REALLY RETRO: Expect the Spanish Inquisition! Behind the Impossible Dream with Capitol City Opera Company Music Director Catherine Giel Before MAN OF LA MANCHA Tilts This Weekend at Conant Performing Arts Center

Posted on: Mar 22nd, 2017 By:

Catherine Giel. Photo credit: Shane Desmond-Williams

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Writer

Capitol City Opera Company’s production of MAN OF LA MANCHA runs this Friday March 24 and Saturday March 25 at 8 p.m. and Sunday March 26 at 3 p.m. at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center. Check here for tickets.

MAN OF LA MANCHA is a musical based on CervantesDON QUIXOTE, and even those unfamiliar with the Tony Award-winning production, the Oscar-nominated 1972 movie starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, or the 17th century novel are likely aware of the characters, the imagery and its lead song, “The Impossible Dream,” here rendered by Elvis Presley. It tells a timeless tale of friendship, love and courage in the face of insurmountable odds. I’m guessing. I’ve never seen it. But I’ll get a chance to fix that this weekend!

Music Director Catherine Giel took a break from her busy schedule recently to discuss the show with ATLRetro.

ATLRetro: Thank you for taking a few minutes before the show this weekend. Is everyone excited?

Catherine Giel: I can’t express enough how excited this cast and crew are. This team has had a really special synergy and everyone is so thrilled to bring a great production to the stage. This is one of the most artistically challenging things we’ve tackled and I think it’s come out beautifully.

What is the Capitol City Opera Company? How long have you been with them?

Capitol City Opera is a company dedicated to nurturing and developing the careers of young professional singers. We are helping them prepare for the great stages of the world by giving them the opportunity to learn roles and perform at a professional level. There is so much talent right here in our city! We also have an outstanding educational component, Capitol City Opera Outreach for Children, that brings one-hour long “children’s operas” into schools and community spaces. We are trying to grow a young audience for opera in addition to developing young performers. I joined the company in the spring of 2010—it’s hard to believe it’s already been seven years. But that’s just a drop in the bucket of the 34 years this company has been in existence.

What are some of the highlights of your tenure there?

There have been many moments I’ve been proud of, both artistically and personally. A few years ago we did a world premiere of Curtis Bryant’s THE SECRET AGENT. That was probably one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had with this company. Bringing a new work to life is liberating because there is no precedent, but also terrifying because there is no precedent! We worked directly with the composer throughout and I think the product was really something special. The whole production is up on our YouTube page for anyone that wants to check it out. On a personal level, I’ve experienced a lot of moments of pride when I see a singer grow in a role from the beginning of the process to the end, when I see them have a breakthrough with their technique or understanding of the character. That’s the real reason I do this—to see those lightbulb moments when performers make huge strides in their development and to give them a vehicle to do something they can really be proud of.

What exactly does the Music Director do for a production like Man of La Mancha?

The quick and dirty summary is that I help prepare the singers for the show. This process has many layers. It’s encouraging their technique that will both serve the character as well as help them sing their best. And speaking of character, that’s something that takes quite a bit of study outside of the musical score. We have a lot of discussions about a character’s motivation for singing or saying certain things, and this often informs their delivery of the vocal line. Preparing the music for an opera is full of nuances of color, tone, timing, and expression. At the end of the day, it’s all subjective and we have to hope the audiences enjoy what we’ve created. I also work with our conductor (who happens to be my husband) in preparing the orchestra, which takes separate rehearsals and a lot of planning outside of our work with the singers. Because we use smaller chamber orchestras for our productions, I’m usually behind the piano for the performances, where most people in my position hand the reigns to the conductor and get to sit in the audience to watch. I’ve only gotten to watch from the audience once, when we needed no piano accompaniment, and I was a nervous wreck the whole time so maybe it’s better this way.

Jonathan Sphuler (Cervantes/Don Quixote) tries on his make-up backstage at Capitol City Opera’s Man of La Mancha. Credit: Michael Nutter.

How would you describe the show and specifically the music? Is there orchestral accompaniment?

MAN OF LA MANCHA is allowing us to dip our toes into music theater. It’s definitely not an opera but still requires some excellent technical and artistic singing. It also has the additional challenges of dialogue like you would see in a regular play, which opera singers don’t often get to experience. The music has a distinctly Spanish flair, with prominent guitar solos and flamenco-like rhythms. At times it’s playful and upbeat and at other times, beautifully poignant and even heartbreaking. There is a lot of variety in this score and several melodies get stuck in your head for days. We are using a seven piece orchestra to accompany this production, who will be visible on stage and a part of the action with the rest of the cast, as opposed to stuck down in a pit where you never get to see them.


It was performed originally over 50 years ago and has been revived many times on Broadway since. How familiar were you with any of the past stage productions? How about the 1972 Peter O’Toole / Sophia Loren film?

I think it’s a testament to what a great show MAN OF LA MANCHA is that it’s been done so many times and even made into a movie. In fact, the 1972 film is quite true to the original score and dialogue and was a nice reference to have as we were preparing our version. There are also several wonderful Broadway recordings out there, each with their own unique spin on the show. I hope that we will also bring our own individual flavor and some novelty to the table, especially since I imagine many of our audience members will be familiar with the music.

What does your version offer fans of the musical and fans of musical theater in general?

We have stayed true to the original score and the book (that’s the part with the spoken dialogue). For instance, Aldonza’s number “What Does He Want With Me” often gets cut, but it’s so beautiful and Rachel Eve sings it so well, it would have been criminal to eliminate it. We also do this production with 21 cast members, which is the bare minimum, meaning that everyone has an important part to play. In a traditional opera, you may have a handful of principal cast members and everyone else is in the ensemble, but in this show everyone is essential and you become really familiar with them throughout the performance. Also, the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University is a fairly intimate venue, allowing you to feel like you are part of the action. And I don’t want to give away too much, but the way we plan to immerse the audience into this show right from the beginning is going to be really special.

Do you have a favorite song or scene? Is there one in particular you expect audiences to really love?

I think everyone loves “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” It’s a powerful song in or out of context of the show. The lyrics really encompass the longing that we all have as humans to strive to be our best, to fight the good fight, and triumph over wrongs. I think there is also a very charming scene between Sancho, Don Quixote’s squire, and Aldonza in which Sancho is trying to get her to give him a “token” to give to his knight and also attempting to read her a passionate missive written by Don Quixote, only….neither of them can read. Another particularly excellent scene is the fight between Don Quixote and a band of rough muleteers. I’ll just say that a giant spinning ladder and some acrobatics are involved.

I understand you are also a professional pianist and vocal coach. Do you perform regularly? Do you specialize in a particular singing style?

I am and I do! I perform mostly as an accompanist for singers and instrumentalists in concert, I rarely do solo recitals anymore. That’s not on purpose, I just haven’t had the time or opportunity and I truly enjoy collaborating with other artists more than playing alone. And I regularly coach opera singers as they prepare for roles, auditions, and competitions not just in Atlanta, but around the country. I would say I specialize in opera and art song, but I’ve been known to do the occasional bit of jazz and pop music. Just don’t ask me to teach you “Let It Go.”

Michael Lindsay, Albert Clark, Sean Savage, Damien Rasheed, Xavier Durden, and Rachel Eve Holmes receive musical instruction at a rehearsal for Man of La Mancha. Photo credit: Catherine Giel.

What’s next for you and Capital City Opera?

We’ve always got something coming up! We do a monthly series called Dinner and a Diva at Petite Violette restaurant. Each month we feature highlights from a different opera with our best singers and a narrator to guide the audience through the story. This takes place over an excellent three course meal with wine and happens every third Tuesday of the month. We also have a really fun event called Win, Dine, and Win coming up on April 7. This is an evening of food and games, including an aria auction that has gotten pretty competitive! This summer is the 25th anniversary of On The Light Side and this is our biggest fundraiser of the year. It’s an indoor BYOP (bring your own picnic) and we have a cast of singers that perform a cabaret-style show of music theater hits. This year’s theme is “The Golden Age of Broadway.” This is a hugely popular event and usually sells out. It’s the last Friday and Saturday nights in July. And of course we are preparing for the next mainstage show….details to come on that soon! Information on all these events and more can be found on our website at www.ccityopera.org

Thanks again for your time. Anything else you’d like to mention?

Only that we appreciate the support from our audiences so, so much. We are a local company, staffed with local talent, local set painters, designers, costume makers, sound engineers, etc. etc. We think of ourselves like a family and we truly dedicate everything we have to creating a great product. We hope you will come to one of our events and see what we are all about and learn about how we are working in the Atlanta community to spread some great art and love for opera. It’s what we are truly passionate about. Also, we are super hip with the social media, so you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

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Kool Kat of the Week: We’re Off To See The Wizard Mark A. Harmon: There’s No Place Like the Fabulous Fox This Week!

Posted on: Jun 23rd, 2016 By:
Mark A. Harmon

Mark A. Harmon plays Professor Marvel, aka the Wizard of Oz in the new musical adaptation this week at the Fox Theatre.

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Writer

There is little in American pop culture as universally, cross-generationally and continuously beloved as the 1939 film adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Everyone knows the characters, the songs, and why wicked witches don’t shower. The national tour of stage musical THE WIZARD OF OZ, running June 21-26 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, takes audiences arm-in-arm back down the Yellow Brick Road.

Oz had already appeared on the big screen by the time Judy Garland went over the rainbow, including silent versions in 1910 and 1925, and a 1933 cartoon, as well as several stage versions (including one by author L. Frank Baum himself in 1902). However, it’s the MGM classic that became the definitive version immediately upon its release 77 years ago this summer. It was nominated for Best Picture (but lost to GONE WITH THE WIND) and won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.

The musical, which premiered in London in 2011, is based on the 1939 film, with all your favorite moments reimagined for the stage. That means Munchkins, flying monkeys, and dead witches! And what would Oz be without the vibrant Technicolor hues of the film—ruby slippers on yellow bricks to the Emerald City! Expect the same rainbow palate on stage. In addition to the classic songs, the production features new songs by musical theater legends Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The Wizard of Oz himself, Mark A. Harmon, took a few minutes last week to chat with ATLRetro.

ATLRetro: I’d wager you’ve been an enormous fan of the 1939 MGM masterpiece your entire life, but I guess you don’t necessarily have to be. Why did you want to be in this production?

Mark A. Harmon: Of course! I’ve been a huge fan! I remember as a child one of the major television networks would run it once a year I believe around Thanksgiving. It was always a major event that you waited for all year. I have to admit that when I was asked to audition I was a little hesitant at first. I thought “How can you possibly do a live version that could even come close to the beauty of the movie?” Then I saw some clips from the first national tour and was completely blown away! We’re seven months into the tour and I’m still amazed at the production quality of this show.

Professor Marvel brings his magical wagon to Kansas in THE WIZARD OF OZ stage adaptation.

Professor Marvel brings his magical wagon to Kansas in THE WIZARD OF OZ stage adaptation.

What new does this production bring to the story?

The main story remains faithful to the movie and all the original songs are performed. There are new songs added by the brilliant Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. One of them is “Wonders of the World” which is sung by yours truly as Professor Marvel. There have also been some changes to the dialogue. But rest assured, all your favorite lines are still there.

As an actor, is it difficult preparing for such a famous role?

It is a little daunting at first. There’s always the possibility of being compared to such a well known performance. But each actor brings a unique quality to their role. Even though the audience may have a familiar performance in their head, I believe they quickly start accepting you as that character.

In addition to the 1939 film, there have been countless adaptations, interpretations, sequels and prequels to Baum’s original book (1900). What is it about the story that has kept inspiring revisits to Oz for over a century?

I’m sure there are whole books devoted to answering that question. But for me personally, I think it’s one of the classic coming of age stories. What adolescent hasn’t felt misunderstood and wanted to run away?

Dorothy and her friends meet Oz the Great and Powerful in the Emerald City,

Dorothy and her friends meet Oz the Great and Powerful in the Emerald City,

What’s it like on the road? Do you get to spend any time exploring the cities you visit?

It depends entirely on the schedule. This is my third tour and I’m not going to lie, some can be downright grueling. I’ve done tours where we’ve played five or six cities in one week traveling by bus. I think it’s important for people to know that when you go see a touring show, especially one that is only playing one or two nights, that the actors may very well have spent anywhere up to eight hours on a bus that day. This one, however, has been without a doubt the most enjoyable mainly because of the fact that we’ve been playing each city for no less than a week. It’s been such a treat to be able to have the time to do some real exploring!

Thanks again for chatting with ATLRetro. Break a leg!  Anything else you want to mention?

You’re very welcome and thank you.  I’d just like to say that I’m so excited to be returning to the beautiful Fox Theatre and invite everyone, young and old, to come see this spectacular production of THE WIZARD OF OZ!

The Wizard of Oz runs June 21-26 at The Fox Theatre. Show times and ticket information are available  here. All photos are used with permission.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Tiffany Engen Just Wants to Have Fun in Shoe-Stopping Broadway Musical KINKY BOOTS

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2016 By:
Lauren (Tiffany Engen) dances with shoes on her hands in the Broadway tour of KINKY BOOTS. Photo courtesy of Austin Northenor.

Lauren (Tiffany Engen) dances with shoes on her hands in the Broadway tour of KINKY BOOTS. Photo courtesy of Austin Northenor.

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Writer

Broadway hit KINKY BOOTS opens the Atlanta leg of its national tour on Tues. March 29 and runs through Sun. April 3 at the Fox Theatre. Multiple Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein (TORCH SONG TRILOGY) wrote the book, and Tony, Grammy, Emmy and my heart winner Cyndi Lauper (mostly this and this) wrote the music and lyrics. Check here for show times and ticket availability.

The musical chronicles a shoe factory in trouble and reborn thanks to a performer’s desire for sturdy stilettos. Inspired by true events and based upon the 2005 film of the same name, KINKY BOOTS premiered in Chicago in 2012 before its Broadway debut in 2013. It was a huge success and earned 13 Tony nominations, winning six, including Best Musical and Best Score for Lauper (the first woman ever to win that award by herself!). It began its US tour in 2014.

Kool Kat of the Week Tiffany Engen (Lauren) is one of many actors among the principal cast with impressive Broadway, Off-Broadway, film and television roles under their belts (including Jim J. Bullock). She previously performed in the Broadway and first national tour productions of LEGALLY BLONDE, the movie HAIRSPRAY (2007) and the TV shows RAISING HOPE and SMASH.

Tiffany took a few minutes before the opening of this week’s Atlanta run to chat with ATLRetro about the musical, her favorite roles and a little bit about life on the road.

Where are you from? How did you become an actor? What was your first production? How old were you?

I am originally from Minnesota. I have loved singing, dancing, acting since I was a kid.  My parents took me to see shows whenever productions would be in town. In second grade I played a chicken in THE GOOSE AND THE GOLDEN EGG. I had one line. I’ve been hooked ever since!

0961_KINKY_BOOTS_TOUR

KINKY BOOTS on tour. Photo courtesy of Austin Northenor.

Which of your past performances are you most proud of?

I feel very lucky to have worked on some incredible shows.  LEGALLY BLONDE, HAIRSPRAY, ROCK OF AGES all have held a special place in my heart. I’m most proud of this role and this show. The role of Lauren is so fun to play. She is tough, bold, vulnerable, funny and sassy. This show is so special and has touched so many people. I’m so proud to be a part of a show that is changing people’s hearts and minds.

If you had to play one role for the rest of your career, what would it be?

This one!!!

Before taking on the role, were you familiar with the KINKY BOOTS movie? The Broadway production?

Yes, I was a fan of both the film and the Broadway production. I actually got to see a run-through of the Broadway production before they moved to the theater. And even in a rehearsal studio with no lights or costumes you could feel that this show was special. 

What should we know about your character?

Lauren is a factory worker at Price and Son. She is not afraid to speak her mind to her new boss, Charlie. I love that she is the one who says the factory needs to find a niche market to cater their product to. She provides the lightbulb moment for Charlie. 

KINKY BOOTS on tour. Photo courtesy of Austin Northenor.

KINKY BOOTS on tour. Photo courtesy of Austin Northenor.

How long will you guys be on the road? Where else are you performing?

I joined the company in November and we have played wonderful cities. The tour has dates booked well into 2017, so I’m so excited that it has been embraced by theaters across the country. After Atlanta we head to Kansas City then LA, Seattle, San Francisco—the list goes on.

What should Atlanta audiences expect?

A joyous, thought-provoking, entertaining night of theatre. This show won six Tony awards including Best Musical. We love it when people say that this is the best show or their favorite show they have ever seen!

How would you describe the music?

Cyndi Lauper has written and incredible musical score that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. She writes ballads that will break your heart and then turns around and writes a foot-stomping finale that radiates joy in every line. 

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Kool Kat of the Week: High and Loud: Tenor Rob Evan Helps Put the Classic into Classic Rock with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Posted on: May 8th, 2014 By:

Rob Evan. Photo courtesy of Ron Evan and ASO.

This week’s Kool Kat is Rob Evan, a Georgia native who’s teamed up with vocalists Micah Wilshire and Shem von Shroeck as The Rock Tenors. Hear them mash up the worlds of rock, country, Broadway and opera with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Fri. May 9 and Sat. May 10.  

As a vocalist and recording artist, Mr. Evan is a member of the platinum selling rock band, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He’s also rocked Broadway in the original Broadway cast of JEKYLL AND HYDE, playing the title roles for three years and over 600 performances. His credits also include one of our favorite leading roles, Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLESon Broadway and the critically acclaimed National Touring Company.

ATLRetro caught up with Rob to find out more about the Rock Tenors shows, TSO and more!

What’s the secret origin story behind the Rock Tenors?

The three of us were actually separated at birth and raised by different parents. We three were fed daily doses of Classic Rock and inspired by such greats as Freddie Mercury, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and so on. The ultimate goal was to reunite us as grown men and form the super group, which is now known as THE ROCK TENORS! OK, most of that is NOT true and actually we were brought together by Maestro Michael Krajewski in Calgary about a year and a half ago. This monster was his brain-child.

You meld quite a diverse selection of music for the show. How did you decide on what musical acts and songs to include? Is there a specific criteria for a Rock Tenors song?

The three of us are very different in our vocal styles. Maestro chose material that he thought would highlight and feature what we excel in as vocalists. The criteria for our material, to me, is best described as HIGH and LOUD. All kidding aside, there is really something for everyone in this concert. I promise it’s not a scary “Rock” show. People are loving it both young and old(er).

Do the Rock Tenors always perform with a symphony? What will the ASO contribute?

Yes, this particular show is built for symphonies. To me – and I have performed with most of the major symphonies around the US as well as several internationally – the ASO is one of the best in the biz. They will add a great deal to our performance. It’s a blast to hear 60 pieces jam on your favorite Rock songs.

What’s your personal favorite part of the Rock Tenor performance?

Probably the Rock Tenor Medley we do at the end of the first act. Again, we are very different, BUT when we first sang together in harmony, we realized that it was going to be a great project to work on. The Rock Tenor Medley highlights tunes from The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Kansas and Journey. 

Has anything ever surprised you about what resonates with audiences?

I can’t say that much surprises me anymore because I’ve seen so many different reactions having performed for over 20 years. I am convinced though that the Classic Rock genre is slowly making it’s way into not only the symphony world but our everyday lives no matter what age you are. Remember that Mick Jagger is 70! And so are a lot of the Stones fans. 

You’ve been in so many exciting Broadway shows and tours. When you were growing up, what was one Broadway show or role that inspired you? And have you had a chance to perform it?

I have to say that the reason I am doing this for a living is because of LES MISERABLES. I actually saw it at The Fox the first time it came through Atlanta. I was taking my girlfriend out for what I thought was a romantic French dinner and then a French musical. I was blown away and became obsessed. And my full circle is that I played Jean Valjean on Broadway as well as at The Fox.

You did HELLO DOLLY with Madeline Kahn. What role did you play and what was it like to work with her?

Before I got cast in LES MIS and during the time I was still in Atlanta, I auditioned for work at Theater of the Stars. I was in the chorus. Madeline was so lovely and generous to the cast. She would actually do her classic lines for you if you asked, i.e. “I’m So Tired…” from BLAZING SADDLES. She is sorely missed. As well as Theater of the Stars. 

Do you have any exciting Trans-Siberian Orchestra news to share right now?

TSO has been my chance to be a real “rock star.” I have performed in front of millions over the past 10 years that I have been in the band. I also have gold and platinum records on my wall thanks to the band. We are gearing up for both a new album, which I have already laid down my vocals as well as a brand new Winter Tour that begins in November. 

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: Jeff Rothman.

What else are you up to right now? What’s next?

I am the busiest I have been in a while. I do a great deal of symphony work in both the Broadway and Rock genres. I am also producing and creating concert projects. Some I am in, some I direct. My “baby” if you will is a show called ROCKTOPIA which should air next spring on PBS. I also have a progressive rock band called Menrva Realm and hope to tour that in Europe soon

Since you’re a Georgia native, is there something special when you get to perform in Atlanta and do you have a favorite thing that you plan to do while you’re here?

I LOVE Atlanta. I actually moved my family from NY to Alpharetta in 2008 hoping to stay. Unfortunately, the nature of my business brought us back to NY only a year and half later. All of my family is based in and around Atlanta and Georgia, so I will get to spend some time with them. They are all coming to see The Rock Tenors. And, I might hit The Varsity. Just sayin’…

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Their Day in Sun Records: David Elkins Walks the Line as Johnny Cash with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Posted on: Mar 12th, 2013 By:

The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Paul Natkin)

A fateful winter day when four of rock and country’s greatest sang together is recreated in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, the hit musical which plays the Fox Theatre from March 12-17 as part of the Broadway in Atlanta series. The extraordinary recording session on Dec. 4, 1956, included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and was presided over by legendary Sun Records owner/producer Sam Phillips. Among the rock hits recorded that night were “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Fever,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Matchbox,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hound Dog” and more.

The family of Johnny Cash, in a twist of fate and coincidence, moved to Memphis in the early 1950s. One day he worked up his gumption to show up at Sun and ask Sam for a recording contract. Sam wasn’t interested in the gospel songs that were Johnny’s first love and was rumored to suggest he “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Johnny says that anecdote didn’t happen, but he did switch to rockabilly, Sam took him on, and he recorded early hits such as “Hey Porter,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and ‘Walk the Line” at Sun. He actually became Sun’s best selling artist and the first to complete an LP.

To find out more about MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET and Johnny Cash’s Sun years, we caught up with David Elkins, who plays Johnny in the national tour company.

David Elkins as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Paul Natkin)

How did you get the part of Johnny Cash?

I answered an open call audition inNew York City. Yes, I was going in solely for the role of Johnny.  I couldn’t begin to do those other guys justice. But I knew what I sounded like when I sang, and I just thought, “I can do that.” I love Johnny and his story. I respect his life’s journey and what he stood for, so it’s a real honor to try and bring a glimpse of that, one slice of time in his life, and share that with people everyday.

Some people may be less familiar with Johnny Cash’s relationship with Sun Records than with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. What will audiences learn about him in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET that they may not know?

Johnny Cash was there at Sun, but he left for Columbia Records, which is one of the dramatic story points in the show. He wanted to record a gospel album, and Mr. Phillips didn’t want to record it. He didn’t think the kids would buy it, but Columbia said they  would record it. It’s true that when most people think of Johnny, it’s more the “Man in Black” Johnny Cash of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and later AMERICAN RECORDINGS even, with [producer] Rick Rubin. That’s maybe why the Sun Records years don’t stick out as much today to some.

How did you approach playing Johnny Cash?

Instead of tackling the icon and trying to bring all that to the stage in less than two hours, I approached him as a 24-year-old kid from Arkansas who grew up picking cotton. My grandmother grew up 200 miles north of where Johnny was born [in Kingsland], so I heard all sorts of stories about picking cotton, working in the fields, and looking out for rattlesnakes. I thought of those folks who I have met. It made [Johnny’s early life] immediately tangible for me.

What are your favorite songs in the musical?

I really like our Quartet numbers. We do “Down By the Riverside” and “Peace in My Valley.” Those are pretty magical moments when we get to harmonize. And personally I love watching the other guys do their thing. I get to be on stage and watch them. Everybody I work with is so talented. I really love doing “Walk the Line,” too. People really open up to it. The first song I do is “Folsom Prison Blues,” and that song always gets a great reaction. After one show, I talked to a navy midshipman who used to listen to Johnny Cash all the time. He said, while I was singing, he closed his eyes and thought of his friends. I thought that was very genuine and from the heart. Things like that are very special.

I did a show in Durham, NC, and Johnny Cash’s nephew and his family met me after the show. He said that someone had told him he should go see the show. He said he figured that the other guys will be pretty good, but “nobody sounds like my uncle Johnny…but you nailed it.” That was such a blessing to me and a real confirmation of what we are trying to do.

Ben Goddard as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Barry as Carl Perkins, Cody Slaughter as Elvis Presley and David Elkins as Johnny Cash in The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Paul Natkin)

Do you have any ritual for getting in character?

My warm-up consists of singing along to the HYMNS BY JOHNNY CASH album that he recorded shortly after he left Sun. I also watched old videos of his appearances on TV shows such as TOWN HALL PARTY and THE TEX RITTER SHOW and other clips of that era. It is not an impersonation, but I try to channel the feel of those shows. I think about what makes Johnny such a dynamic performer, so earnest and direct with his delivery. He really made each song his own. He was a storyteller. When he covered other people’s songs, he attached an earnestness, just a storyteller’s sensibility to every song. And there’s always that danger, that unpredictability under the surface that I think people are drawn to.

What will audiences be most surprised by?

I think audiences will be surprised by the undeniable impact this one man, Sam Phillips, had on the birth of rock n roll. He really had a gift for pulling new sounds out of young artists, and he recognized the racial barriers in music and helped to knock those down. He’s one of the few people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that wasn’t a musician. The show really is an ode to Sam Phillips. He really anchors the whole story. The script [by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux] was based on GOOD ROCKIN’ TONIGHT: SUN RECORDS AND THE BIRTH OF ROCK N ROLL by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins. You can really feel the respect and love the authors have for Sam. It’s interesting to listen to the music of that time. If you listen to what they would have heard on the radio, then you can better understand why what they did at Sun was so revolutionary.

Vince Nappo as Sam Phillips in The National Tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

In MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, you’ve had the pleasure of performing in a lot of vintage theaters before getting to our Fabulous Fox. Any favorites?

A great part of the tour has been seeing beautiful old theaters. One of the cast members, Katie Barton, who is the understudy for Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne, is from Atlanta and she told me the Fox is beautiful. There was Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, NY, where Duke Ellington performed and KING KONG played. I liked the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia. It wasn’t the most beautiful and the boards were a bit creaky, but it takes you back in time a bit and it felt great to be right in the middle of the city. The [former] Hippodrome [ now the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center] in Baltimore was also very impressive and a lot of fun to play in.

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Oh What a Night! Carlos Valdes Works His Way Back to Atlanta in Broadway’s JERSEY BOYS

Posted on: May 30th, 2012 By:

Wes Hart, Brad Weinstock, Brent DiRoma and the Company of JERSEY BOYS Photo: Joan Marcus

By Jordan Barbeau
Contributing Writer

For any up-and-coming stage actor, making it to the Big Apple to perform on Broadway is the ultimate fantasy that drives everything you do. For Carlos Valdes, this fantasy became a reality. An University of Michigan graduate with a passion for arts, he has devoted his life to theater, tirelessly pursuing his dream with a passion that eventually led him where every stage actor dreams of going – New York City.

Playing at The Fox Theatre through June 10, Carlos’s most recent production, the Broadway Across America tour production of JERSEY BOYS, takes audiences back in time almost half a century, chronicling the rise and fall of the famous pop rock quartet, The Four Seasons. In JERSEY BOYS¸ Carlos is a swing actor; instead of having a set role, he is tasked with knowing several of the songs throughout the entire play, and must take the stage to perform these tracks in the event that one of the other actors cannot.

As any actor will tell you, it is impossible to go into every role with the exact same mindset. Every role is drastically different, and if you don’t place yourself in your character’s shoes, the performance will not feel as authentic. Carlos is no stranger to this. He admitted that performing a role from so long ago was difficult, simply because he had never experienced this time period in his own life.

This challenge did not impede his success, however; to prepare for such a role, Carlos says he immersed himself in the music and events of the 1960s. He studied the voice and personality of Frankie Valli, the lead singer of the Four Seasons and one of the show’s main characters. Carlos pointed out that there is a certain timelessness to the music, and that while he did not grow up in the ‘60s, the music is so easy for anyone to connect to that the transition felt smooth and natural.

Carlos Valdes. Photo courtesy of Brave Public Relations.

When asked why he pursued JERSEY BOYS, Carlos had nothing but praise and adoration for the show. He says that JERSEY BOYS is an incredibly well-constructed show, weaving great songs into a gruff, authentic Jersey story. He states that music has such a powerful ability to conjure memories in the listener, and as such, the audience does not simply watch a play; they experience and relive an entire era, a saga from start to finish.

It is not a secret that no work, no matter how good and no matter what medium, can appeal to every single audience. When asked about how a show that takes place almost 50 years in the past would appeal to younger, more modern audiences, Carlos was confident that audiences would have no problem connecting with the play. “I think the difference in the times is actually one of the main appeals of the show,” he says. Despite the fact that many audience members may not have experienced these times, or even heard of the Four Seasons, Carlos believes that the theme of constant change that the show embraces can relate to anyone, assuring a strong connection with the audience.

As a native of Cobb County, Carlos is returning to his hometown for the first time in his professional career. During JERSEY BOYS’ May 22-June 10 run at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, Carlos says he is sure to return to his old stomping grounds, such as Marietta Square or Kennesaw Mountain.

Tickets to JERSEY BOYS are available at the Fox Theatre Box Office or online here

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Julie Johnson Takes a Broadway Train Back to MEMPHIS at the Fox Theatre

Posted on: Jan 31st, 2012 By:

Bryan Fenkart as Huey Calhoun and the Broadway Cast. Photo credit: Randy Morrison

By Jordan Barbeau
Contributing Writer

The Tony Awards are the theater equivalent to the Oscars – the most prestigious awards any production or stage actor/actress can earn. As huge of a feat as this is, MEMPHIS, a Broadway hit show about a boy with rock ‘n’ roll in his heart, easily did just that. With its emotionally gripping story and fun numbers, MEMPHIS had no trouble winning the award for Best Musical in 2010. Overwhelming praise from fans and critics alike, along with its earning of this prestigious award, prompted a national tour of the show, and lucky for Atlantans, it’s here at the Fox Theatre for a week run from Tues. Jan. 31 through Sun. Feb. 5.

Julie Johnson, a singer and actress from Texas, holds the distinct honor of getting to portray one of the more interesting characters in the play – the mother of the main character, Huey. Scared and staunchly against her son’s plans, “Mama” does everything in her power to keep her son away from “black music,” refusing to accept his love of the art. It can’t be a coincidence that she has the same name, Gladys, as the mother of Elvis Presley, Memphis’s most famous rock n roll son.

Julie Johnson.

Julie, unlike her character, fully appreciates and embraces the art of singing and performing. According to the actress, it’s been her destiny since she was a child to perform in front of people. “It’s almost like my DNA was in the shape of a microphone,” she laughs. One glance at the list of Julie’s past productions assures that no one is going to argue that fact. Besides being an accomplished solo artist, Julie has performed in plenty of Broadway productions ranging from SWEENEY TODD to CABARET.

Even to an experienced actress such as herself, one would think that performing in such a widely loved production in front of thousands of people a year would be intimidating. To Julie, this is apparently not the case. She says the fact that the audience already knows and loves the play makes it easier. “It’s like being an ambassador,” she says of bringing the once Broadway-exclusive show to those around the country. “You feel like Bruce Springsteen.”

It goes without saying that one cannot perform in a musical about 1950s rock ‘n’ roll without having some prior knowledge of the genre. It would be like a child trying to run before he learned how to crawl. Julie is no exception. W hen asked about the time period, Julie says that her favorite artist from the ‘50s is one of the most famous blues artists of all time, Mr. B. B. King himself.

Felicia Boswell (Felicia) and the Touring Cast of MEMPHIS. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.

Huey’s mom may be a very close-minded character, but Julie does not fault her for that. In fact, she understands her fears, having grown up surrounded by similar feelings and thoughts. In the end, despite all of the initial hesitation to accept the change, Julie says that the music is what makes everyone and everything whole, allowing folks to do what seemed impossible – unifying a split time.

Fortunately for the people of Atlanta, Julie says that audiences here will connect with MEMPHIS even more than most, due to the city’s deep roots in black music. She adds that she has not had the opportunity to spend much time here in the great ATL, but when MEMPHIS comes to the Fox this week, Julie hopes to explore the city and see what she’s been missing!

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Brushing Up HAIR for a New Generation: Allison Guinn Is No Happy Hippie and That’s OK

Posted on: May 18th, 2011 By:

HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical; Fox Theatre; May 17-22; Ticketmaster; presented by Broadway Across America.

When actress Allison Guinn showed up for a 700-person cattle call audition for Tony Award-winning revival of HAIR, she had 16 bars to show she had what it takes to join what most people think of as a celebration of peace, love and understanding. She picked Janis Joplin’s “Turtle Blues” and screamed “I’m a mean, mean woman, and I don’t mean one man no good.” She was certain that she wouldn’t get cast.

Then three weeks later, Allison found out that seemingly risky choice was exactly the right one to make, scoring her the part of a disgruntled hippie in the Tribe ensemble. “Director Diane Paulus took my hand and led me down a hall of pictures, then she pointed at one of Grace Slick looking really heavy and giving me the finger,” Allison recalls. “She said, ‘That’s you.’” Later Allison would also get two more roles as the conservative Mother of draft-resistor protagonist Claude and a Buddhist monk called Buddhadalirama.

HAIR has a reputation for being the hippie-dippie musical. After all, what’s more New Agey sounding than “Let the Sunshine In” and “Age of Aquarius.” But Guinn, who’s more into the less cheerful early ‘60s beat generation than the late ‘60s Summer of Love counter-culture says, not so fast. “It’s easy to paint with broad strokes and say this show has such wonderful bright colors and we say ‘love’ every fifth word,” she adds. “But it’s not just all laidback and groovy. It’s about this quest for a new life because the old way of life obviously isn’t working. Society is at a boiling point. All these people have been killed [in Vietnam], all these riots happened, it’s a period of great change, and these people are at the pinnacle of it.

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