INTERVIEW WITH “HAMILTON” AND “SCHOOL GIRLS” STAR JOANNA JONES

Joanna JonesJOANNA JONES IS ACTING AS THE “NEW GIRL” IN MULTIPLE WAYS.

As Peggy in the Broadway production of Hamilton, Jones is part of the iconic Schuyler sisters trio. But now that her first year co-starring in the Broadway juggernaut has ended, she is taking a temporary break from the show to expand her repertoire elsewhere (fret not, she’ll return to Hamilton after Christmas).

Currently, Jones is starring in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play as newly transferred student Ericka Baofo. Written by Jocelyn Bioh, the poignant production has come to Los Angeles after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run. Now playing in Los Angeles through September 30 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, the daring high school drama marks Jones’ non-musical stage debut.

She and I spoke about the differences between performing in plays and musicals, the universal themes of the teenage girl experience, her aspirations as a solo recording artist, the cultural impact of Hamilton, her favorite memories from her various high-profile television appearances and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Why was School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play the perfect follow-up project for you after Hamilton?

JOANNA JONES: Well, I’ve been doing musical theater for so long now. It’s kind of every musical theater person’s dream that they get to do a straight play at least once. It doesn’t always happen! So the opportunity to do one was something I had been wanting for a really long time.

When this play presented itself, it was something I definitely could not pass up. On top of that, I had just heard such amazing things about it because of its Off-Broadway run last year. It had gotten the most amazing reviews.

A lot of my Hamilton friends actually had seen the show and were like, “That play’s amazing!” They already knew that the playwright was awesome because her boyfriend, Austin Smith, was in Hamilton as well. I was just hearing the most wonderful things about it everywhere I turned.

I was getting to a point where my first year with Hamilton was coming close to an end and I was deciding what I wanted to do next. I’m actually going to go back into Hamilton after this show, but they were gracious enough to give me the time off to work on this project because it’s something I really wanted to do.

I hadn’t seen the show before accepting the role but reading the script made me realize how perfect this piece could be for me on a personal level. And career-wise, I liked that this could be the show to prove that I can do things other than just musicals.

Since this was your first non-musical stage venture, what were the biggest challenges of performing in a straight play?

One challenge that I’m finding is that we don’t have microphones. I’ve spent the last two decades using a microphone and singing in some really large theaters. Plays are done in a little bit of smaller venues and there’s no microphone, so you have to find a way to use your breath support to project your voice and fill the whole space. A lot of my co-actors have mentioned that even the theater we’re in now, the Kirk Douglas Theatre, changes how the sound and the vibrations travel through the room. So that aspect has been very interesting and exciting.

On an acting level, this piece deals with some very uncomfortable subject matter, so it’s certainly a challenge to keep that feeling fresh and honest when you’re doing it eight times a week. It’s so important to deal with the emotional subject matter and continue to keep it truthful to yourself because every night is a new audience that has not seen this before. Of course, that’s the same in a musical, but it’s different to delve into subject matter like this and express it through scene work rather than a song.

It’s also been challenging being new to a play when a lot of the other actresses were already in the show before. I kind of felt like I had some catching up to do because they had already built this thing amongst themselves. But it was also a very open environment creatively when myself and a couple of the newer actresses came in. We were able to mold something that has elements of the former production but was still something that was new to all of us.

How is Ericka a new and/or different type of character for you to play on stage?

I’ve never had to play a character that was specifically biracial for a reason. I get cast in things either as an ethnically ambiguous person or as a black girl. But being biracial is very important and specific to this story. Ericka is half white and half black. I’ve never been in a show where that subject matter is highlighted.

It’s really interesting because it’s not actually something that gets talked about a lot – that idea of what it feels like to be from both worlds and be both ethnicities. So I think being cast because of who I actually am in real life is something that makes playing this character different for me.

How much – if at all – did working on this show remind you of your own high school experiences?

It’s kind of eerily similar, actually. We moved a lot when I was growing up and I went to several different schools, so I had the “new girl” experience multiple times. I remember how it felt to be lost and vulnerable and enter into an environment that was already established. Like, the social relationships were already established and I’d have to figure my way into them. I’d try to fit into groups that really didn’t feel right to me and then tried other groups and so on.

Schools always have the “cool” group and the “dorky” group. I would try to fit into the “cool” group sometimes but I always felt like I wasn’t enough – like I wasn’t living up to it or I didn’t have enough money to fit into that group. Maybe it was just that I could feel more like myself in the “dorky” group.

All that to say is that I don’t think I ever experienced the level of meanness that’s portrayed in this specific play but I definitely experienced the feeling of not fitting into a group – especially when it’s the “cool” group and a specific person is in charge. There’s a hierarchy situation. I’ve definitely experienced the terror that goes into being a new girl and the weird hormones involved in teenage social hierarchy.

There were some dark times being the new girl back then. I’m definitely calling upon those memories in the play.

Although it’s set at an exclusive boarding school in Ghana, the play explores many universal themes. How do you think that having the show take place in Africa underlines both the similarities and differences that teenage girls face around the globe?

That’s a good question. My co-star, MaameYaa Boafo, who plays the mean girl, actually addressed something similar to that the other day and I liked what she said. She said that even though it’s set in Africa, the feelings that we have at that age are all kind of the same in a way. The feeling of wanting to belong and fit in, or the feeling that if you are insecure, can sometimes lead to a coping mechanism of putting other people down. That’s kind of a universal thing. At that age, you don’t really know who you are and you’re trying to figure that out. Sometimes that brings out the worst in people.

How much did Mean Girls– both the film and the musical – impact your approach to taking on the role of Ericka?

I love that movie! Again, I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience the level of cruelty both in that movie or in this play. But Lindsay Lohan’s approach to really having no idea how to fit into a completely new country definitely helped. Just like the level of discomfort and uncertainty that goes into not only going to a new school but also moving to a new country and culture. When you do that, you’re afraid to offend or say the wrong thing and you’re not sure what’s customary for people. So Mean Girls definitely informed Ericka in that way.

Is there a key takeaway that you hope audiences have after seeing the show?

Yes! I mean, the play is really about colorism and challenging the ideas of what we believe is beautiful. My hope would be that audiences take away something that challenges their minds, their spirits and their collective awareness. I hope that people that have felt not beautiful will be comforted and then change their perspective as well. I want them to have hope that they are beautiful and that while beauty is everywhere, it’s just a social construction. Everyone is beautiful no matter what age or what skin color they have or whatever else. I just hope that it challenges people’s view of what we prescribe to as beautiful around the world.

When I interviewed your Hamilton co-star, Mandy Gonzalez, she told me that “Hamilton has done some incredible things and has set the bar to new levels all the way around. Not just artistically, but what it is doing socially too. It’s so important. I’m very proud to be a part of it.” Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?

Yeah, I agree with Mandy 100%! Lin-Manuel Miranda and a lot of the actors that they put in are people who have strong opinions and are activists, world shakers and world changers. They’re people who have a voice. So it’s wonderful that Hamilton can be used as a platform for social change and justice in the world.

Of course, the whole idea that Hamilton is cast multi-ethnically in a colorblind way on purpose is a message in itself. I think it’s really wonderful for people to come to the show and see George Washington, the President of the United States, as a black man. My hope is that people don’t even think twice when they come. They’re just watching a show and they just accept that immediately without any hesitation. The focus isn’t the color of the actors’ skin. The focus is on watching the story of our country being formed. The idea that people watching aren’t even thinking about color is just really exciting.

It doesn’t matter if you’re black, Asian, Latino, white, anything. That’s huge! We’ve never seen something like that on this level before. So I agree with Mandy wholeheartedly because this show is having huge impacts on American culture and society. It’s reaching everywhere. It’s a really wonderful and special thing that’s been created.

Tell me a little bit about Why Mona, your musical side project with producer Unlike Pluto. You’ve released covers of many iconic songs, like “Go Your Own Way,” “We Will Rock You” and “Stayin’ Alive.” How do you decide which songs you want to put your own spin on and are there plans for a full album?

I think in the beginning we wanted to pick songs that people would never think of covering. Like one of our very first ones was “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. That’s not a song that a lot of people think to cover. There are other songs that naturally lend themselves to being covered – like beautiful pop songs that could easily be turned into like a slow, acoustic jam. But we didn’t want to be too obvious.

We wanted to pick songs we both loved but also songs that would be difficult to cover because you would have to completely deconstruct and rebuild a new sound. Our goal is to reinvent classics in ways that no one would ever think of hearing those songs.

We’ve been releasing a song every month at this point and we plan to keep going. Right now, we’re focusing on licensing to get the songs placed on TV shows and movie trailers and stuff like that. But I definitely wouldn’t rule out the idea of an album in the future! Our next release is going to be “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone. We’re finishing that up now and it will hopefully come out next month.

People often ask me what our sound is but I don’t really know how to describe it honestly. It’s jazzy at times but it’s also grungy ‘90s-ish. It’s really fun!

You have such a beautiful and unique singing voice. Who were some of your most formative musical inspirations growing up? And do you have plans on releasing any solo recordings?

Thank you! My dad is a musician and he exposed us to a lot of different types of music. I think maybe that’s why I have an eclectic sound. I grew up listening to Christian music and gospel, as well as rock music like U2 and the Dire Straits. We also listened to a lot of world music, piano music, Brazilian jazz, Keiko Matsui, Cliff Richard – just a super strange assortment.

When I got older and started to do musical theater, the voices that have drawn me have been more like Barbara Streisand. I love the way that she tells stories through her voice and tone. Lana Del Ray is my favorite contemporary artist. I adore the way that she writes and her vintage sound. I like to pull from a lot of different styles in order to create whatever sound comes out. Amy Winehouse is up there on my list as well. I also like jazz artists – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. Those were hugely influential for me. So it’s a little bit of everything.

And yes, I do have plans as a solo artist! I’ve lived in New York for a year now, but while I’m based in LA for this play, I’ve been working on a lot of my own stuff. There are contractual things happening that mean I can’t release those things right now but I absolutely plan on pursuing a recording artist career. That’s definitely on the top of my list!

Now that I’ve found my bearings in New York City, I’ll continue to record solo stuff. I’m actually doing a little concert in October at the Green Room 42 where I’ll be singing the songs of artists that have inspired me and my sound. Hopefully I’ll be doing more stuff like that – live gigs and recording. But yes, I do plan to release my own solo things in the near future.

In 2010, you performed as part a capella group The Backbeats on reality show The Sing-Off. How did that experience shape you as a musical artist?

That was a very exciting time for me! I was in school at UCLA and I was studying musical theater at that time, so I think the opportunity to perform on television singing pop songs was very exciting and appealing to me. It was like another classroom where I was learning what it’s like to be in the music industry. I was so young back then. It was a growing experience because I had to learn to refuse to be afraid. There was really no time to be afraid! The camera was on and you’re in a competition, so it was very, “go sing your song! It’s now or never!”

It definitely gave me some confidence and some balls. I love doing a cappella because I respond so well to harmonies and arrangements. That’s the beauty of harmony in arrangements –using the voice as an instrument. Your voice is the trumpet, your voice is the bass, your voice is the drum. The voice is such an incredible instrument.

A lot of the Backbeats are still some of my best friends to this day. So on a personal level, it was a wonderful experience to go through. I made lifelong friends. It was just so exciting because it showed me what types of possibilities my future music career could have.

What’s your fondest memory of being in the ensemble of NBC’s Hairspray Live! In 2016?

Oh man, there are so many of them! But I would have to say the wonderful camaraderie. Everyone was literally so incredibly excited to be there every single day. Every day was like a happiness party.

Maybe my fondest memory was that I got to play with the original Dynamites from Broadway – Shayna Steele, Judine Somerville and Kamilah Marshall. I would always slip away and hang out with them. They’re some of the fiercest singers I’ve ever heard.

It was also fun to be a dancer in that show because I don’t get to do that very often. It was really fun to work on something with an ensemble and do partner dancing. It was fun being on set as well, literally running from one set to another in between scenes.

And of course, I loved working with like Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth and Harvey Fierstein. Everyone was just so nice and excited to be there. I couldn’t really pinpoint one specific memory. The experience as a whole was incredible.

What are some musical dream roles that you’d like to tackle after Hamilton?

As far as my musical theater tastes go, I’m kind of an old school girl. My real dream role that I don’t really tell anybody is that I can’t wait to become an appropriate age to play Mrs. Lovett it in a revival of Sweeney Todd. That’s my favorite show! Sondheim’s music is just the most stunning music I have ever heard.

It remains to be seen musical theater-wise what I would want to do next. But I do tend to gravitate more towards the classics. I would also love to do something where I had to really sing soprano because I haven’t had to do something like that in so long. I love that world as well.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, now playing through September 30 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: “SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL” ON BROADWAY

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

IT MAY SOON OFFICIALLY BE FALL, BUT SUMMER IS REIGNING SUPREME ON BROADWAY.

Based on the life of the groundbreaking recording artist, Summer: The Donna Musical traces the Queen of Disco’s meteoric rise to fame and the legacy she left behind. Structured as Donna Summer’s final concert, this jukebox musical is a highly entertaining explosion of flashing lights, energetic choreography, fabulous costumes—and, of course, 22 of the greatest hits in Summer’s legendary discography.

The show presents Donna at three stages in her lush career. As Duckling Donna, Storm Lever makes a scene-stealing Broadway debut. Performing such early gems from Summer’s repertoire as “I Remember Yesterday” and “On My Honor,” Lever brings an exuberant charm to the youngest of the three Donnas. Her unique rasp and soaring voice make her sound like a musical theater version of popstar Camila Cabello, and her superb acting underlines what an oversight it was to have her be the only Donna not to land a Tony nomination this past season. Regardless, Summer will act as a launching pad for a very big career for Lever.

After back-to-back runs in shows like Hamilton and A Bronx TaleAriana DeBose solidifies her standing as one of the most in-demand performers currently on Broadway. As Disco Donna, she plays Summer at the height of her career. Of the three Donnas represented, hers is the most prominently featured and the one with the biggest character arc.

Unsurprisingly, DeBose is up for the challenge and she does the best job of mimicking Summer’s voice. Her sultry rendition of “Love To Love You Baby,” feisty take on “Bad Girls” and soaring high notes in “Heaven Knows” are all custom-made dance-in-your-seats numbers. But it’s her dynamic “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” and “Hot Stuff” that best showcase her vocal transformation into the First Lady of Love.

As Diva Donna, Tony Award-winner LaChanze (The Color Purple) plays Summer in the third act of her career, while also serving as the show’s narrator. She reflects on her career and the adversities she faced battling sexism, racism and the record industry as a whole. This narrative framework of Summer’s final concert allows all three Donnas to shine as various chapters in her life are highlighted throughout the intermission-free, 100-minute production.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

When LaChanze performs songs like “I Feel Love” and “She Works Hard For The Money,” it’s not hard to imagine just how much fun a Donna Summer concert would have really been. With her sparkly outfits, swarms of back-up dancers and string of hits, Summer was truly a pioneer of not just disco but also dance music at large. The way that LaChanze manages to capture and remind audiences of that is as great a tribute as any artist could hope for.

But the biggest standouts are when all three Donnas sing together. Their voices perfectly complement one another, and the ecstatic rush the audience gets from watching these three powerhouses trade harmonies and verses becomes a nearly transcendent experience. It’s no surprise that classics like “MacArthur Park” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” are highlights, but the added element of watching all three Donnas bring these songs to life at once generates an unparalleled level of enrapturing energy. When all three close the show with “Last Dance,” there’s hardly anyone in the theater not on their feet dancing and clapping along.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Summer: The Donna Summer MusicalIn an age of productions that honor the legacies of primarily white musicians, it’s great to see a celebration of the work of such an iconic woman of color. In fact, this fall the stories and songs of artists such as Cher, The Go Gos, Carole King, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller will be featured on New York stages. Summer is the only jukebox musical you can currently a buy a ticket to that pays homage to a non-white musical talent. Clearly, despite its efforts, Broadway still has a long ay to go when it comes to diversity.

Another refreshing element of Summer is its willingness to touch on some of the tough challenges Summer faced. Albeit briefly, the show illustrates the impact of being molested as a child, witnessing a crime, starting a new life in Germany, struggling to balance career and family, and telling a controversial joke about the LGBT community. The rode to fame isn’t all glamorous, and Summer can be as poignant at times as it is eye-opening.

But, above all, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is an effusive musical biography that even those unfamiliar with Summer’s music and personal history will smile through from start to finish.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, now playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to purchase the original cast recording, now available!

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: “PRETTY WOMAN” ON BROADWAY

Pretty Woman: The MusicalThere’s a line in the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman, in which a hooker named Vivian Ward tells Edward Lewis, the client she’s falling for, “in case I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight.”

This summer, the musical adaptation of Pretty Woman has made its long-awaited debut on Broadway. And much to their delight, fans of the movie are sure to be buzzing about how much fun they had in the Nederlander Theatre.

The show’s book is written by the film’s screenwriter, J.F. Lawton, as well as its director, the late Garry Marshall (making it one of the final projects he worked on). As a result, the book is practically a carbon copy of its source material – which is exactly what fans of the film desire when seeing a stage version of such a revered classic. Still set in Los Angeles in 1990, the show includes every possible memorable line from the film, cutting nothing substantial while also adding fleshed-out stories for the characters.

In this way, Pretty Woman is the opposite of recent film-to-stage adaptations such as Mean Girls or Bring It On, which favor contemporizing the writing versus replicating it and adding in songs. Most people aren’t going to see Pretty Woman with the expectation of viewing a re-examination of the film through the lens of today. Instead, they’re greeting the delivery of all the film’s well-known punchlines and zingers with loud cheers and rapturous applause. The entire show has to pause at every performance to wait for the audience to quiet down after Vivian delivers her famous, “You people work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. HUGE! I have to go shopping now” speech.

Pretty Woman tells the Pygmalion-esque love story between Vivian and Edward as the two navigate the blurry lines of business and pleasure. As a film, it ushered in waves of romantic blockbusters attempting to capitalize on its successful fairytale formula. As a musical, it’s one of the most genuinely heartwarming and uplifting stories currently playing on Broadway. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) and featuring music and lyrics by Jim Vallance and Grammy Award-winning musician Bryan Adams, the musical retains all of the film’s best qualities while simultaneously existing as its own feel-good, standalone experience.

Taking on the lead role of Vivian is the sensational Samantha Barks. Best known for playing Éponine in the 2012 film, Les Misérables, Barks is a bona fide star making a truly triumphant Broadway debut. Her first song, “Anywhere But Here,” immediately showcases what a vocal powerhouse she is. It’s rare for a character to be introduced with such a belt-heavy showstopper at the top of a show, but Barks wastes no time singing her heart out. She blends Adams and Vallance’s contemporary pop-infused score with traditional musical theater sensibilities masterfully. Any actress playing Wicked’s Elphaba or The Last Five Years’ Cathy Hiatt should pray that Barks doesn’t get bored of turning tricks on Hollywood Boulevard anytime soon.

In the pulsing eleven o’clock number “I Can’t Go Back,” Barks channels her inner Kelly Clarkson-meets-Idina Menzel rock-star. Although there are only three more songs after that one until the show ends, Barks’ vocal prowess catapults audiences into a mid-act standing ovation. The way that she exemplifies Vivian’s journey through her passionate performance is awe-inducing, making the catchy song a visceral battle cry that announces her character’s new beginnings.

Barks also brings a heightened level of sarcasm and comedy to the role. Her Vivian is far more playful than Julia Roberts’ was. On stage, the dialogue that came across a bit dry in in the film becomes a lighter tool to show off Vivian’s wit and intelligence – and Barks accomplishes this beautifully. As an actor, Barks proves that she’s got much more to give than just a big voice. And as a vocalist, she spectacularly shows off a tremendous gift that can very well lead her to a Tony Award (or at the very least, a nomination) next year.

One of the key differences between the film and the musical comes in the form of the character of Kit. In the movie, Kit is Vivian’s sidekick whose sole purpose is sassy tips and motivational pep talks. In the musical, she’s more of a mentor and her history is expanded to create a far more fully-fledged, central figure in the story.

Playing the vivacious New Yorker is Orfeh (Legally Blonde), who brings an enhanced level of street-smart bravado to the role. Known for her signature belt, Orfeh more than delivers on her big solo, “Rodeo Drive” – a colorful and fierce tutorial while showing Vivian how to maximize her new life of luxury.

In this version of the story, Vivian isn’t the only one who decides to leave her life of prostitution behind. A new sub-plot about Kit’s childhood dreams of becoming a police offer becoming realized adds another layer to the warm and fuzzy feeling of the show’s climax. With her bombastic comedic instincts, Orfeh makes Kit an integral part of why Pretty Woman works so well on stage.

Orfeh’s real-life husband, Andy Karl (Groundhog Day), equips Edward with the same playboy-with-a-heart-of-gold charm that made Richard Gere so irresistible in the film. Given his palpable chemistry with Barks, it’s remarkable to think that Karl joined the cast of the show only two months before the first preview performance (after original actor Steve Kazee had to drop out for personal reasons). Vocally, he does a terrific job of giving Edward the quintessential 1990s rasp that defined the alternative rock music of that era. He sounds different here than he has in any of his previous roles, showcasing his versatility and tireless work ethic. With his grungy take on these songs, Karl makes it very easy to hear the Bryan Adams of it all.

Additional standouts include Tommy Bracco (Newsies) as the bellman at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where Vivian and Edward reside during their weeklong tryst. Bracco’s performance is hysterically funny and joyously illustrates how an ensemble member can become a real scene-stealer. Mitchell’s euphoric choreography is highlighted best when Bracco is leading it, and he does so with levels of grace and energy that make his time on stage an undeniable treat.

Also in the ensemble, Allison Blackwell (A Night With Janis Joplin) delivers one of the show’s most jaw-dropping moments. When Edward takes Vivian to see La traviata, Blackwell’s gorgeous arias pierce the hearts of the audience as much as they do Vivian’s. Interspersed with Edward’s rock-tinged “You and I,” Blackwell’s classical soprano voice is on full display as she nails note after note. It’s a tonal shift from the rest of the show’s music, but its inclusion creates an unforgettable moment that will have audiences clamoring for more.

For those fans who have paid tribute to the film every Halloween, they’ll be pleased to know that costume designer Gregg Barnes (The Drowsy Chaperone) also takes his primary cues from the movie. That means that, yes, of course Vivian first steps out in a blonde bob wig with an oversized jacket, black miniskirt and thigh-high boots. Of course she wears the red gown when she attends the opera. After all, the trajectory of Vivian’s evolution is most obviously apparent through her fashion – so using these two iconic outfits as the spectrum for which to trace her adventure is as smart as it is crowd-pleasing. In between, her outfits have been slightly contemporized to fit more modern understandings of “sexy” and “high-society,” yet the story her clothes tell sync perfectly with the show’s overall narrative. Barnes accomplishes the daunting task of paying homage to the film’s fashion and period while also redefining its aesthetic to create something current and fresh.

While Pretty Woman: The Musical will surely check all of the boxes for those attending to simply see their favorite film live on stage, its meticulous transformation into a one-of-a-kind piece of theater should make it a must-see production even for the three people on this planet who have never seen the movie.

Either way, audiences won’t have any difficulty remembering that they had a really good time.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Pretty Woman: The Musical, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to pre-order the original cast recording, available digitally on September 21 and in stores on October 26!

 

Originally published on PopBytes

CHATTING WITH OPERA STAR NADINE SIERRA

NADINE SIERRA

Nadine SierraNadine Sierra is on a mission to redefine classical arts for younger generations.

At only 30-years-old, the Florida-raised soprano is one of the youngest stars in opera today. Amongst her vast accolades, she won the Richard Tucker Award in 2017 and took home the prestigious 2018 Beverly Sills Artist Award by the Metropolitan Opera. A fixture at some of the top opera houses across the globe, Sierra made her house debut at the revered Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2016. Her celebrated performance on opening night broke a tradition dating back to Toscanini when the infamously harsh La Scala audience prompted her for an encore.

On August 24, Sierra will release her debut solo album, There’s A Place For Us. Named after a lyric in Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” the gorgeous record highlights the singer’s boldest effort to date: making opera and classical musical exciting for and accessible to Millennials, Generation Z, and beyond.

Alex Nagorski and Nadine SierraAhead of one of her appearances at this summer’s Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, I sat down with Sierra to talk about her upcoming album, the importance of keeping classical arts alive, how she uses social media as a tool to converse with younger fans, her career highlights thus far, and more.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Why is There’s A Place For Us the perfect introduction of you as a solo artist?

NADINE SIERRA: I always knew that on my first album, I didn’t want to just create something that was like, “here are 10 arias that I’ve done in my life and here’s a pretty picture of me on the cover and that’s it!”

Anything that I do, anything that I produce – if it’s an album, a concert or a recital – I have control over, let’s say. So I always wanted the album to be a project that was more about how being an artist can affect a bigger message. If there’s something that’s happening in another person’s life or in society or the community, I try to address that through art. All over the world, music is something that has been used as a form of protest or as a thing catering to a more powerful message than just itself alone.

There’s a Place for Us is an album that I wanted to create to, yes, show myself as an artist. But with the things that we’ve been presented with in today’s world, especially in this country – with certain messages being sent out into people’s ears – I wanted to just give people who listen to it a little bit of hope. I wanted them to know that if they do feel neglected by certain individuals, or if they feel shunned and ashamed by certain people who have great responsibilities and leadership in this world, that they’re not alone.

I too understand what it is to be singled out. I come from an immigrant mother. My mother’s from Lisbon and my father’s side of the family also came from elsewhere. As we all did. My grandfather basically swam here from Puerto Rico. So I just wanted to send out a message that no matter what the dilemmas we’re facing today are, there will always be, at the end of the day, a place for everybody.

Leonard Bernstein was an advocate for that as well. He was actually a person, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, who was not liked politically. He was a social activist who used pieces of music to talk about those things. He wanted to make people actually discuss those issues after listening to his music and he wasn’t afraid of that. That’s how I want to be as an artist. I don’t just want to show a certain kind of surface façade. I want to show everything else behind that. Because to me, it means something and I’d rather be that way than the opposite.

That’s my big rant about what There’s a Place for Us – what it really means, why I created it and what it was inspired from.

I imagine that curating the repertoire list for your debut solo record is a daunting task. How did you decide what songs went onto the album? Is there a specific narrative you’re crafting by compiling these pieces together?

I got together with two teams because I’m on two labels: DG and Universal. DG comes from Berlin and Universal is in New York. When we were thinking of the list together, I told them that I would really like Brazilian or Portuguese songs to be in the mix. I’m very proud of my heritage. My mother is and speaks Portuguese and her influence on me as both a person and an artist are very big. She was the one who introduced me to opera in the first place. So I definitely wanted to show that side of myself along with the American side of myself.

Then I thought about which American composers I could highlight to make sense with that theme. Leonard Bernstein was a big one – not just because of his beautiful music, but also because he was an activist for humanitarianism. He was a man who fought for many different things in his lifetime. Now that Bernstein has passed away, there are stories of him actually being a gay man and hiding that. Ricky Ian Gordon was also a gay man. They understood what it is to feel outcast or banned from society as Americans.

I added in Stravinsky because he was a man who immigrated into America later into his life, lived in LA, and died in New York. He was influenced by American culture and American history, only to become part of American history in the 20th century.

Stephen Foster is another very big one because the great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne was a very big influence in my life. I first was introduced to Marilyn Horne through Stephen Foster because I was watching her on YouTube singing Stephen Foster songs and fell in love with her (and ended up meeting her later!).

I was influenced by the works of people who were from other parts of the world but came into the US. I was also influenced by American composers that were directly affected by US culture and wanted to be more outspoken through their music. Then of course, I incorporated my mother’s background to highlight: what is it to be an American? What does that actually mean?

To me, to be American is to be worldly. Because we are! We’re not just Americans. We’re from all walks of life. So the repertoire list came together as a way of including everybody. I wanted to make sure that nobody would feel left out.

I also didn’t want to exclude our generation and the generations that are coming in now by creating an only heavily opera based album, should they not know anything about opera. I want it to be an introduction to those kinds of people who have never really focused on or listened to opera. I want it to be sort of an easy listen, you know? Highlighting Lenny was a way of doing that because he is probably the most well-known American opera/classical composer for these generations. That was also my strategy in organizing the rep list.

Why do you think that is? Why is it that people in our generation – and young folks in general – don’t gravitate to opera the same way that an older demographic does? What do you think can be done to end the stigma that opera isn’t accessible to audiences our age?

The stigma of what it is to be an opera singer or to listen to opera/classical music has remained the same for years. It is that you have to be older. You have to be white. You have to be rich. You just have to be of a completely different society – and more so an elite society.

But this is not the case! I think it’s very hard to break that stigma and I think it will take decades to do so. This stigma has been associated with this art form for so long.

I have been trying to break it through social media by showing a little bit more about my life. I like to show the actual real side of being an opera singer. It’s not just about the glamour. There’s another side of it too – a side that is not glamorous. My hope is to make the art form of opera a bit more human and a bit more relatable.

I was actually talking to a woman in Europe recently and she said, “Yes, but that’s what people wantto see!” But of course, she was older, wealthy, and white. She told me that people want to see a superstar with the Chanel bag and fancy gowns. I said to her, “I think you’ve just hit my point. You’re wrong. Maybe your generation wants to see that, but I don’t think my generation wants to see that.”

I think we’ve come to a point where we’re wanting to see people, especially artists that we look up to, as actually more normal than their art forms might suggest. We want to see that they go through the struggles that people in everyday life go through as well.

For me, that means breaking the social stigma of the classical arts. I want to show people that it is relatable and that you don’t have to be of a certain class or a certain ethnicity to become a part of or to enjoy it.

I get hundreds of messages a day on Instagram and I always try to make it my purpose to answer everybody. It’s important to show people that yes, there is that side that’s really great and lovely, but then there’s the other side of putting in a lot of hard work and going through a lot of struggles and sacrifices. It’s presenting yourself as a real person. Hopefully, that helps introduce younger people to classical music in a way that’s not scary.

It’s interesting when people feel ignorant about something. On one side, they feel more fascinated by it and they want to learn more about it. But then you have the other side where people feel very insecure about not knowing more, so they avoid it at all costs. Maybe psychologically, they think they’re not worthy of looking into it because they don’t belong in a certain group. That’s something I would like to break entirely. I really don’t find that that applies to today’s classical music world. Maybe it used to, but I’m definitely tired of that.

In a few weeks, you’ll be performing at the Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood (which will be broadcast later this year on PBS). As someone who has appeared on the Tanglewood stage a few times already, what is it in your opinion that makes this iconic venue so special? And what are some of your favorite spots to visit in the Berkshires when you’re here?

Tanglewood has a lot of history behind it with all of the great musicians who have catered to its legacy. They built it up to what it is today. It’s so amazing to think about when that started, who it started with, how it’s evolved, and how now our generation is coming into it and still continuing that legacy.

The classical music world is struggling, so to keep up music festivals like this – where you have people’s children and grandchildren coming – is so important to keep that legacy and interest of the classical arts alive.

For me, participating in these kinds of music festivals is not just an honor because of their histories (and then becoming part of that in a way), but it’s also a way of giving back to the community as much as possible so that the classical arts can continue.

As far as favorite spots in the Berkshires – I’ve only been here twice before, but my hot spot because I love farmer’s markets and organic stuff is Guido’s. I’m a city girl and it reminds me a little bit of Whole Foods. I love going there.

I also like just how everything here in Lenox is very walkable. It has that small town charm to it. It seems like everybody knows and supports each other. I recently walked into a coffee shop where I bumped into a musician and she was asking me a few questions about Tanglewood and what I think it is to be a musician. I could just feel from her that this is what this community is about. I really like that. That’s something that I don’t see very often. In the city, you find people are more distant. Whereas here, everybody’s very supportive and its more communal. I love that.

As a performer, do you prefer to be on stage playing a character or singing as a solo artist?

I think I prefer to sing as a solo artist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I don’t like performing in operas. I love that! However, I think performing as a solo artist just gives me the chance to showcase a little bit more of my own personal story that hopefully a few people watching or listening can relate to.

My end goal of being a singer is not about becoming famous, making money, or having a glamorous life. It’s about impacting people, especially young people – even if they don’t sing or if being a classical musician is not in their futures. I just want to be a relatable person so that people may want to explore the art form I’m presenting a little bit further. That’s my hope.

Sometimes I even speak in my recitals and try to share stories that people can get into, because I do find that sometimes solo recitals or concerts can feel very stiff. I like breaking that because then it’s more intimate. I’m always looking for a sense of community. I really love the feeling of bringing people into my community and then feeling us as a collective orbit. Standing as a soloist gives me more chances to do that than being a character does.

As an opera singer, you’re tasked with singing in many foreign languages. How did being raised in Florida by non-musical parents influence and encourage your understanding and love of language?

Well, my mother speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and a little bit of German. So I was very lucky when I was growing up, especially when I got into opera. She introduced me to opera when I was 10. When I was learning Italian songs or opera arias by Mozart, my mother was always my language coach. We would slowly go through all of the languages together. Even today, if I have a question about French, or Portuguese especially, I always go to my mother. She’s the first person I ask. She’s very good at that. My mother was a banker all of her life, but I always told her that she could be a linguist because she is very, very talented at it. She was the one who instilled that in me.

Interestingly enough, my high school (the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts) offered Italian classes. Usually in Florida, Spanish is the language that is taught. But I did get to study Italian for those four years of high school. Plus, I had my mother at home and then I also went to Italy after college and studied a little bit there. So Italian has been very much a part of my life besides just my opera life.

I do think it’s incredibly important for young musicians to learn languages – especially if you want to, for example, play in various orchestras across Europe. You definitely do come across conductors who don’t speak English. They speak French, Italian, or German, and it’s a very useful tool to have I think.

You mentioned that your mother introduced you to opera. What was the first opera that you saw or heard that made you dream of turning your passion for this art form into a profession?

It was Puccini’s La bohème, which I know is very cliché to say. My mother introduced it to me on a VHS tape that she got from the library in Fort Lauderdale, where I was born. We never returned this VHS. We still have it! We even had to have it reconstructed because I had broken it at some point from watching it too much.

When I saw that, I couldn’t get over it. It impacted my very young life in a very big way. After seeing that, I just knew I had to go for it. I knew I had to become an opera singer somehow.

That VHS came from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was the Zeffirelli production that they still do today. It was the opening of that production with José Carreras and Teresa Stratas. Zeffirelli himself directed it and was very heavily involved with each of the singers. That’s something you can absolutely see. Everybody’s so in tune with not only their own characters, but how their characters relate to each other.

People still have this idea that opera singers have no idea how to act or that opera is boring. But in this production, you could really see how the characters and the music came together to create an all-encompassing powerful performance for the viewer. And I wasdefinitely an avid viewer of this thing.

I mean, still today when I watch it, I can’t help but become overwhelmed by it. It’s my childhood! It’s everything that I then devoted myself to as a kid. Because from there I took lessons every week, I studied all the time, I practiced an hour every day and I was very disciplined. I’m so happy I did that because it made me into the artist that I am now.

Speaking of the Met, next year you’ll be returning there to reprise your acclaimed performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. What is it about this specific role and opera that keeps bringing you back to revisit it?

I started learning Gilda when I was 18. These kinds of roles – Gilda, Lucia, Susanna – I started learning little bits of them when I was quite young. They were either used in my warm ups from my teachers or used in order to develop my technique a little bit further. I learned Gilda’s famous aria “Caro nome” first. Then, I got to finally do the role in Florida when I was 23. She’s actually grown a lot on me since then. When I was 23, I only had a certain sense of what this opera was about because I was younger. I hadn’t experienced life in the way that I’ve experienced it now that I’m 30.

The relationship between Gilda and her father is very interesting. I understand this relationship because my father was very protective when I was young. A little bit too protective. I understand what it’s like to be of a certain age, wanting a certain thing and something or someone is holding you back. Even if they’re holding you back for the very good reason that they know you’re going to make a mistake if you’re set free. But that is what life is about!

That’s what Rigoletto is about for me. It shows people that the decisions we make in life, whether they are good or bad, can cater to goodness. I like to believe that the good parts of life will always win at the end of the day.

People say that Gilda is stupid because of the decisions she makes, like having herself be killed for the Duke. But I always remind people that this decision comes from her education of being religious. She grew up in a convent. She didn’t grow up with her father. She grew up with the teachings of Jesus and one of them is that you have to forgive.

She finds out that her father has paid off Sparafucile to kill the Duke. So not only has the Duke sinned, but her father is also about to fulfill a sin. Gilda makes her decision in order to save her father to watch over him in heaven. She wants him to forgive the Duke. Even though her decision is so heartbreaking, she believes that what she puts herself through is for a good result.

That is the point of it and why I love this opera so much. There’s always a lesson at the end. You always learn something. Even though it’s melodramatic and it can be a little exaggerated, it’s exaggerated to hit a specific point that you’ll never forget. To me, that’s the best thing about opera. It can become unforgettable, and I think the music is what does this. As humans, we associate so much emotion through music, especially in opera. That’s why it can have such a big impact on people.

Rigoletto is one of those very impactful stories that hopefully teaches people a lesson. Every time I perform Gilda, I try to learn from her ideas of forgiveness and what purity can bring to a person’s life. She inspires me to seek purity. She teaches me a lot. Even though she’s so young and so naïve, she’s very wise at the end of it all.

At this point in your career, what types of characters are you most attracted to when selecting your next roles?

I’m very attracted to roles of women whose experiences of being oppressed and used are highlighted in the story by the composer. Those characters can be reminders for people watching that these kinds of issues still exist today.

The oppression of women is not just an idea from the past. Because of that, we should be aware and more sensitive to those things that affect people on a daily basis. I like playing these women because I hope that I am able to bring awareness to these issues. I don’t want people to forget them.

But I also like playing women who have a bit more control over their destinies in opera because they’re rare to find. Don Pasquale’s Norina is one of them. I just sang her in Paris. I love this character because she’s kind of like the modern day woman. She takes control of everything around her. She even says, “What is this old man thinking to marry a young woman and control her?” That’s not how life should be. If you’re going to be in a partnership, it should be about supporting each other. I love the outcome of that story. I find it very fun.

So on one hand, I like to play women who are oppressed to send out a message. And on the other hand, I like to play women who already feel very empowered. That’s so rare to find in opera, which is understandable since most operas was written so long ago. It was a completely different mentality then.

You’ve performed at some of the most famous opera houses all around the world – including La Scala, the Paris Opera, and the Berlin State Opera. Do you have a favorite place to perform?

I do! You just can’t beat the Met. I’ll tell you what it feels like because it’s not just about the amazing acoustics – but it’s the way the theater is constructed. It’s such a big theater.

The stage is so far away from the audience because you have the orchestra pit separating the two. You stand on the stage and when you look out, it’s completely black. You really can’t make out a single face yet you can feel the energy of people being there watching and listening to you. It’s fascinating.

So you have this buzz – that at least is what it feels like to me – this buzz of energy throughout the room where you can’t make out anything but this infinite blackness and then the music being sent out into that space. It almost feels like you’re singing in space. It’s kind of a creepy feeling in the beginning and it can be intimidating. But once you get used to it, I think it’s a musician’s paradise. It makes you feel like you can do anything.

I would say my greatest memory in a place that I’ve performed was La Scala. That felt like I was being transported into a completely different world. It was like I traveled back in time to when opera was something that it’s not today. And I was kind of right when I had that feeling because I met with the people afterwards. They all came to the backstage area and I spoke with a few of them. They were all telling their stories of when they went to La Scala when they were however old, which year, who they saw, how long they’ve been coming to the theater and how much love and devotion they’ve put into that theater. That was something that I could truly, truly feel at La Scala.

It was actually a scary experience, because I was the only foreign singer in the cast. I was the only American. Everybody else was Italian, singing an Italian opera by Verdi (Rigoletto), who’s like the La Scala god. Having that in my head plus the fact that it was my debut there was so intimidating. The La Scala audience is known for being brutal and not being scared to boo you if they don’t like you. Even still today. They are very intense.

I remember when I was singing “Caro nome,” you couldn’t hear a sound. You couldn’t hear sneezing or coughing or anything like that. It was like you could feel the tiger in the cage and maybe someone was going to let the tiger out. Time was just very still. Everybody was waiting to see, “is she going to mess it up? Is she not?” Finally, when I was done, I felt like they accepted me because they applauded rather than booed me off stage. It’s a very different place to sing opera. If you’re accepted there, you’ve done something right. It is an accomplishment that feels very gratifying when that happens. But getting there is very, very scary.

What would you consider the crowning achievement in your career thus far?

For sure, singing at La Scala. My colleague who I performed with, Leo Nucci, was 73 and is still today singing Italian opera. So for me in my twenties, coming from a completely different generation and a different world of opera, almost felt like I was a child learning from a great master. He taught me a lot in those moments.

It wasn’t just an accomplishment in the sense that people liked or accepted me. It was an accomplishment because I learned something. I learned something so valuable from somebody that I looked up to and I still look up to. I learned something that I felt could cater to my overall purpose of why I’m an opera singer and what I want to give to the art form too. I think that’s probably the biggest accomplishment: the feeling that I can do something for opera itself for my generation.

You’ve also toured with Andrea Bocelli and will be embarking on the road with him again later this year. What have been the highlights of performing alongside such a crossover legend and what’s the best advice he’s ever given you?

He’s so amazing. He’s someone who’s been in the ball game for a while. I don’t think people realize this, but he’s nearly 60 now and he’s still putting on shows where like 15,000 people show up and it’s totally sold out! He’s trying to introduce opera, even though it’s in his crossover kind of way, to young people and to people in general. He does such a brilliant job at that. From my experiences with him, the audiences overall were very receptive and very appreciative of his opera side, which he actually starts most of his programs with. I love that. It shows where his heart belongs and it does belong in opera, rather than the crossover kind of repertoire that he does. Witnessing that was really fascinating.

I’ve also loved learning from him. Even with all of that fame and all of that attention that he’s accomplished, he’s remained so down to earth and just completely normal. He has his kids. His wife is with him constantly. The feeling of family and community is very important to him, which is very important to me too. I understand it well.

The best advice he gave me? To be humble and not to get too egocentric about what you can accomplish as an artist. It should humble you instead because it means giving something really beautiful to the people who are participating in it. I think that will always be my mission in life as an artist. He taught me never to get caught up in what I think is the fake side of it all. Because fame and those kinds of things can be so easily taken from you. They’re not tangible. I’ve learned a lot from my experiences with him.

On a more technical note, how do you keep your voice protected when illness or allergies strike?

That’s always a problem with singers! I am lucky to have people in my life who I really trust. Two of my instructors, my voice teacher and voice coach, have each been in my life for 16 years. If I ever have a problem, I call either one to tell them what’s going on and to ask for advice. I still have lessons with them both.

I’m also very good at canceling things if I don’t find they are good for me. I’m thankfully not scared to cancel if I have to. I think this is a result of the advice from my teachers over the years who always said not to be scared to say “no.” I think that’s how young singers, or singers in general, can preserve their voices very well. Sometimes companies do take that to heart and are offended by it. And maybe they won’t hire you for a few seasons – but if you keep showing the results from saying “no,” by singing well consistently, people kind of don’t have a choice but to then hire you again. They see that you’re reliable. They see that you are a serious artist and will do everything you can to say “yes” and to preserve the voice for a bigger reason: to serve the music as best as you possibly can.

There’s a lot of integrity in that. So I’ve never been afraid of that. If opera or classical music are going to be around for a few more decades, I would love to be a part of that. And the way that I can be a part of that is by paying attention and making sure that I’m always taking care of myself and my voice. I feel like it’s just worth it in the end.

So that’s what I do. No more than that. I’m not the kind of person where I have to wear a scarf all the time or am constantly sipping tea or taking 10 medications at once. I try not to get too obsessive. Because then I think I would just stop doing it, you know? It would be too stressful.

I just try to make singing opera something that I do, not something that I am.


CLICK HERE to purchase Nadine Sierra’s debut album, There’s A Place For Us, available on August 24. And CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see her live in a city near you!

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: WORLD PREMIERE OF “LEMPICKA” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

LempickaMaking its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lempicka is a breathtaking masterpiece that is destined to become the next great American musical.

Based on the rags-to-riches story of Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the show begins in 1916 with the artist and her husband Tadeusz abandoning their aristocratic lives to flee the Russian Revolution. The couple arrives in Paris to start anew, and to survive, Lempicka embraces her all-consuming love of painting. It’s there that she meets Rafaela, a prostitute who becomes both her lover and muse. Suddenly, Lempicka is torn between two worlds: the comfortable life she knows with Tadeusz and the infinite possibilities she is discovering through her affair.

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe,” Lempicka once famously said. But as fascism casts an increasingly long shadow over Parisian society, the innovative painter must decide who she is – and if she can have it all – in a moment of history defined by intolerance and chaos.

Playing the titular character, Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn the Musical) is a revelation. As an actor, she arms Lempicka with confidence, charm, staggering intellect, a bleeding heart, and a raw, urgent need to express herself through art. As a vocalist, Espinosa is as powerful and talented as the character she’s playing was a painter. Even notoriously hard-to-please critic Ben Brantley proclaimed that “Eden Espinosa’s Lempicka is indeed a legitimate successor to Ms. Patty LuPone’s Eva Perón” in his glowing New York Times Critic’s Pick review.

“From the very first moment I heard the music, I knew it was special and unique. I knew Tamara’s story needed to be told,” Espinosa posted to Instagram on the show’s opening night. “I’m beyond humbled to portray this unbelievable woman. So proud to share the stage with the kindest, most generous, hearts and spirits. In awe of the talents and visions of the creatives. I have been broken open and renewed. I have been stretched beyond limits. I am new.”

While playing this character may be a transformative point in Espinosa’s career, the audience also has the rare treat of watching her tackle what is a role that she so clearly was born to play. The result is one of those can’t miss, superstar-solidifying performances of the same caliber as Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple or Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. In fact, her depiction of Lempicka is so nuanced and multi-dimensional that if it could be captured on a canvas, it would fit perfectly alongside the artist’s renowned self-portraits as a mandatory understanding of her legacy.

One would think, then, that it would be impossible to have eyes on anything but Espinosa’s greatness during this show. Yet part of what makes Lempicka so marvelous and unstoppably delightful is that not only does the rest of the company hold their own, they shine in their individual and undeniable ways.

This is particularly true of the always-fabulous Carmen Cusack, whose impassioned portrayal of Rafaela is as gorgeous and unique as her unmistakable singing voice. As the spark that ignites Lempicka’s artistic fire, the Tony nominee (2016’s Bright Star) delivers yet another unforgettable performance. Like Espinosa, her vocal prowess is a weapon that penetrates deeply into the souls of her audience. Hearing the two of them belt and blend harmonies at once induces the type of full body chills that too few theatergoers ever have the luxury of experiencing first-hand. Despite the nearly three-hour runtime, the show feels too short: you don’t want to ever stop listening to these two powerhouses duet.

Lempicka

Additional standout performances include Rachel Tucker (who like both Espinosa and Cusack has played Elphaba in Wicked) as The Baroness, a bold woman who commissions Lempicka for a portrait based on ulterior motives. As Suzi Solidor, a lesbian whose bar becomes a temporary refuge for the Parisian queer community, Natalie Joy Johnson is a scene-stealer. And as Tadeusz, Andrew Samonsky brings palpable vulnerability to a man who increasingly struggles with living in his wife’s shadow.

With a book and lyrics by Carson Kreitzer and music by Matt Gould, the songs of Lempicka are as exquisite as are the talents performing them. Though the musical is set in the first half of the twentieth century, the songs are definitively present-day. With a modern pop flair combined with echoes of the storytelling grandeur of classics like Les Misérables, the richly layered music of Lempicka demands that the cast give their A-games at every show.

The results are catchy, impressive and beautiful—so much so that the fact that the cast recording is not yet available for sale feels like a major crime.  In an era dominated by jukebox musicals and revivals, numbers like the empowering “Burn It Up”, the sultry “Stillness” and the climactic “The New Woman” serve as vivid reminders of how impactful original musicals can still be.

“A friend introduced me to Lempicka and I realized I knew her paintings, but I didn’t know who she was. And that’s a wrong in the universe,” Kreitzer told The Berkshire Eagle. “I wanted to crack open her paintings the way they crack the world open.”

“The music leapt off the canvasses,” Gould continued. “And I didn’t know who she is, and that pissed me off. I could name you off the top of my head 10 male painters of that time.” Through their combined brushstrokes, Kreitzer and Gould’s songs paint a picture of a phenomenally talented and complex woman whose extraordinary story becomes instantly unforgettable for anyone who listens to them.

Like the score, Rachel Chavkin’s avant-garde directorial vision fuses the period piece with a contemporary sensibility. Chavkin already demonstrated her genius with Broadway’s cutting-edge 2016 musical, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812– another show that interpolated a perennial story with a distinctly current imagination. With Lempicka, she once again breaks theatrical ground. Between these two shows, it’s quite evident that the Tony-nominated director has a penchant for reshaping the lenses with which audiences observe stories they may think they already know.

Lempicka

Whether it’s completely revamping a Broadway theater into an Imperial Russian ballroom or marrying a sparse set with evocative lighting, Chavkin creates a fully immersive and genre-defying experience for those consuming her meticulous work (think of the grand scope of Julie Taymor mixed with the intimacy of David Cromer). Her brilliant staging is complemented perfectly by Bradley King’s stunning lighting, Riccardo Hernandez’ minimalist scenic design, Montana Levi Blanco’s lavish costumes and Raja Feather Kelly’s magnificent choreography. The sum of these parts adds up to the most astounding, daring and exciting new musical of 2018.

In its 64th season, the esteemed Williamstown Theatre Festival has delivered home run after home run. For Lempicka, this world premiere production is the beginning of a journey that should include a sweep of the Tony Awards, affirming the legacy of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.



CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Lempicka, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts until August 1.

Originally published on PopBytes