When Altoona native Michael Kooman wrote the music to accompany "Dani Girl," a musical about a 9-year-old girl's journey to get her hair back after losing it to leukemia, he couldn't help think of his childhood friend Brian Morden.
Brian lost his battle against a rare bone cancer, Ewing's Sarcoma, in 2003 at age 19, and today, Kooman's music will lend itself to helping the foundation that has become Brian's legacy, thanks to the continued fight his mother, Dawn, has led through the Brian Morden Foundation.
The foundation is an Altoona-based charity Brian's family started in 2003 with the help of Judge Daniel Milliron and the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation. It funds research and helps children with cancer, according to press release.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Sam Wagner as “Marty” and Katie Kensinger as “Dani” are shown in a scene from “Dani Girl.” The music for the musical, dramatic comedy about a child with cancer was written by Michael Kooman, originally of Altoona.
"Dani Girl," book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond, will take the stage at the Mishler Theatre on Saturday, July 12. The production features local performers and musicians.
"This is something I'm incredibly happy about," Kooman said. "It's really wonderful to go back and just remember all the things. ... My mom is sorting through pictures of Brian and I, and we're sort of re-visiting some of these stories with Brian. This is certainly a musical that deals with cancer and deals with childhood friendship, and so it's quite an honor to be doing this for people who know me and people who know Brian, and I think it's something that people will really enjoy. It's a really special, unique kind of event for Altoona."
The musical, which has received Kennedy Center honors and rave reviews in theaters across the United States, Canada and Australia, a release said, takes place at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and was inspired by Dimond's late nephew, Danny, who battled cancer.
If you go
What: "Dani Girl," a production of the musical to benefit the Brian Morden Foundation, Altoona
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 12
Where: Mishler Theatre, Altoona
Tickets: $25, reserved seating, which includes a box office handling fee, 944-9434, www.mishlertheatre.org. A cabaret/artists' reception with composer Michael Kooman and guests will follow the show. Reception tickets are $25.
On the web: www.brianmorden foundation.org; www.koomandimond.com
Kooman said his mom, Barbara, came up with the idea to hold the benefit production and is working to implement it.
The Koomans and the Mordens were neighbors when the boys were born months apart in 1984.
"It's a fabulous opportunity for more people to find out about (the foundation) and to also hear and see a wonderful musical. It's really special to me because Michael Kooman, who is the composer of 'Dani Girl,' was really Brian's first friend," Dawn said. "The connection has been there since the time they were born, so it's pretty cool."
Altoona Community Theatre veteran Karen Volpe, who is directing the production, said she has known Dawn and Barbara for many years.
"I've been in theater all my life and there's just something about this. It's like a community project, and it's going to touch so many people on so many different levels here in this community with Michael Kooman, this brilliant young musician who's really becoming successful in New York City, and Brian Morden, who lost his life, and his mother's tremendous fight to help others who are going through it and to find a cure," she said. "It's just one of those things where the universe brings everyone together into this important project. It really is. I don't mean to sound sappy, but I really, really feel that way," Volpe said.
Although the subject matter is a difficult one, the show approaches it thoughtfully.
"And (the show is) not morbid. I mean it's a sad subject, but it's handled with such delicacy and humor. It's a beautiful piece of theater," Volpe said. "It's just so moving. The music is, just one song is better than the next. And there's such emotion and storytelling in this music. And, of course, the script is phenomenal. I've never read something that moved me quite like this has, and then when you add these actors who are breathing life into it, it just becomes something beyond what I ever thought it would be. ... The fact that it is benefiting the Brian Morden Foundation, it just adds another element."
The foundation was the first recipient of the Mirror's Season of Sharing holiday fundraiser. Several sponsors are supporting the benefit production of "Dani Girl."
The Bungie Foundation, based in Redmond, Washing-ton, will be the production's gold sponsor for $10,000, the press release said.
Brian was a fan of the Bungie computer game developer before his diagnosis, and in 2001 he made a Make a Wish trip to the company's studios.
"We're just thrilled with all the continued support," Dawn said. "The Altoona community really has been so fabulous ever since Brian was sick and then when we created the foundation. They just seem to understand that these kids that have cancer need help fighting this battle and we're just so grateful that people are supportive like they are."
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030. Follow Amanda Gabeletto on Twitter (@AmandaGabeletto) or on Facebook (Amanda Gabeletto Altoona Mirror).