to scene and song to song.

“It’s going to be a very visual show – very current, very modern,” Higdon said. “We’re excited about that new aspect of the show. The incorporation of that LED technology is going to make the show move forward with a very modern and relevant presentation.”

Army Reserve Sgt. Melissa Neal, winner of the 2011 Operation Rising Star military singing contest, will make a taped appearance. The Soldier Show cast will join Neal’s video backdrop to sing “Hallelujah,” which she performed during Operation Rising Star finals week in San Antonio and later recorded at EMI Music’s Capitol Records Studios in Hollywood.

“It’s kind of magical,” said Hurtado, who worked all three projects with Neal.

As always, sections of the show are dedicated to legends of the entertainment industry, such as Etta James. Another blast into the past features a segment accentuating iconic military songs.

The theme of this season’s Soldier Show evolved from the meeting of many minds at the U.S. Army Installation Management Command. Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, commander of IMCOM, stressed the importance of expressing the warrior ethos, which proclaims that no challenge is too large to conquer.

“Everything in the show really speaks to resiliency, being able to adapt and overcome,” Higdon said. “Resiliency really is that mental part, being able to put things in a perspective which allows you to continue to continue to move forward – that you never come up against a challenge that you can’t overcome.”

“Putting the show together has gone from hard to simply difficult,” said Hurtado, a 26-year Soldier Show veteran and 12-time director. “The show came from many, many briefings, and all of these things are always in the back of my mind. … But the end result is Soldiers’ lives are illustrated within the show in a really cool way.”

For example, strength is personified by Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be.” Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” is dedicated to the Soldier-athletes in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program training for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, along with Soldiers who participate in All-Army Sports, post intramurals and daily physical fitness drills.

Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” honors the late songstress and significant events in U.S. Army history.

Lady Gaga scores again with “Marry the Night,” which illustrates Soldiers’ resilience, complete with a night vision sequence.

Hurtado did not reveal too much prior to the opening. He would rather have droves of entertainment aficionados see and hear the U.S. Army Soldier Show, the marquee event of Army Entertainment, than read about it.

“I have to say the talent is exceptional,” Hurtado said. “They really pick up and they really deliver.”

New Soldier Show choreographer Amy Lynn Miles, who recently toured with Ricky Martin, brings another perspective to the troops.

“She can dance a little,” Hurtado deadpanned. “She’s only 23, but she’s very disciplined, and she takes charge. She earned their respect very quickly – within minutes, I would say.”

Two members of the cast might look familiar to fans of Army Entertainment productions. Army Reserve Spc. Julio Petersen III of Fort Meade, Md., returns from the 2009 U.S. Army Soldier Show, and Sgt. Jon Whittle of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., was a 2011 Operation Rising Star finalist.

“Now that Whittle is with professionals every day, working on his instrument, his voice, you’re not even going to recognize him,” Hurtado said. “Whittle has become an artist; he really has.”

The show features a lot of spoken word, much of which was written by the Soldiers, particularly Pfc. Christopher Roman of Fort Drum, N.Y., Pfc. Raymond McKnight Jr. of Fort Benning, Ga., and Spc. Kayonnia Crowder of Fort Carson, Colo.

Harmonicist Spc. Franz Fabricante of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, is a master of beatboxing, a form of vocal percussion that primarily involves the art of producing drum beats, rhythm and musical sounds using his mouth, lips, tongue and voice.

“He’s a great beatboxer,” Hurtado said. “He can beatbox and play harmonica at the same time, which may show up in the Etta James section. He’s just a breath of fresh air.”

After opening weekend at Fort Sam, the troops will embark on a five-month tour to perform at least 60 shows in at least 31 venues, including a Pacific journey to Hawaii and Japan.

One goal of the U.S. Army Soldier Show is to promote resiliency by giving fellow troops an opportunity to unwind, relax and re-evaluate the world in which they live, along with the way of life that they defend. And how they do it: Army Strong.

For a list of the 2012 tour dates and locations go to