His advice to other struggling African-American actors is to do exactly what Tyler Perry does: “If there’s not enough material out there, create your own!“ So says Jamal Sawab, who admits he’s thrilled to be part of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s annual summer musicale featuring the music of the ‘70s in its show titled “Up, Up and Away” and presented on June 20-30.
According to Sawab, a New Jersey native now living in Harrisburg, the show relives the marvelous musical decade of soul, disco and classic rock with such favorites as “You’re So Vain,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Sawab says he considers himself very lucky to be able to perform songs from giant personalities like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye and others. “I also consider myself very lucky to be performing at a venue as fine as Bristol, especially after a six year absence from working professionally in the business.”
Sawab acknowledges that he always wanted to be a performer, and that his mother told him he could sing even before he could talk. “I was always very outgoing, and as a young boy was accepted into the American Boychoir, which is really where I got my formal training and was able to perform around the country and even in Europe.”
Later Sawab attended Rutgers University briefly, but says he left after one year because he wanted to be out there in the real world performing. During his time in college, however, he helped form a company that produced its own version of ”Hair” which took off and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Ironically, after he left Rutgers, he hooked up with a national touring company of “Hair” and went back to Europe to perform in his first professional job.
Unfortunately, when he returned to the States, he found it wasn’t that easy to get work, and he admits he played more of the starving artist than a role he really wanted. Working in marketing, he was ultimately laid off.
“And that’s when I realized I had to return to performing. That still wasn’t easy so I gave voice lessons, played at weddings, birthday parties, anything I could do to perform in any venue I could find. It was a long time getting back to the stage but I never gave up hope.,” he says.
He was recently contacted by a friend, one of the other performers in “Up, Up and Away,” advising him auditions were being held for the show and suggesting he audition. “I did and here I am, making my debut at Bristol and feeling very lucky to be doing so.
“Honestly,” Sawab continues, “the best part of performing for me is doing live stage performances and working with talented people who also love what they’re doing. It’s also infectious to get that feedback from an audience that is really enjoying what they’re seeing and hearing.”
Today, Sawab, who describes himself as a performer who both educates and performs in positive ways to whatever community he happens to be dealing with, hopes to stay on the stage. And if he is not offered roles, he says he will try and create some of his own, and helping the African-American community succeed in whatever ways possible as much as he can.
Today, everything seems to be going Sawab’s way. “I’m in love with Bristol and I’d love to continue working with them. But I also hope to produce my own work. Now that I’m back, I want to stay in the business in whatever capacity I can find, working with others who feel the same way I do.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 785-0100.
Led by legendary trumpeter, composer and multitalented cultural phenomenon Wynton Marsalis, the versatile Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra celebrates the 25th anniversary of JLCO with a performance on June 15, at 8 p.m. in Verizon Hall. The orchestra’s 15 jazz soloists and ensemble players will perform a program including the music of John Coltrane, works of Chick Corea, Duke Ellington, Kings of the Crescent City and others.
Marsalis, who has helped propel jazz to the forefront of American culture, presently serves as artistic and managing director of the JLCO, explains the orchestra’s beginnings and main mission.
“Our mission,” he says, “ is carried out through four elements — educational, curatorial, archival and ceremonial. Using all forms of music, today we are trying to nationalize and internationalize all our educational programs for people of all ages. With education as a major focus, more than 110,000 students, teachers and audience members worldwide participate in our many programs”
Some of those programs are the celebrated Jazz for Young People family concert series, the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band & Festival and more, and include educational residencies, workshops and concerts.
It began in 1987 when Marsalis co-founded a jazz program at Lincoln Center. It was a time when Lincoln Center was looking to expand its programming efforts to attract new and younger audiences, and to fill its halls during the summer months when resident companies were off performing elsewhere.
Long-time jazz enthusiasts on the Lincoln Center campus and on the Lincoln Center Board recognized the need for America’s music to be represented, and lobbied to include jazz in the organization’s offerings. For Marsalis and his dream, the timing couldn’t have been better.
In 1991, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, now known as JLCO, produced concerts throughout the New York City area. By the second year, it had its own radio series. And before long, the orchestra was touring internationally.
By July, 1996, Jazz at Lincoln Center was installed as a new constituent of Lincoln Center. With no real knowledge of just how successful the jazz program could be, Marsalis says he understood shortly after the first series of concerts that it would be.
“Our board was coming into place We were a department. We were getting critical acclaim. We had an audience base. We had an aesthetic. So before long I began to realize what we were doing could become a success in many ways for many people,” he says
Marsalis was born in New Orleans to Ellis, a pianist and music professor. At an early age, the young Marsalis exhibited an aptitude for music. In 1979. he moved to New York to attend Juilliard. In the years that followed, he performed with such giants as Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and many others. His talent soon paid off and over the years he won nine Grammy Awards, at one point becoming the only artist ever to win a Grammy for both jazz and classical records.
Still, he points to the JLCO as one of the highlights of his life and work.
“After all these years, we continue to disseminate our music and our mission using jazz,” Marsalis explains. “I believe that through imposition, jazz teaches you about yourself. And through swing, it teaches you that other people are individuals too. It teaches you how to coordinate with them.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
In 1987 on the Sunset Strip, a small town girl met a big city dreamer — and in L.A.’s most legendary rock club, they fell in love to the greatest songs of the ‘80s. It’s “Rock of Ages,” the five time Tony nominated musical returning to Philadelphia for a short engagement June 14-June 16 at the Merriam Theater.
“Rock of Ages” is a hilarious, feel-good love story told through the hit songs of iconic rockers such as Styx, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake and others. Still rockin’ on Broadway, the show features 28 classic rock tunes including “Don’t Stop Believin,’” ‘The Final Countdown,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Here I Go Again,” and many more.
Appearing as Justice/Mother is New York native Amma Osei, who admits she’s very excited to be part of this show. “Mother only appears briefly, and it’s Justice who is the main character I play. She is the head of a downtown strip club and a very big presence in the show, which lends itself to big dreams, big chords and big hair.”
Osei says she’s been singing since she was a little girl. “After enough time I realized that people would actually pay to hear me. When I realized singing could become a true career, I made up my mind that‘s what I wanted to do.”
After studying musical performance and voice, she was well on her way to reaching her goal. Over the years, Osei amassed many regional credits, appearing in such shows as “Seussical,” “Big River, “”Fame,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and more. She has appeared in “Fame, the Musical” in a Chinese International production, as well as performing several roles on the Disney Wonder Cruise Ship.
“Traveling, can be one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. I may be going to Tai’Pei soon. Now in what other business would I get a chance to do that? In what other business would I get the chance to travel the world?” Osei said.
Of course, the downside, she adds, is only staying a very short time in any location, like the few brief days the company will be staying in Philadelphia. “That’s when you wake up and have no idea where you are and you can’t find anything, like a supermarket or a drugstore.”
Despite certain obstacles, and having been with this show for two years, Osei says she’s enjoying every moment. “I would say the very best part, for me, is when I take off my makeup, go outside and see people waiting for my autograph or just to speak with me. It’s a wonderful feeling that makes you realize you’re actually bringing joy and fun into people’s lives.”
Osei believes others can accomplish what she has if they follow a few simple principles. “For instance, I urge them to study their craft and be realistic about their talents and their goals. Don’t fool yourself as far as your talent is concerned.”
And while she herself had a wonderful support system, she urges others to develop one as well. “Rejection happens all the time in this business That’s where your support system can help out. Another thing that helps is to develop a very thick skin so you don’t take all the rejection personally. Sometimes, you can sit all day waiting to audition and never even get the chance to be seen. So remember — if you can’t get in the door, find an open window. There’s always another way in.”
For times and ticket information call (215) 731-3333.
Based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” takes the F. Otto Haas stage at the Arden Theatre through June 10.
Written by Sondheim in 1973, with a score set entirely as a waltz in ¾ time, and featuring one of Sondheim’s most well-known songs “Send in the Clowns,” it is a story of regret, loss and life. The cast of 15 includes many actors we are familiar with, like Derrick Cobey who has performed at the Arden before working with this show’s director, Terrence J. Nolen, the Arden’s producing artistic director.
Cobey is one of a quintet that Sondheim introduces to open the show and reappear throughout the evening. “I am Mr. Linquist, one of five sometimes referred to as Liebelieders Singers,” Cobey explains. “Sondheim introduces them in this musical and we serve much like a Greek chorus.”
Cobey, who was born in Virginia and first studied opera, changed his mind when he accompanied his high school class to New York to see a revival of “Showboat.” Susan Stroman was the show’s choreographer and she also choreographed “Scottsboro Boys,” which marked Cobey’s Broadway debut.
He says, “It was as if it all came full circle. The passion and integrity she put into her work had inspired me to take on this career and years later there we were collaborating again.”
“Scottsboro Boys” also marked a major highlight in his life and his career. “Even after we closed we got repeated phone calls telling us we received 12 Tony nominations. That was a record at the time. We even got to perform on the Tony show that year. So it was an experience I will never forget.”
Cobey acknowledges what a wonderful experience his current role is, and that he and his fellow actors get to collaborate with Nolen and discuss the show as well as their various roles.
“Terry is very intelligent man who gave us (the liebeslieders) very specific outlines, like a coloring book if you will, and left it up to us to fill it in.”
The Tony Award-winning “A Little Night Music” marks the eleventh production of Sondheim’s work at the Arden, making him the most produced writer in the company’s 25-year history. Says Nolen, “Our mission is to tell great stories by great storytellers, and Sondheim is one of the best. Given our long history with his work, it was fitting to close our anniversary season with his masterpiece.”
Before getting this role, which makes Cobey very proud and happy because he was virtually hand-picked by Nolen who knew his work, the actor appeared in regional productions such as “Ragtime,” “Into the Woods,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and others. He also did “Scottsboro Boys” off-Broadway, and “Ragtime in Concert” at Lincoln Center.
Today, describing himself as an “actor who sings and dances,” Cobey says actually anyone entering the field of musical theater must learn to do all three. “Susan says that’s a must and that most producers only want to hire people who can do it all.”
Cobey has other advise for young actors, such as “don’t pigeonhole yourself. I never let my race get in my way. For instance, Terry knew me and trusted my work, so that today I am the only African American in this show. I also got to do shows like ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Brigadoon’ because I trusted my acting, not my color. I think that’s what matters and helps the most.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 922-1122.
Opening on May 30 for a limited engagement under the blue-and-yellow Big Top on Camden’s Waterfront is “Totem,” Cirque du Soleil’s newest production. Running through June 30, “Totem,” written and directed by Robert Lepage, traces the fascinating journey of the human species, from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly.
The characters evolve on a stage evoking a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations. “Totem” explores the ties that bind man to other species, his dreams and his infinite potential. The cast of “Totem” comprises 52 performing artists from 19 countries. One of those performers is lead singer Esi Acquaah-Harrison, a native of Ghana, who started her professional career in the UK by doing freelance singing while also working as an accountant. She says she was brought to the attention of Cirque by a friend, and auditioned and joined Cirque du Soleil in January 2010.
“I think I always wanted to be a singer,” Acquaah-Harrison says. “I remember watching and trying to copy people I saw on the TV. And my mom told me very early on I could sing and sing pretty well. But it took me some 27 years to become aware that I might make a career of it.”
Over the years, while working in the accounting field, Acquaah-Harrison sang as much as she could everywhere she could. Finally the day came when she got to sing professionally.
“I started doing some session work, and being paid for it, for people like Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Boy George and others,” she recalls. “Eventually in 2007, having done lots of auditions for ‘The Lion King’ in the West End, without much success I might add, the casting director signed me up for a role to do the show in Paris.”
It was while doing this role that a friend eventually had her contact the people in charge of “Totem” in Montreal. She says she was very interested because, of course, she had heard of Cirque du Soleil and knew it as a wonderful company to work for. Soon, emailing back and forth, and eventually flying to Montreal for an audition, she was given a role in this show, and started officially as a member of “Totem” in January 2010.
And so here she is today, admittedly enjoying every single moment of her new role.
“Because we have so many people from so many countries in the show, sometimes it’s hard to communicate, although most of the performers speak some English,” she explains. “And the Chinese performers travel with their own interpreter, a person who goes everywhere with them. But we all manage to get along quite well together,”
Even when she sings, the language sounds like it could be a mixture of many languages. “Actually,” she says, “what you hear is a mixture of African music, something that sounds like Spanish and Portuguese, and more. I sing songs which have written lyrics but not necessarily of a language you are familiar with. In fact, I call it ‘creative language,’”
But whatever the music is called, by all accounts, “Totem” is called terrific. The show is constantly on the road, and by the end of its life, will have traveled to six continents and around the world. And Acquaah-Harrison says she is proud to be a part of it.
“Doing a job that I love t do, which is singing, is one of the best parts about being in ‘Totem.’ And even though we do this show day-after-day after-day, I try to keep it fresh for the audience. I feel proud and happy to be able to share my voice with people and I always try to do my best for them. Here they are, spending their money or their time to come see me, so I dig deep inside because, even though I do get tired at times, I want to make them appreciate what they are seeing.”