Three shows this fall were so packed with Scene Stealers, that Joel gives them their own feature: The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) at Elden Street Players, West Side Story at Rockville Musical Theatre and Chicago at Winston Churchill High School.
Jane Petkofsky as Abby, Mimi Preda as Junita, and Brent Stone as Jitter in The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) at The Elden Street Players
Jane: I’ve been acting around the DC area for over 25 years. I started out doing almost exclusively for musicals, but eventually discovered a great love of straight theater. Over the years I studied voice with a couple of great teachers, but mostly with the wonderful Wendy Glaubitz, who unfortunately has left the area. My primary acting training has been with the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts, where I completed the Honors Conservatory program in 2006. Some of my favorite roles have been Mother in Ragtime: the Musical, Miss Gilchrist in The Hostage, Boo Levy in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and Ouisa in Six Degrees of Separation.
Mimi: I graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2007 where I was a chemistry major, and had some theater and vocal training my junior and senior year. Prior to college, my musical experience is rooted in 13 years of piano training, with most of my vocal training prior to college being focused on classical opera. I was fortunate my senior year to be invited to participate in a theater seminar that put on a production of Urinetown where I played Ma Strong. This production was my first real musical experience, and inspired me to pursue more productions when I graduated from college. Since moving to the DC area, I have been lucky to perform with the Mclean Community Players in both Evita (Ensemble/Aristocrat) and Oliver! (Nancy). Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) is my third production in the area, and I feel so grateful to be a part of it.
Brent: I began dancing when I was four and trained for fifteen years – tap, jazz, ballet and social, so I grew up very comfortable on stage. It wasn’t until college that I began appearing in theatrical productions. Favorite roles and shows include John Adams in 1776, Cole Porter in Red, Hot and Cole, Riff in West Side Story and, now, Jitter in Musical of Musicals (The Musical!).
Joel: Why did you want to play Abby and June and Jitter?
Jane: First, as a life-long musical theater geek, I am fascinated by the show itself, the cleverness of the musical, lyrical, and dramaturgical references to the great musical productions I grew up with. Second, the role presents some great challenges – having to create five distinctive characters in one show and at the same time mine the connecting threads among them. The role is also vocally challenging – an hour and a half of singing from the very bottom to the very top of my range and lots of high energy movement. Most important, the show is just such a hoot.
Mimi: I was drawn to the role of June because it provided an opportunity to explore so many different characters – it’s pretty much five shows in one! In addition, the musicals that are parodied in the show are the musicals I grew up with that inspired me to get involved with theater.
Brent: After seeing Dominion Stage’s version, I was intrigued with the show as a whole and with the role of Jitter specifically. Jitter is the landlord playing the role of villain in each scene. Within the dastardly nature, I knew I would be challenged with playing roles ranging from an outcast farmhand to artistic murderous demon, from Opera Impresario to the Cabaret-style Emcee. As the vast majority of my previous roles were either dramatic or dance oriented, appearing in an entirely comedic show was exciting as well as challenging.
Joel: How do you relate to Abby, June and Jitter?
Jane: How don’t I? Some of my family remarked, after seeing the show, that they didn’t really need to come to the theater to see me doing Abby. I can find a musical comedy moment in almost any situation. When I do, I just don’t hold back. Also, in each piece, Abby is unabashedly honest – she says what she wants to say, and she doesn’t sugar-coat it. There’s at least a little bit of that in me.
Mimi: My favorite aspect of playing June was the vocal diversity of the part. Most of the roles I have played previously are strictly alto/belt roles, yet I also like singing mezzo soprano and soprano parts. I enjoyed and related to the vocal differentiations in the role of June.
Brent: Not very well actually. That made portraying these roles tricky … yet fun. Jitter is about “ownership” of the ingénue. In more than one scene, he describes the character of June as his. Going to this dark place, while at the same time emphasizing the comedic element, provided interesting character interplay. The role allowed the chance to freely delve into the dark element while doing so in such outrageous manner that it was both villainous and comedic.
Joel: Did you base your performance on a friend, or relative, or someone else?
Jane: Each iteration of Abby was based on a composite of the characters she parodies and the actors who created those characters. For example, Abigail Von Schtarr springs pretty closely the fictional Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard. To capture her essence, I studied the creators of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version of that character (Glenn Close among them), and the original non-musical film Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson. Overall, Miss Von Schtarr turned out to be about 99% Gloria.
Mimi: Most of my performances were based on the actresses that originated the roles. The one character that I modeled after someone I know was Junita. When I moved to the DC area, the first musical I was lucky to be a part of was Evita with the McLean Community Players. Jennifer Lambert played Evita in the production, and she was so phenomenal in that role. It was very easy for me to create a strong characterization for Junita after being in that production with her.
Brent: I based the performance pulling from the aspects from each musical genre Oklahoma’s Judd, with a bit of Snidely Whiplash thrown in, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera etc… My portrayal of Houdini in Ragtime did provide invaluable advanced work with a cape – essential for any proper Phantom!
Joel: How did you prepare for the role?
Jane: I prepared pretty much the same way I prepare for any role – made sure I understood each character and her relationship to the others on stage and worked on all the technical pieces that need to mesh in a musical – the vocals, choreography, etc. The key additional work for this piece centered on researching the musicals referenced to make sure in each segment Abby gave proper homage to the characters on which she was based.
Mimi: My DVD collection has been greatly expanded following this experience. In preparing for the role, I watched all the great performances that this musical lovingly parodies, which was truly a joy. It was so much fun revisiting all the musicals and picking up on the nuances of the characters
Brent: After spending time with the videos from each tradition, I honed in on the key character traits to be brought forward in each Jitter role. Bringing them to rehearsals, Wade Corder, the show’s director, provided excellent guidance in sharpening the character. Perhaps most importantly, he provided us, as a cast, the latitude to explore elements of both the individual and communal scenes. The openness and friendliness of fellow cast members – Mimi Preda, Mark Gray-Mendes, Jane Petkofsky and music director and pianist Beth Atkins – were critical in this process of delving into scene development and character interaction. And Amanda Cane, as assistant director and choreographer, brought wonderful movement that further helped set the appropriate tone on which to build the character.
Joel: Jane: You are hysterical as Abby, and I loved you singing “Over The Top”. Set it up for us, and describe visually for our readers what you were doing as you performed it.
Jane: Abigail Von Schtarr is the archetypal diva – she’s old and crippled but still sees herself as the greatest star that ever lived. She’s wheeled on in a “wheel chair” (there’s no actual chair—that’s left to the audience’s imagination, as are virtually all the props in the show), and hoists herself out of the chair at the top of a staircase. She leans over to the banister to help herself down the stairs, but as her legs give out, and she slides down the banister to the floor to deliver her words of wisdom to the waiting Junita. In the number, she relives her glory days as she advises Junita on how to make sure her name “will stay over the title.” Her over-the-top performance gives way to genuine gratitude when she realizes her public still adores her; she takes in the audience’s adulation before dragging herself back up the stairs and wheeling herself off-stage. I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.
Joel: Mimi, You were hysterical as Junita. Set up that parody for us, and tell me which lines you loved the most, and which lyrics were the hardest to learn.
Mimi: The parody for Junita is solely based on Evita, and is the one characterization of June that is distinctly different, especially vocally, from the other four characters. I enjoyed getting a chance to really belt out the lyrics and take the Evita character “over the top” (to quote Abby). Evita is a character with such strength and presence, and it was really fun to exaggerate that in my performance. The leather jacket as part of my costume definitely assisted with that!
My favorite lyrics were “I will never sing for the middle classes/ my father was middle class/ and I hated him/ and he hated me/ I only like the lower classes/ not the upper classes/ screw the middle classes/ and their so called morality.” When I first read the script, this was the one line I laughed at the most because it was such a brilliant parody of Evita. It was consistently one of my favorite parts of the show every night.
Joel: You were hysterical as Jitter/Emcee in the Kander and Ebb parody “Speakeasy”. Set up that parody for us, and tell me which lines you loved the most, and which lyrics were the hardest to learn.
Brent: As in Kander and Ebb productions, this show’s section saw the Emcee both narrating the scene as well as interacting with the characters. Specifically my Emcee played with engaging the audience and taunting the cast – using an eerie Joel Gray styled effect. By this show’s final sequence, the audience is thoroughly enmeshed in participation and prepped for this most outrageous scene. And the apparel worn by the cast, or the lack thereof, along with a weird Emcee smile kicking off this scene told the audience that no holds were barred in this sequence.
As the Emcee, I specifically enjoyed the numerous opportunities to play with the timing of line delivery, allowing the audience to see the Emcee relishing applause and even asking them to increase their accolades. The audiences loved the interaction. An excellent example of this counter play came at the end of the scene’s first song. Whereas K&E’s Emcee described that the world outside was depressing, Jitter asked the audience “So life is good, Jah?” Then after receiving the communal affirmative, I quickly and forcefully cut them off declaring “Forget it”. Again, it was clear that the audience truly enjoyed the unusual interplay directly with the cast
Of Jitter’s lines, the most challenging to commit to memory actually took place during the Sondheim sequence. Of course, MOM is so cleanly written that this segment actually emphasizes the intricacies and challenge of Sondheim’s lyrics. For example, the word interplay of “Be wary of the weary” and “Be leery of the wary” actually twisted me up severally one night. The resultant lyric came out as “Be leery of the Larry!” I am not sure that Sondheim ever meant that to be sung.
Joel: Which lyrics or scene(s) were the hardest to keep a straight face while you were performing them?
Jane: Virtually everything had the potential for cracking me up, and I nearly lost it on more than one occasion in rehearsals when I would try new things and they hit. The first time Abigail Von Schtarr slid down the banister (during tech week) I nearly died trying to get through the number without completely breaking. Fraulein Abby doing “Sell Your Body” also took me close to the edge. But the one moment that I did lose it was really because of another actor, the hysterical Brent Stone, in “Speakeasy” (think “Emcee” in Cabaret), inadvertently sang “you can get a pokie” instead of “you can get a smokie.” Mimi and I had to keep it together for what seemed like an eternity – before we could exit and get hysterical in the wings before having to come back out 20 seconds later to finish the number.
Mimi: I consistently had a hard time keeping a straight face during my death scene in Junita. Brent was brilliant as Phantom Jitter, and when he turned into the “cat of many colors” he fully dove into the character and decided to start kneading and scratching my arm and face when I was supposed to be dead via chandelier. Not only did I need to contain my laughter, but I needed to play dead! It was so difficult!
Brent: One scene of the Andrew Lloyd Webber sequence specifically caused the greatest difficulty in maintaining composure. With Junita laying on the floor in her death throes, Jitter has been exposed as a Cat. Kneeling over her, I would begin kneading Junita herself, feline style. The audience’s growing laughter from seeing this interaction as well as an evening or two when I inadvertently kneaded actress’ Mimi Preda’s face rather than shoulder made suppressing the smile even more difficult.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Jane: I wish I knew! Keep a good thought for me.
Mimi: No set roles as of yet, but a few auditions coming up!
Brent: After this wonderful experience, I am planning a little time off before auditioning for McLean’s Little Women in May. The show goes up in the Alden Theater this summer. I am looking forward to, hopefully, playing in this wonderful space again as well as working with Director Bill Schreiner, and Musical Director Elisa Rosman.
Allison Block as Anita and Rachel Brook as Maria in West Side Story at Rockville Musical Theatre.
Allison: I am originally from Louisiana, and moved to the area in 1996. Trained in ballet for 10 years. No formal vocal training. Did some community theatre during my childhood, but stopped after high school and rediscovered it in my mid-twenties (10 years ago), and was cast as a Jet Girl in RCP’s West Side Story. My favorite roles since then include Cassie in A Chorus Line (RCP), Victoria Grant in Victor/Victoria (RMT), Celeste in Saturday Night (TAP), Emma Goldman in Ragtime (TAP), Millie in ThoroughlyModern Millie (TAP), and Maria in The Sound of Music (RMT).
Rachel: I have loved singing, acting, and music from a very early age, and began studying voice privately at age 15. I was in love with musical theatre, especially Rent at that point (I was dying to be Maureen!). At our first lesson my teacher handed me “O del mio dolce ardor”, and let me know that I could choose any musical path I wanted, but not without first learning how to sing in the classical manner. Learning this music, and discovering what the voice is capable of was hugely inspiring for me, and my vision for my career path quickly changed. I was also lucky enough to go to a high school where our choral director, Carleen Dixon (who still teaches at my old high school in Virginia, Annandale High School), emphasized the classical repertoire and strong musicianship. I got to sing the soprano solos in Schubert’s Mass in G with a full orchestra at age 16, how many people can say that? I went on to Indiana University where I earned my Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance. My main focus in these years, and many after, was opera. I spent a summer in Italy singing Musetta in La Bohéme, another in Bulgaria singing Pamina in The Magic Flute, but got very little performance opportunity at IU itself, so upon graduation I was hungry for more.
After college I spent a season as a company member at Beechwood Theatre Company in Newport, RI where I got a lot of great comedic improv. experience, which is another passion of mine. I received my Master of Music degree, also in Voice Performance, at Westminster Choir College where I was lucky enough to study with Laura Brooks Rice, whose students sing all over the world, and do 2 leading roles as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, a role I also repeated at Palmetto Opera in South Carolina, and Savitri in a little known chamber opera by Holst called Savitri. As you can see, I did not have a lot of musical theatre experience, although I did sing Portia (one of the stepsisters) in Cinderella while in college. I have been rediscovering my love of musical theatre over this past year and a half, and am loving exploring the different vocal techniques associated with it. Getting back into musical theatre has opened up a sense of dramatic freedom that was feeling somewhat lost in me. Plus it’s an amazing feeling to sing in ENGLISH!!!! So easy without having to do all those translations!
Joel: Why did you want to play Anita and Maria?
Allison: This is the only role that I can honestly say I have been wanting to play since I was a child. It’s the perfect combination of powerful dancing, singing, and scene work, and the opportunity came at the perfect time in my life.
Rachel: I have long loved West Side Story, and would play any single role in that show if my voice would fit into it. Vocally, I’m Maria, so that’s the role I wanted to play. I am a stronger singer than I am a dancer, so it worked out just right for me that Maria and Tony are really the only two roles that don’t need serious dance chops! In that regard, Maria has everything I could ever want in a role: beautiful and vocally challenging music, interesting character development, juicy scenes, and I get to try out a Puerto Rican accent!
As much as I love playing a leading role, I get the greatest satisfaction from true ensemble work, and this show fulfills that joy in every sense. Each character is a piece of the puzzle that is West Side Story, nothing and no one is extraneous. I wanted to play Maria so that I could sing her beautiful music, work opposite actors like Chad Wheeler and Allison Block, and be a part of a show that tells a story as old as time, but is as socially relevant now as ever. As a cast we really took this responsibility to heart, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say that just telling this story was inspiration enough to give it our best on those days when we were tired and worn out.
Joel: Tell us about Anita and Maria, and how you relate to them.
Allison: Anita is a strong female figure in the show – she cares for Maria, appears to understand Bernardo and his role as leader of the Sharks – and ultimately serves as a pivotal symbol of compassion at the end of the show. I can relate to Anita in all aspects of my life – as a mother to my daughter, a sister, and a wife.
Rachel: As someone who has been in love, suffered loss, felt out of place, has close friends, and loves to randomly break out in song, I find Maria very easy to relate to. That is one reason for Maria’s universal appeal, she is so easy to identify with It’s why we care at all that she falls in love within a 5 minute span, disregarding the warnings of her closest loved ones, and why we cry when Maria’s dream is shattered before her eyes. This character experiences what for some people is a lifetime of ups and downs, but all within a 36 hour period. She is representing all of us, or at least an aspect that lives within all of us.
Joel: How did you prepare for the role?
Allison: I put a lot of physical effort into this role, since West Side Story is about (as Jack Stein-Director-would state repeatedly) “passion and tension”. I needed to really punch Anita’s energy and strong physical presence onstage in “America” and “A Boy Like That” to make her role at the end of the show meaningful.
Rachel: This question makes me smile, only because I have been prepared to play Maria for about 15 years. And I mean really ready, like I knew all her lines, all her music, all her blocking. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but there it is! Granted, I knew all this from the movie, which is quite different from the show, but this was certainly the easiest role preparation I have ever done. The fun part was going back, and really looking at who this girl is through the eyes of the woman that I am now, as opposed to the girl I was then. Not to say that there was no technical work involved. Music Director Scott Richards pushed us hard, making sure we observed every little dynamic marking, phrase turn, and cut off that Bernstein indicated on the score. Why mess with perfection?
I also can’t discuss my preparation for this role without mentioning West Side Story Dance Camp which took place in August, a month before we began rehearsals. Twice a week choreographer Duane Monahan would gather the entire cast for dance class, teaching us the routines, and all around kicking our butts. This was a great bonding time for us as a cast, and by the time proper rehearsals began, we had the entire Dance at the Gym staged. Oh, and spray tanning. That was probably the most difficult part of the role preparation, and is the only reason I’m glad the show is over, so that I don’t have to go anymore.
Joel: “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is your big number in the show. You sing it with Rachel Brook. Set it up for me in the story, and visually describe what you and Rachel did during the song.
Allison: Anita comes to Maria’s room to seek comfort after hearing of Bernardo’s death in the rumble. She finds Maria in her bedroom after being with Tony and becomes furious. She decides to take her rage and grief out on Maria, all the while urging her to give up her love for Tony and choose one of her “own kind”. Anita circles Maria, singing in an almost frantic manner, repeating the same sentiments over and over. After hearing all she can bear, Maria breaks away from Anita’s rantings downstage to sing “Oh no, Anita, no…it’s true for you…not for me”. She sings “I Have a Love” in an almost dreamlike state while Anita watches, hopelessly realizing her own, true love is lost.
Ultimately, both women resolve their thoughts at the end of the song, stating “when love comes so strong…there is no right or wrong”. The song ends with Anita reaching for Maria and they come together in an embrace.
Rachel: Allison is one of those actresses who is so prepared, so tuned in and generous both on and off the stage that it makes you just want to work harder and be good enough for her. I felt comfortable with Allison from the minute we read together at the callbacks. We also had to sing “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” at callbacks, and at one particularly heated moment in the song, let’s just say that I literally spit my words at her. She didn’t blink an eye and that’s when I knew that we would make a great pair.
The particular scene you are asking about is so vulnerable, and requires real trust and honesty between both actresses. I would looked forward to this scene every night even though it is certainly my most difficult sing, because I knew Allison and I could create a “moment”…even if it was just us that felt it, her commitment and passion in the scene inspired me every night to bring my best game. Honestly, between Allison and Chad Wheeler, who played Tony, I could not have asked for better stage partners. This song was very hard for me in the beginning. This was the scene that I used to fast forward through when I would watch the VHS (every day!) as a young girl. I just couldn’t bear how selfish Maria seemed to be, unable to provide any consolation to her mourning best friend, completely wrapped up in her own sexual and romantic elation in the midst of all this tragedy. There is one line in the song that changed my mind. It is when Maria sings “I have a love, and it’s all that I have.” and you realize, Wow, she’s totally right. This girl has nothing else. Her brother was the real leader of her family, the glue that kept them together and the only one that had any idea what life in this new country was all about, as dark as his vision was. So it becomes clear that Maria just can’t go there. She has to hold on to this one positive thing, this love, this potential, in order to keep her sanity. I get that, and once I was able to sympathize with her, this song became a real pleasure to sing.
Joel: What was the most difficult part of performing this song and Anita?
Allison: Anita can tend to appear harsh and too confident in the beginning of the show, which doesn’t bode well for her in Act II when audiences need to understand why she ultimately lies to the Jets about Chino killing Maria. The challenge for me was keeping Anita not only confident and powerful but likable. When she is taunted and almost raped by the Jets, I wanted audiences to see why her fear – not her contempt or hatred – drives her to that horrible lie. If I got Anita to that place every night, there was nothing difficult about singing with Maria – it just meant so much to me (both as Allison singing with Rachel, and as the character of Anita).
Rachel: One of the most difficult things about playing Maria is that there is no “Phew, that’s over! It’s smooth sailing from here!” moment. Her emotional and psychological development is so intense, and occurs in such a short amount of time, that there is almost no space to breathe. For example, “I Feel Pretty” is a feel-good, no stress, light hearted scene that I would look forward to every night, only to be immediately followed by one of the most intense and emotionally demanding scenes in the show. Every scene was like that. Until I began rehearsing for this show I never quite understood that Maria is not your average ingénue character. She is a very young woman, a girl really, who is experiencing 2 days that will change her life forever. That’s a heavy load, and was a great practice for me as a singing actress.
Maria’s music is written differently as the show goes on, much like an operatic heroine. In the beginning, her vocal lines are soaring and lyrical, by the time we get to “A Boy Like That”, all of Maria’s music is stuck in the middle voice, with these tortured chromatic lines and wide vocal leaps – that let us know that this is a very different girl from the one who was excited to attend her first dance at the gym in her new white dress. It was difficult to let myself go there emotionally every night, while still being vocally prudent. As challenging as that was it was also incredibly liberating, and inspiring to do with such a fabulous cast who were all experiencing a similar process with their characters.
Joel: Rachel, my father was a Cantor, and you are a Cantorial Soloist at Temple Beth Ami. Why did you want to become a Cantor, and explain to our readers what your responsibilities are as a Cantorial Soloist.
Rachel: I have never been to Cantorial School, nor have I attempted any of the intense requirements necessary in order to become invested. I grew up in a temple going household, went to Jewish camp, and always identified myself as such, but when I entered a secular musical field, I mostly lost touch with my Jewish identity. It was only a year and a half ago, after finishing graduate school and feeling lost as to what would come next, that I even thought to look into a Cantorial path. I looked up some information on line and found that I would have to go to school for FIVE more years, including a year in Israel, if I wanted to become an actual Cantor. Learning this mostly put that idea to rest, but part of me still wondered if maybe I should give it some more thought. I wrote to Cantor Sharon Steinberg, another opera singer turned Cantor who has often acted as a mentor for me, and asked her advice. She recommended that I forget about school for the time being and look into getting some practical experience on a Bimah (altar). She just so happened to know of a position opening up at Beth Ami, and within 3 weeks I moved down here and began my new job. It was the most wonderful, serendipitous chain of events and is inspiring work on an artistic, spiritual, and practical level.
As a Cantorial Soloist, I assist Cantor Larry Eschler at all Friday night and Saturday morning services. I conduct the Adult and Teen Choirs and help plan and coordinate musical programs and services for the Temple. I also tutor kids in preparation for becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, teach 9th grade in the religious School, and even teach a Jewish Yoga seminar once a year. I like wearing many hats – it keeps me interested and intellectually stimulated.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Allison: I consider myself so blessed to have a supportive husband who agreed to my doing 3 shows in a 12-month period – no small feat for a working mother of a 3-year-old! I will continue to stay active in theatre behind the scenes as a board member for Rockville Musical Theatre in 2010, and I may pop-up again soon. Show is TBD for now –Steven and Louise would kill me!
Rachel: I have a couple of exciting projects coming up over the next few months. In January, I’ll head to New York to premiere a new song cycle called Schlusslieder (BreakUp Songs) composed by my dear friend and colleague, Adam Tendler. The poetry is by Richard Brautigan who is one of those deliciously dark, blunt poets who doesn’t mince words. He came to a tragic ending in the 1980’s making a performance of his poetry all the more poignant. In May, I am collaborating with soprano Robyn Martinez and pianist J.J. Penna for a recital based on Jewish Storytellers. This is a project I have wanted to do for a long time, and I am so lucky to have such artistic support at Beth Ami, where there is a real appreciation and commitment to diverse creative ventures.
Ashley Austin, as Velma Kelly, Josh Simon, as Amos Hart, and Shelby Sykes, as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago at Winston Churchill High School. This is the second and third time for Ashley Austin and Josh Simon to be honored for their wonderful performances in productions at Winston Churchill High School. This time, Ashley is being recognized for her high-energy, leg-kicking, performance of Velma Kelly in Chicago. Her performance of “I Can’t Do It Alone” was a marvel – a manic-filled song and dance and acting tour-de-force that had to be seen to be believed.
Josh won the spot with his “Aww!” performance as the schlepper husband of publicity hound/murderess Roxie Hart. He had the audience wrapped around his finger when he sang ”Mr. Cellophane”. You just wanted to hug him and tell him everything would be alright.
I heard that glorious voice of Shelby Sykes when I first saw her perform in Kiss Me Kate at Churchill, and I was stunned by the maturity of her voice at such a young age. In Chicago, you can only imagine what Shelby did with “When You’re Good To Mama”. The stage was shaking when she belted Mama’s anthem, and after that, no one on the stage was going to mess with this Mama!
Ashley: I am 17 years old, and just started training vocally with Kristen Halliday this year. I had been training with Rosie Dyer before that. Previously, I have played Little Red Riding Hood with Imagination Stage’s Into the Woods. I was Yvette in Clue: The Play, and Bianca in Kiss Me Kate. You were kind enough to name me a Scene Stealer for my performance. I’ve been in all the Churchill musicals and have done the One-Acts as well. I went to Stage Door Manor for summer camp where I was the Inspector in Batboy: The Musical. I have also been in numerous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and have been in 2 operas – The Ocean Bottom by David Finko, and L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti.
Josh: I am a 17-year-old senior with about three years of vocal training under my belt, but only a couple months’ worth of acting lessons (does it show?). Some favorite credits of mine are Seussical (Jojo- this was a while ago), Pippin (Pippin), Metamorphoses (Gregor), Noises Off (Selsdon), and the two roles that got me on this site last year, RENT: School Edition (as Angel) and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (as Lumiere).
Shelby: I am 17 years old and have been studying voice for about 4 years., and theatre for about 7 years. I was honored to be part of the talented ensemble of RENT: School Edition that performed here at Churchill and on the road in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I also appeared here as the nasty Kate in Kiss Me Kate. I was honored to receive a CAPPIE Award for my solo performance in “Seasons of Love” in RENT: School Edition.
Joel: Why did you want to play Velma Kelly, Amos, and Mama Morton?
Ashley: I wanted to play Velma because she was a challenge. I was constantly finding out who she was and trying new things with her, because being so young is actually a block in the road for me. The role is also completely fun, and what’s better than doing the thing you love, and getting applauded for it?
Josh: I didn’t. I wanted a role. I got one. Success, thy name is Amos Hart.
Shelby: I actually did not want to play Mama. I auditioned for Velma Kelly. I was really interested into expanding my horizons in dance, and acting.
Joel: Tell us about Velma Kelly, Amos and Mama Morton, and how you relate to them?
Ashley: Velma is saucy, cynical, bitter, self-centered, and completely charismatic. I was drawn to her darkness because it’s something I’ve never done before.
Josh: Amos, to me, is a guy who’s gotten the short end of the stick so many times that it has grown natural to him. You get pushed around as much as Amos and it becomes a routine. A sad, sad routine.
Shelby: She is a prison warden who “takes money” from the inmates and the people around her. She manipulates people into hiring Billy Flynn, and manipulates people into paying her for “favors”. She is a really great role to play. I enjoyed playing her. I have nothing in common with her, but I did enjoy the ride.
Joel: Did you base your performance on a friend, or relative, or someone else?
Ashley: I really didn’t base my performance off of one person in general…it was more of a feeling than anything else that I kept on my mind all the time…arrogance and seriousness. It helped me get in a different mindset.
Josh: I try to give things a flair that is original to me, but of course there are a lot of schlubs like Amos in the world. For the most part, I took a page from Ted, the sad sack lawyer played by Sam Lloyd on the TV show Scrubs.
Shelby: No!! I have no one to base this off of. I made up a fictional character in my mind, and I thought up all of her characteristics.
Joel: How did you prepare for the roles?
Ashley: I could not have done Velma half as well without my amazing voice teacher, Miss Kristen Halliday. Not only did she help me extract everything from my songs, but she got me to dig into my dialogue and character as well, making everything very cohesive. I had a lot of dances to memorize, so that took up a lot of my time!
Josh: I wanted to practice getting manipulated by a group of criminals, but I was too young to run for public office (yuk yuk yuk). So I did what I always do: I roll with the character. When I get a part, I like to get analytical. Every line, I think: what am I saying beneath this, and why? I forget who said this, whether it was Hagen or Stanislavski or Cher, but acting is about “being” rather than “doing.” I try to emulate that.
Shelby: I did a lot of meditating, and praying (that I didn’t forget the words, or lyrics). I also did a lot of physical work to get my body ready for the harsh schedule and difficult staging.
Joel: Ashley, “I Can’t Do It Alone” was my favorite number that you performed in the show. Set it up for me in the story, and visually describe what you did during the song.
Ashley: The song, “I Can’t Do It Alone” is the one song where Velma’s cool façade breaks down, and she begs on her hands and knees for Roxie to perform with her. Velma hates being nice to her enemy, but sees there is no other way to get her fame back than to dance with Roxie. She asks her to do a “Sister Act” with her – the same one she did with her sister Veronica before the Cicero Incident. During the song, I try to convince Roxie that she absolutely has to do my “sister act”, by showing her all the dance moves. I start out fine, but towards the end – the dance moves get more and more frantic as I see that Roxie just is not buying it. She knows I’m only being nice to her to get back the fame, and walks out on me at the end.
Joel: Mister Cellophane” is your eleven o’clock number. Set it up for me in the story, and visually describe what you did while performing the song.
Josh: Well, most of the songs in Chicago take place in sort of musical “limbo,” as my director Mrs. Speck described it. Preceding the song – we find out that Roxie Hart (my murderous, philandering, and now famous wife) is pregnant. She immediately makes headlines, while I once again get pushed aside. I’m too spineless to protest in real life, but I get a juicy little number in limbo where I can truly lament my invisible status. The character is in a shell for most of his time onstage, but in “Cellophane” he finally lets it all out in one big whollop. This song is about the catharsis, so I just try to let my emotions run the song. There’s no real dancing in it, no real energetic tune, it is all about the presence you bring into that spotlight.
Well, as far as the song goes, I was worried about getting that high note at the end. Always, always, there’s “that high note at the end.” What I discovered while channeling my inner Placido Domingo was that the whole “being” rather than “doing” applies to singing as well. The moment comes and if you’re truly in it, you hit that note like “wham.” And whether or not the pitch or the technique is perfect, you are satisfied only if the feeling is.
Joel: Shelby, you put the audience in a frenzy when you performed “When You’re Good to Mama”. Set it up for me in the story, and visually describe what you did while performing the song.
Shelby: The song itself is about the intimidating Matron Mama Morton, and how she takes money from the inmates and others. She implies that she will help those who help get her what she wants. The song is really intense, and I had so much fun performing it. I really got into it.
Joel: What was the most difficult part of performing this song and the role?
Ashley: The most difficult part for me was actually learning those cues for “I Can’t Do It Alone”! The band comes in at weird points in the song, and it took me a long time to finally get the number right.
Shelby: The most difficult part would be relating to Mama. She and Amos Hart, I feel were the hardest to relate to. She enjoys manipulating people out of their money. I do not take pleasure in doing that at all.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Ashley: I am currently in Miss Saigon: School Edition at Churchill, which opens in December. I’m really excited; the music is gorgeous, and our orchestra led again by our wonderful Mr. Sanz is truly extraordinary. Everyone in the cast is working so hard, and it will be one not to miss!
Josh: I am taking on another role very different from the others. Right after I finish playing Amos I will be performing in the concert version of Miss Saigon, as the greasy and loud-mouthed Engineer. A far cry from the humble-pie-eating Amos, but that’s the fun of it!
Shelby: Blast From the Past! It’s a concert held at Churchill High School.