Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An inside look at "Ain't Misbehavin' " and local theater

I am happy to share this article from Guest Blogger Warren Levy, the new marketing director for the Tri-County Performing Arts Center in Pottstown.  It offers some unique perspectives on local theater.

What's in a name? 
Can Talent Smell as Sweet Without Fame?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously asks, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."  Is that true today when we decide which movies, plays or even television shows to watch?  Celebrity seems like today's rose, more so than talent.  Big names drive up ticket prices in movie theaters and on Broadway.  Familiarity fills seats and swells ratings. 

So, when local playhouses like the Tri-County Performing Arts Center (Tri-PAC) put on productions like  "Ain't Misbehavin' " (showing for one more weekend  - February 17-19), what do we think about local talent in roles that originated on Broadway?   After all, Ain't Misbehavin, which features the inventive music of the irrepressible jazz original, Fats Waller, and recreates  the exuberance of his 1930s Harlem Renaissance club shows, won three Tony awards! 

There's one hint on television.  Shows like American Idol, which recently featured Pottstown's own Marc Sherfield,  illustrate how many talented unknowns with a passion to perform there really are.    

Here's more than a hint.  The Tri-PAC show's director told me that 90% of her work is choosing a great cast.  Having directed in New York and Philadelphia, Zuhairah McGill at first wondered, "To get the right cast for Ain't Misbehavin', do I have to get people to come down from New York?"  She said she wouldn't do that, "because people always do that.  When others hire from the outside, they don't see they have gems within their own community." 

After casting Tri-PAC's "Ain't Misbehavin'," McGill said, "We definitely have found some gems.  This caliber of singing from a cast that lives in Pottstown is amazing...I was stunned."  She went a little further, "I'm going to say this show is going to be just as good as what Nell Carter put on Broadway [1978 Tony Award Winner for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.]

For their part, the actors have no hesitation, either.  All have been performing since very young ages, nearly all having started and starred in their churches, in Pottstown, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Rather than being intimidated, Marc Sherfield said, "I'm excited to see how people compare me to Ken Page," one of the original Broadway performers.  Nevertheless, he also said that the strength of "Ain't Misbehavin' " isn't in the individual performers.  "We have five strong voices that are distinct but yet together sound good."  Sherfield went further, "...the audience appeal is the characters even more than the music.  In the intimate loft setting at Tri-PAC, Sherfield said, "Everything that we're doing the audience can see.  If we stay in character, the audience believes we are these characters."

Mia Mbuy agreed.  "You have to rely on everyone else.  It's not just about you and your voice and what you can do.  It really has to meld together.  And what the audience gets from that, they see how much fun you're having and they have fun in turn." 

Most of the cast anticipates performing professionally, and none expressed any doubts about having the necessary talent.  However, a Broadway career implies sacrifices some performers won't make.  Mbuy, who has a classically-trained operatic voice, recalled that when she began student teaching as part of her secondary education major at West Chester, she came home in tears.  She told her mother, "I'm not going to be a singer." About teaching, she said, "I just felt like, 'This is what I'm supposed to be doing.'"  In addition to performing at Tri-PAC and other theaters, and singing solos in choir, she teaches 7th grade science and social studies.

What hooked Isaih Robinson wasn't his first solo, at age six, at Mt. Sinai Baptist in Baltimore.  Instead, he recalled vividly when he sang America the Beautiful in elementary school, and got a standing ovation.  After graduating from Pottstown High School where he led the Drama Club and Choir (followed in those roles next year by friend and fellow cast member Alexa Morefield), he began studying vocal performance at West Chester University.  "I'm never going to stop performing," he said.  "It's in my blood."

Warren Levy
Marketing Director
The Tri-County Performing Arts Center


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