Chattanooga playwright debuts new work at the Theatre Centre

'Giant Steps' is a contemporary interpretation of "Jack and the Beanstalk'

Contributed Photo by Brad Cansler / The cast of "Giant Steps: An Urbean Musical" features, clockwise from top right, Alyssa Watts, Kaleb Hollings, Mateo Tibbs, KaShya Dunigan, Charlene Hong White and Jamie Gienapp.

A new two-act play by Chattanoogan Michael Dexter is a classic case of art imitating life, according to the playwright.

"Giant Steps: An Urbean Musical" is also a metaphor for Dexter, who was known as Michael Howard at Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts, a performing arts magnet school where he focused on music theater. Dexter said the seed for the production was planted in him in 2002, and it has been growing ever since.

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With rhythms ranging from gospel to calypso, "Giant Steps" features music and lyrics by Dexter, with a book by Drama Desk nominee Eric Weinberger. It follows the story of Jermaine "J" Johnson, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his widowed mother in a miserable tenement basement apartment.

"Giant Steps" is a contemporary interpretation of "Jack and the Beanstalk," set in the inner city of a major American metropolis. Dexter said he always loved the story, but that he was inspired by the Simba character in "The Lion King" to write a play with characters that looked like him, and "Jack" seemed the logical choice to interpret.

"I love 'Jack and the Beanstalk,' but I remember thinking, 'I need to write a new story that resonates with me,'" he said of his inspiration.

He said the story has deep meaning for him.

"The thing about planting seeds is, whether they are planted in school or church, they continue to grow. Whether it's your teacher or a parent or a mentor, when they tell you are good at something, that can grow and grow in you. Twenty years later, the seeds are still growing in me," he said in a phone interview.

He started writing songs for the play almost immediately, but it has taken him 20 years to get it to the stage for its world premiere. Along the way, he had a series of encouraging events, including readings and chance meetings. But there were also setbacks. Dexter's father died in 2013 and Weinberger in 2017.

Dexter met Weinberger in 2008 when he was in a New York production of "Wanda's World," the musical that earned Weinberger, who wrote the book, a Drama Desk nomination for outstanding book of a musical. During breaks, Dexter would plop down at a piano to work on his songs for "Giant Steps." Weinberger asked what Dexter was singing and offered to write the book for Dexter's project.

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"That meant the world to me," Dexter said.

The two later workshopped "Giant Steps" at BMI Lehman Engel BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that develops new musicals. There, he said, people could bring in parts of their own works, and different teams would add their own interpretations and critiques while performing them. Dexter said that experience was invaluable, not only for the development of the play but also for himself as an artist. "Giant Steps" underwent numerous transformations because of the input.

"It changed a lot," he said. "I learned that the music needs to support the story, and sometimes my lyrics were too busy. I learned to keep my voice in them, but to simplify things so that it's clear the first time the audience hears it. The audience only hears it one time."

Dexter, a theater and piano teacher at Chattanooga Preparatory School, an all-boys public charter school, said he loved the workshopping experience and kept himself open to it.

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"You have to create a head space and hear the critique and not take it as a negative," he said.

Chattanooga Theatre Centre Executive Director Rodney Van Valkenburg said he wanted to present the show because it met several criteria, including being professionally developed through workshops over the years.

"That was important, but also because he is from Chattanooga," Van Valkenburg said via telephone. "Showcasing talented local people is part of what we do."

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"Giant Steps" is under the helm of guest director and choreographer Louie Marin-Howard. The cast includes Chattanooga Theatre Centre newcomer Mateo Tibbs as J. Performances are scheduled July 22-Aug. 7. For tickets, call the Theatre Centre box office at 423-267-8534 or visit

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Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354. Follow him on Twitter @BarryJC.