Opera buffs love to “discover” a new talent or be “in the house” when an exciting new star emerges. Patrons will have that opportunity when soprano Michelle Johnson, a fourth-year student at Philadelphia’s world-renowned Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) makes her Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) debut in the title role of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” playing at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts., April 20 — 29.
Johnson replaces Ermonela Jaho, who was forced to withdraw for medical reasons and said in a statement “The Opera Company of Philadelphia holds a special place for me, having performed Puccini roles at the Academy of Music since the start of my career, and I have long been looking forward to making my role debut in ‘Manon Lescaut’ for the appreciative audiences there. I am deeply saddened not to be coming there this spring, but I am not well and have to take a month off. I will be fine, but I must take care of my health right now. I hope that in the future I will be invited back to share more special performances, and I send my warmest wishes to my friends at the Opera Company, to my colleagues on stage, and to the wonderful audiences who have always been so supportive of my work.”
With Jaho’s services no longer available, OCP sought to enlist the considerable talents of Texas native Johnson, the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
“I actually was in Houston singing ‘Il Trovatore’ with Opera in the Heights, and I received a phone call — a ‘215’ number, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness! Someone’s calling me from Philly!’” Johnson explained recently during a rehearsal break. “So I answered, and they were like, ‘Hi! This is Opera Company of Philadelphia. The soprano that was supposed to sing ‘Manon Lescaut’ has become ill, and we were wondering if you would like to take on the challenge of this role.’ I was so stunned, I literally didn’t say anything for about two minutes, because I’m a fourth-year student at AVA (Academy of Vocal Arts) and I am ready to get out and about. I hear stories about how people get their big chance by someone else’s illness or their cancellation, and I really never thought it could happen to me, but it happens. So I said, ‘Can I have a day ... a full 24 hours to think about it? Because I have a big role coming up this summer.’ I’m doing ‘Aida’ with Glimmerglass Opera, so I was going to use this time once I returned to Philadelphia to start preparing more diligently on the ‘Aida,’ but this opportunity came and I just couldn’t pass it up.”
However, before ultimately making a decision about starring in the production, which will be directed by Michael Cavanagh and conducted by Corrado Rovaris, Johnson discussed the matter with her “go-to people” — her voice teacher, William “Bill” Stone and her internationally-acclaimed vocal coach, David Lofton, as well as Maestro Christofer Macatsoris, music director at the Academy of Vocal Arts. “I was very confident after speaking with them to accept, and of course I talked to The Big Guy Upstairs,” she added. “I said a good old prayer, and was like, ‘If this is for me ... you wouldn’t have given it to me if I couldn’t do it!’”
Once Johnson, who will sing Manon opposite tenor Thiago Arancam’s Des Grieux, decided to seize the opportunity, she fully embraced it. “[‘Manon Lescaut’] is not performed that often, so I was like, ‘This is it! If I’m going to make a big impression in the field, I can’t shy away from big opportunities or challenging opportunities. I have to go in there and go in there smart!’”
Even so, Johnson acknowledges that the role of Manon does have its challenges, both dramatically and vocally.
“Dramatically, it is very challenging because she is a very young person at the beginning with no cares in the world, then through the story line, she begins to grow more mature and older at such a fast pace,” Johnson explained. “That’s one of the challenges — that you have to portray someone so quickly, in such a small amount of time. Vocally, I think [the challenge] is stamina. Once she steps on the stage, she’s on the stage for the entire show.”
While preparing for her OCP debut has been “a whirlwind,” Johnson has high praise for the company saying, “Opera Company of Philadelphia, they were so warm and so welcoming ... and excited. They made me feel confident in myself because of how much faith they had in me to even think of me ... as a student, still.”
A student, yes ... technically, but as the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Johnson’s name already carries a certain cachet. “I just think that people know who I am,” she said. “My name is on the radar, I guess you could say. I walk into auditions or competitions, and I kind of feel a little pressure because people are like, ‘Oh! It’s the girl who won last year at the MET.’ I just feel like my name is out there, which is awesome.”
As her Opening Night at the historic Academy of Music approaches, the charming and talented Johnson has a message for her prospective audience saying, “I want people to know how honored and grateful I am for this opportunity, because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can only make one debut, and to make a debut in such a powerful role with such a great company, I really am happy and grateful!” And who knows? One of those memorable moments that opera lovers covet just might materialize.
Performances of “Manon Lescaut,” performed in Italian with English translations, take place Friday, April 20 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 22 at 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, April 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 29 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and information call Ticket Philadelphia at (215) 893-1018 or visit www.operaphila.org.
“Fela!” the musical phenomenon that won three Tony Awards, including Best Choreography for director Bill T. Jones, comes to the Academy of Music, Broad & Locust Streets, from March 20 through 25.
Produced in part by Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, along with hip-hop mogul “Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, “Fela!” a spectacular celebration of music and dance, is the true story of Fela Kuti, the charismatic and fearless Soul Rebel that created the musical genre known as Afrobeat, and used that music as a weapon against the “corrupt and oppressive military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and much of Africa.”
The production stars Sahr Ngaujah, who created the title role on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal. Several members of the original Broadway cast are also featured.
During a recent exclusive interview, the esteemed Bill T. Jones, co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, explained how he was drawn into the story of Fela Kuti, a colorful yet controversial character. “I have to give credit to our lead producer, Steve Hendel, who is married to a woman who does a lot of producing on Broadway, so she sees a lot of things, and he has this enthusiasm. He fell in love with the music of Fela Kuti. He loves world music, but Fela Kuti and the message of Fela Kuti was very moving to him, and he said that this was the greatest music of an unknown composer that he could think of. He thought his mission would be to bring it to a new generation, a new audience, and the way to do that would be through live theater.”
United by an attorney that they share, Jones and Hendel began to give the piece on Fela Kuti serious consideration. “[My attorney] has been trying to get me to do more things like this since he saw me do Derek Walcott’s “Dream on Monkey Mountain” at the Guthrie Theater in 1994,” said Jones. “Over the years we’ve had a lot of projects that have come through, some were near misses, and he asked me if I wanted to do [‘Fela!’]. I said, ‘Oh yes! I know Fela’s music.’ But I wanted to meet Steve, and Steve came to see my work, and he said, ‘I think you’re the person to do this.’”
Jones, who was one of five recipients for the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, maintains that the show at the Academy of Music will be true to the original Broadway production and said, “The décor will have changed somewhat, but everything else will be there brilliantly.”
Jones also disclosed that “Fela!” has a Philadelphia connection in that The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was instrumental in getting the show produced.
“He was amazing!” said Jones. “I don’t know how he got to the Off-Broadway production, but he came, and he was blown away by it. He sent out an email to 1,500 … some amazing number of people, of which one of them was Jay-Z. So he was a big booster of the show, and we love him for that! I think he was the one who was responsible for Spike Lee coming out, and it became a sensation.”
Jones is confident that the excitement that “Fela!” generated on Broadway will spread Broad Street.
“Come with a group of people that you love to be with, because it’s a really fun show!” he said. “But they should also know that Fela was an unusual character in that, we have people who consider themselves political pop artists, but we don’t have those that have paid the price that Fela has paid. You look at the world right now, and people all over the world fighting for their freedom from dictators, fighting for their rights to determine the use of their resources — Fela was already on that. He was a bad boy! He’s definitely like the rock star in that way. His mother said he was ‘twice born stubborn.’ He wanted to do things his way, but that’s what it took, in a way. So if you’re interested in the new direction of Broadway, you want to come and see something that is unlike anything that’s on Broadway, that has a very moving story of a real person who can inspire you to make change, Fela is that person. He really was about change, and there’s a lot we can learn from him.” For tickets, call (215) 893-1999 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.
As the most successful Australian musicals of all time, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” makes its Philadelphia premiere Feb. 26-March 3 at the Academy of Music.
Adapted from the 1994 Academy Award-winning film, the production follows a trio of friends searching for love and friendship on a road trip across the Australian Outback, and features a hit parade of over 20 dance-floor favorites including “It’s Raining Men,” “I Will Survive,” “Say A Little Prayer,” and others.
Nik Alexzander appears as Miss Understanding, as well as understudying the role of Jimmy. This show marks his Equity debut, which is quite a feather in his cap.
“It’s great to be protected by the union, but this card helps open more doors to me. A lot of people look at a union actor like more of a professional actor, meaning people are more willing to take chances on you,” Alexzander said.
Born in Brooklyn, the actor says he started out singing in church, when someone heard him one day and suggested he would be just right for musical theater. Obviously, they were right, and when he was just 17 years old, he was signed for a tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” However, because of child labor laws in some States, he had to be let go. But two years later, while a student at Northern Kentucky University, he was contacted again for a role. This time, at age 19, he accepted, left school, and was on his way to realizing his dream. Over the years, he’s made that decision pay off. Besides his role in “Jesus Christ,” Alexzander has also appeared in “The Wiz,” “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray,” “Working” and “Les Miserables.”
And now “Priscilla,” a show that he claims is great fun for the actors and the audience alike. It is the story of two drag queens and a transsexual who contract to perform a drag show at a remote resort town in the Australian desert – i. Adapted from the film, the musical has the three friends encountering a number of strange characters, as well as incidents of homophobia, while widening comfort zones and finding new horizons. Alexzander says he and the rest of the cast were a little nervous touring the show, especially playing in small towns. But they needn’t have worried. “It’s definitely not the easiest of subject matter to deal with,” he said. “So we were really shocked and surprised at people’s responses. No matter where we play the audience gets it, they understand it, and have a lot of fun with it. Thanks goodness!”
With that challenge being faced and overcome, Alexzander says the major one now facing him is staying in great shape. “There’s a lot of skin revealed in the show, so we have to make sure we’re in the best shape possible. That’s difficult on tour because we’re often in hotels with no workout facilities, we live out of suitcases, and can’t often eat as healthfully as we’d like. But we do the best we can, and for my part, I am definitely grateful for it all.”
He’s also grateful for the fact that he may be an inspiration to others. “I remember when I was just a boy watching people on stage and remembering how that made me feel. Watching them perform really touched me and made me want to do exactly what they were doing.”
So today, every time he gets out on the stage he hopes his performance may be doing the same thing for others. He said, “I do believe that every night someone in the audience feels just like I did as a little boy. And for me, that‘s one of the best parts about what I do. It gives me the drive to do the very best I can.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 731-3333.
“Catch Me If You Can,” based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a world-class con artist who passed himself off as a doctor, lawyer, jet pilot, forgery expert — all before the age of 21 — runs at the Academy of Music Jan. 15-20.
Coming to Philadelphia for the first time on stage (it had been a 2002 major motion picture starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks), the Broadway production was nominated for four Tony Awards and six Drama Desk Awards. Allyson Tolbert, who was born in West Chester but raised in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she is thrilled to be part of it all.
“I love doing this show,” said Tolbert. “The show is vocally demanding, and traveling is hard, especially since I recently got engaged and so a part of me wants to be home. But I really love what I’m doing so, for right now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Tolbert says it was her mother who really got her involved in this career, beginning when she was just a young girl. She said, “My mom put me in dance class because she felt every little girl should take ballet. And I took to it right away.”
In fact, she took to it so strongly, that she attended a high school for the arts in her hometown, and later earned a BFA in musical theater performance from the University of Florida. Today, her work experience includes numerous regional productions as well as three Broadway national tours.
“Right after college graduation, my career started almost immediately,” she explains. “I did the national tour of ‘The Producers,’ the Mel Brooks musical, then Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and now this one.”
An avid and agile dancer, Tolbert said growing up she was also lucky enough to have a mentor who got her involved with singing lessons so that, eventually, she could become what’s known in the industry as a triple threat.
“And that really helped my career,” she added, “because here I am in this show in the ensemble of ladies, one of Frank’s passions, but also having a featured role as a singer. So actually, this marks the next step in my career. It’s an opportunity to show a different side of myself as a featured singer. I’m learning how to prove myself and it’s taught me a lot about myself and my art. I know I’m filling very big shoes because this is the first time the show has been done since Broadway.”
In the show Tolbert gets to sing a song called “Doctor’s Orders,” and says she loves singing this song, as well as getting to work with a great cast of performers.
With many of her family members still living in the area, Tolbert said she is both excited and a little nervous about doing this role here in Philadelphia. She notes, “Working her in Philly definitely makes me a little nervous, especially because of the short and skimpy costumes I wear. But still, I feel they will be glad to see me actually fulfilling my dreams.”
And she’s glad to get the chance to prove how this dramatic little girl, who used to run around at family picnics, has turned into a real, working actress.
For the future, Tolbert said someday she’d like to originate a part on Broadway, even getting to perform on a cast album and, hopefully, turning in a Tony Award-winning performance.
“I love what I’m doing today. But my heart is set on doing something that creates history,” she said.
“The Addams Family,” a new musical based on the bizarre and beloved family of characters created by legendary cartoonist Charles Addams, makes its way to the stage of the Academy of Music, March 19-24.
In a prolific career spanning six decades, Charles Addams created several thousands of cartoons, sketches and drawings, many of which were published in The New Yorker. But it was his creation of characters that came to be known as The Addams Family that brought him his greatest acclaim.
This play opened in 2010 in New York and became an immediate success. Now touring North America, Philadelphia transplant Chloe Davis serves as the company’s dance captain.
Originally from St. Louis, Mo., Davis says she always dreamed of becoming a dancer.
“In addition to loving to dance, I was also heavily into sports and very physical,” she said. “I moved here because I was originally offered a scholarship to Temple University to get my masters.”
But Davis had two plans in mind.
“The first,” she said, “was to join Philadanco but I didn’t make it the first time I auditioned. So I decided to stay in Philadelphia and get my degree. Some time later, I went to another audition and this time I was accepted into Philadanco.”
So for the past seven years she’d been comfortably settled in Philadelphia, studying and serving as a principal dancer with Philadanco. Then she decided to leave Philadanco and seek a career in musical theater.
“I wanted to have the opportunity to explore singing, dancing and acting, and felt musical theater was the best way for me to pursue all three,” she said
She appears to have been correct. Today, she serves as the dance captain in “The Addams Family,” and also as part of the ensemble.
“My main job as dance captain,” she said, “is to make sure the choreography and staging stays as true to the original as possible. I also make sure everyone is up to speed during rehearsals, and keep everything as nice and tight as possible to the original format.”
She must also conduct rehearsals for the understudies, she adds, so that they are well aware of the musical numbers and choreography.
“Sometimes they have to go in with very short notice, so I have to make sure they’re ready,” she said. “It’s my job to make sure that the show the audience sees is at its best no matter what may be happening behind the scenes.”
As for her own time on stage, she notes that as the dance captain she has to know everyone’s part as well as her own ensemble parts — including doing some puppetry. “This show doesn’t follow the TV show,” she says. “Using original Charles Addams cartoons and illustrations, this is a new musical theater production. The characters are the same as far as identity, wit and humor. But it is the songs, the choreography and the movement that pushes the story line forward.”
She said she looks forward to coming back to Philadelphia, where she has a support system ready to see the show and support her in every single way.
Realizing that musical theater is the perfect fit for her, Davis says her next goal, when this tour ends, is to head back to New York and, hopefully, a new Broadway production.
“I’m now living a dream and enjoying every moment of it,” she said.
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
“Sister Act,” winner of five 2011 Tony Award nominations, comes to the Academy of Music on April 2-7.
First set in San Francisco, the new touring production now takes place in 1977 Philadelphia, and leading man Kingsley Leggs says the whole company is looking forward to our city’s reaction, especially when leading lady Ta’Rea Campbell opens the play with the line, “Hello, Philadelphia!”
This family-friendly, over-the -top spectacle with nuns who rock — and roll – tells the story of disco diva Deloris Van Cartier who discovers that her affiliation with Curtis (played by Leggs), her married gangster lover, may not have been a wise choice. After auditioning for him and his three yes-men stooges, she witnesses a murder committed by Curtis. She runs to the nearest police precinct, where a police officer decides to put in protective custody in the only place cops are sure she won’t be found: a convent.
Eventually, using her fabulous disco-ness and killer voice to inspire the choir, Deloris breathes new life into the church, but in doing so blows her cover.
Based on the original Alan Menken/Glenn Slater score with a vast inspiration of musical styles from Motown, soul and funk to great big disco anthems and Barry White inspired musical comedy, Leggs says the show hasn’t change that much since the Whoopi Goldberg film or the time he’s played his role on Broadway.
“Curtis hasn’t changed much over the years,” says Leggs, who originated the role on Broadway. “He’s still the bad guy. He’s still brandishing his guns and chasing nuns. If the show has changed at all it’s in the fact that we are a different company with slightly different specs in terms of the set and so on. Some tweaking has been done with staging and the script, but for the most part, this is the exact same show.”
Leggs, who grew up in St. Louis, admits that watching old movie musicals with his grandmother, helped fuel his desire to become a performer. Later, performing in high school musicals, he was encouraged by one of his teachers who later mentored him and urged him to attend Benedictine College in Kansas.
Upon graduation, Leggs returned to St. Louis, later moving on to Chicago where he felt there would be more opportunities. After amassing many regional credits, he says his first big break came when he appeared on Broadway in “Miss Saigon” and later in “The Color Purple” as the original Mister.
“I’ve only played two real bad guys in my career,” Leggs says “Actually, I have the reputation of playing mostly good guys. So here I am as Curtis, who is bad but not the same kind of bad guy as Mister. And even though Curtis is sort of bad, he’s not really that bad. In fact, he thinks he’s bigger and more scary than he is.”
Today, after 30 years in the business, Leggs admits the best part of it all is “that I’m still here, still able to do something I love doing, and, hopefully, bringing joy to people. I think that’s an important art of what art is. I don’t know if art always lives up to that responsibility, but I feel it’s important to always keep that in mind.”
Leggs ends by saying that there’s still more to do. “I’m so glad I’m still around and that people want to give me a job. You know, I’ve played some pretty wonderful parts, at least parts for this African-American guy to play. And I think there’s still time for me to do lots more.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 790-5883 or (866) 276-2947.