WILMINGTON — Opera House Theater Company hasn’t had an indoor performance in more than a year. Its last was “The Sound of Music,” when singing nuns and Austrians, in a mix of Broadway and local talent, took over Thalian Hall’s stage.
That was March 8, 2020.
Fast forward 410 days later and OHTC artistic director Justin Smith said he couldn’t be happier to get back to a proper stage in one of Wilmington’s state-of-the-art venues. Opera House will be launching the original musical revue “Uptown at the Cotton Club” at Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center this weekend.
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“When the recent announcement from the governor lifted restrictions for indoor venues and performances, we were prepared to mount something as soon as we could,” Smith said.
But financial restraints and time still were impacting the company’s resources, which took a hit through the Covid-19 shutdown. Smith and Opera House have been able to host a few small, outdoor shows since fall, including “The Rocky Horror Show” in October on Thalian Hall portico outside, as well as other musical revues, “The Piano Men” and “Legends Live On!” — both also at the portico and on Blockade Runner’s lawn.
“The outside performances were a necessary step,” Smith said. “We were proud to have successfully mounted as many productions as we did and even more happy that we could provide a much-needed outlet for theater-goers during the pandemic. It was only because of the success of those shows that I felt confident mounting shows at the Wilson Center.”
Putting on a production already comes with a lot of monetary commitment and pressure in normal times, but adding more restrictions and weather elements made it more taxing, he said. For instance, Opera House had to cancel the opening weekend of “Legends Live On!” in March because of inclement rain and thunder.
“This can be disastrous when you are already limited with the seats you can sell,” Smith noted. “It stressed out already depleted crew to the max — not to mention the amazing crews at Thalian Hall and Blockade Runner.”
Being able to get back to a live venue will give Smith ample opportunity to gauge audience interest and comfort levels in attending shows inside. Seeing as Thalian Hall wasn’t reopening yet, securing a theater that holds 393 people during Covid was a gift (Wilson Center seats over 1,500 in normal times, and the governor’s orders allows the center to open at 25% capacity).
“Shane [Fernando, executive director of Wilson Center] graciously offered the center as an option,” Smith explained. “This was good for us because it allowed us a few more seats with plenty of room for people to feel comfortable.”
“This arrangement is temporary until Thalian Hall is at a higher capacity for indoor live productions,” Fernando said. “It will be nice to see OHTC back in their home, but we are happy to help out in the meantime and provide a stage for our many regional and community groups so that they can connect with their audiences.”
Smith said he looked at the easiest way to relaunch. He essentially needed a show the company could “plug in and go.” One of Opera House’s long-standing directors, Ray Kennedy, was able to connect Smith to the Broadway talent of Gabrielle Lee.
Lee had seen success with her one-woman show in New York that focused on 1920s hits from blackbird performers: Sippy Wallace, Trixie Smith, Florence Mills, Lena Horne, Josephine Bakker, Bricktop, and Dorothy Dandrige. From that cabaret performance, Lee created a spinoff show focusing on blackbird songs, jazz standards and American songbook favorites in “Uptown at the Cotton Club.”
“When she pitched the idea and the incredible cast, it was hard to pass up the opportunity, as the performers will sure to be back to work at the national level soon,” Smith said.
Lee will be joined by three cast members and fellow Broadway performers Jeremy Benton (“42nd Street”), Jennifer Johns Grasso (“Hairspray”) and Tyrick Wiltez Jones (“Miss Saigon”), who will be singing tunes like “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “Minnie The Moocher,” “Someone to Watch Over Me/Stormy Weather,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” among others.
Lee originally many of these tunes with a 12-piece band during her solo show. Covid-19 forced her to scale it down to only four musicians, including Brian Whitted on keys, Vince Stout on standup bass, Mitch Ebert on drums, and Benny Hill on sax on Saturday and Sunday night shows only.
“Yesterday was our first full rehearsal together,” Lee told Port City Daily early Friday. Lee arrived in Wilmington from New York just on Monday to launch the show.
“It’s been a fast week,” she said, the challenges exhausting but in the end worth it. “The window of time you have to get things done is shorter and tighter.”
The tech and load-in crews have been reduced by half per Covid mandates and have had to work extra hard to get the show up and running. Then there is having less rehearsal time in the space to run through the two 45-minute sets that make up the show. Lee said because she and her colleagues have a rapport and deep knowledge of music from this era, it has allowed them to carry forth in confidence.
“We gel and that’s important to have that camaraderie,” she said. “It’s important to to work with people who also have a knowledge of what this time period is about.”
She calls them all a triple-threat cast who can sing, dance and act. “Jeremy Benton, just his tone of voice is pure,” she described. “He’s a Mel Tome who moves like Fred Astaire.”
“Uptown at the Cotton Club” does not include dialogue; it moves from one song to the next, highlighting the swinging rhythms popularly played at the Harlem joint. Lee has immersed herself in this music throughout her career, since beginning her path on Broadway in the ’90s. She’s been in “Blackbirds of Broadway,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Dreamgirls,” among other Broadway shows, and has performed as a back-up singer for musicians Steely Dan, Michael Bolton, and Natalie Cole.
“I ended up working as a vocalist for Harry Belafonte in the prime of my career,” Lee said. She toured for a year with Belafonte and had the opportunity to work alongside his band leader, world-fusion jazz artist Richard Bona (Branford Marsalis, Chaka Khan, Bobby McFerrin) before heading back to Broadway.
Her true passion always has come full circle to the Big Band musicians, songwriters and composers “who gave the blackbirds wings” — “blackbirds” being Black women who performed in the early to mid-20th century, often in oppressive situations. When the Cotton Club opened in 1923, it allowed only white patrons; however, it hired Black performers and dancers, the latter of whom had to be slender, stand 5-feet-6-inches tall, and have light-toned skin only. Lena Horne was a Cotton Club dancer, and Lee said she can remember as a little girl being drawn into Horne’s performances.
“Honestly, I was like 5 years old, and I remember seeing myself onstage, singing in a long, black velvet gown,” she recalled. “That never left me, so when I got the role of a blackbird in 1996, I promise you, I had to wear a long, black velvet dress.”
“Uptown at the Cotton Club” will include songs from acts like Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller Orchestra, but Lee’s adoration for the blackbirds will be on full display. Over the last few years, she’s immersed herself into Ada “Bricktop” Smith, in “Bricktop: Legend of the Jazz Age.”
Bricktop is best known for getting her start in clubs in America, but because of the Jim Crow-era laws and extreme segregation, she moved to France to operate jazz clubs without the worry of prejudicial backlash. Lee calls Bricktop the “Lou Leslie [a famous Cotton Club producer] of Europe.”
“She was the first African-American woman to own her own swing clubs over in Paris,” Lee said. “She’s important to me; I just feel like over the span of 15 years, I’ve been able to sing live in front of ex-pats on European tours and around the world — and that’s what Bricktop did.”
Lee is working on the Bricktop role for a television series next, but first she will launch the premiere of “Uptown at the Cotton Club,” produced by Wilmington’s Opera House Theatre Company, at Wilson Center.
“This type of music, these people I get to portray, have coined a lot of my life experiences,” Lee credits. “They’re just legends.”
Tickets start at $23 and go up to $185 for VIP box seating and can be purchased here. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. on Apr. 23-24 and 3 p.m. on Apr. 25 only at the Wilson Center.
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