I have a confession: Fantasia Barrino is the one "American Idol" contestant I actually voted for in the five years I've been watching the high-rated singing competition on FOX. There was just something different about this young singer from High Point, NC. There have been many great voices on the series since its debut, but Fantasia connected with her material emotionally in a way no one else has. In fact, I can still remember her beautiful rendition of Porgy and Bess' "Summertime" and the tears that ran down her face as she concluded the Gershwin standard.
"I had actually never heard ['Summertime'] before," Fantasia told me May 1. "I couldn't find a song to sing for that week [of 'American Idol']. I think that week was Movie Week, and you had to pick songs from the soundtracks of movies, and I could not find a song. I was like, 'Oh God, it's getting closer and closer, and I have to find a song!' We had vocal coaches that would sit down and rehearse the songs with us and take us into the studio. They were going through the [songs] that they had, and I was like, 'Nah, go to the next song,' . . . and then comes this beautiful song, and I was like, 'Ooh, go back, go back!' and [the vocal coach] was like, 'Ooh, girl, that's an old song! That's a song from 'Porgy and Bess.'
"I like to sing songs that I can relate to. . . . [and 'Summertime' is] such a beautiful song, and it connected [with me] and did exactly what I wanted it to do. At that time, I just had so many people looking at my past. They were saying that I was a young mom and that I wasn't married, and I just wanted to humble myself. I went out with no shoes on. I said, 'I don't want a lot of makeup, I don't want a lot of nothin'.' I just want to go out and sit on the stage and connect with the people through this song, and hopefully they'll see that yeah, I am a mom and I'm not married, and I had dropped out of school and did some things that I did not want to do, but I wanted them to see what I was trying to do with myself now to better myself. People would come up to me and say, 'I just want to be honest. I wasn't voting for you at first, but after you sang 'Summertime'…"
Ironically, it was actually her difficult past that most likely led Color Purple producers to ask the talented performer to step into the role of Celie, the abused and abandoned young woman who learns how to love others, but more importantly herself, during her long journey to find peace and happiness. "I have my book out, and I talk about so many things that I went through," Fantasia explains. "I think that's probably why they came to me to play the part because they watched my movie [Lifetime's 'The Fantasia Barrino Story'] and read my book ['Life Is Not a Fairy Tale' from Simon & Schuster] — and they did a little studying on me — and they see that I went through similar things [Celie] went through. Of course, back in the day, back in her time, it was much, much harder on her. But I guess that's why they came to me because I've been through so many things."
Fantasia says she identifies with Celie's plight on many levels. "I'm a mother [and] I had a child at a young age," the 22-year-old says. "Going through the abuse with my baby's father — but we were young, we were kids, so we really didn't know. But just going through physical and mental abuse, being out on my own at a young age. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade . . . [and] not really thinking I was good enough, not really thinking I was beautiful." The Grammy-nominated singer was actually on tour with Jamie Foxx when she received the call about joining the cast of The Color Purple, the award-winning musical at the Broadway Theatre that is produced by Oprah Winfrey, Scott Sanders, Roy Furman and Quincy Jones, among others. "We left the tour and came to New York, came to see the show," Fantasia explains, "and we went out to eat after that with Scott Sanders and [director] Gary [Griffin]. They were sitting down and they said, 'We think you're our Celie.' It was crazy to me because that was my first Broadway show. I've never been to a Broadway show, and I didn't audition for the part. They just felt like the part was for me.
"I was so confused," she continues. "I was like, 'Wait a minute, you guys. I haven't done a whole lot of acting.' I've just done my movie, and that was odd for me that I was doing that. I was just tickled. And they said, 'Think about it, and give us a call and let us know if you'll be able to do it.'" Fantasia says when she returned to the tour and mulled over the offer, she felt "it was an opportunity of a lifetime to do Broadway, and the message [of the show] was so inspiring and hopeful. It touched me and I said, 'I would love to be a part of something so amazing . . . I'll give it a try, and I'll just do my best.'"
The rehearsal process was a somewhat trying experience, one that she says was "very humbling. I went to Chicago for a month, and at the time they were rehearsing for the [show's national tour] that they are putting on right now in Chicago. I wasn't able to rehearse with them because their show is going to be a little different from our show in New York. So, I basically did a one-on-one in this big ol' room. I rehearsed with a young lady by the name of Heidi, and it was just me and Heidi in there one on one. [Director] Gary [Griffin] would come in and Christian would come in when they had time and when they weren't rehearsing with everybody else from the Chicago show. . . . Coming from a live tour to sitting in this one room for six hours a day and going over lines [was a dramatic change], but like I said, it's the experience of a lifetime and something different and I said, 'Once I come off of this six months, I'll be a whole other woman.'"
Although difficult, that rehearsal process paid off. Anyone who is lucky enough to catch her performance will see that Fantasia brings her dynamic vocal prowess and a touching sincerity to the role that was created on Broadway by Tony winner La Chanze. In fact, the singer is currently offering one of the most exciting moments on any Broadway stage when she delivers her second-act epiphany, "I'm Here." Fantasia builds the song to stunning climax of vocal and emotional power, and the audience — at least the night this writer attended — responded with a thunderous and lengthy ovation. That song is actually one of two favorite moments for Fantasia in the show; the other is "Hell No!," the defiant exclamation performed by Sofia (NaTasha Yvette Williams). "I love Sofia," Fantasia says, "and I love to hear her do 'Hell No.'"
Playing Celie, which could be likened to riding an emotional roller-coaster, has been challenging for the young performer. "If you really put yourself in her shoes," Fantasia says, "that can be very tiring. It can take a lot of energy out of you. I know when I get off the stage at night from shows, I'm exhausted. I run to my room, and I fall on the couch, and I have to take at least about ten minutes to wind down and to get my thoughts together and come out of the part of Celie." That said, Fantasia is enjoying her first Broadway experience and the time spent with her co-stars. "They're all nice — they're all cool! They help me with things when I'm lost and . . . it's like a whole other family. And I appreciate that, for six months, while I'm away from everybody and away from doing what I used to do, they just make it a lot easier for me . . . . Some of the cast say they're going to take me to see some shows. I'm only here for six months, and I want to experience the Broadway life. I heard they have this little club where they all go and sing open-mic. I just want to experience all of that while I'm here."
Following her run in Color Purple, Fantasia will head back into the recording studio to gear up for another tour. "I love to tour," she says. "I love to travel and see different things, see the world. . . . I love to be on the bus with everybody. I don't ride on a separate bus from my band. I like to be on the bus with my band because we all have a good time, and it's just a whole other family going on the road and hitting the stage every night and performing and touching somebody through my music."
When asked how celebrity has differed from her vision of what it might be, the singer-actress pauses and says, "You know, the best thing about it is I'm still 'Tasia. From the 'Tasia that I was on 'Idol,' the little country girl [who doesn't] like shoes, I've been able to keep it that way, and that makes it so easy. . . . [I can] still be myself, still do the same things, still go to Target and shop, and take my baby. Just everything that I'm used to doing — it makes it so much easier for me that I don't have to pretend to be something I'm not. Because I think that's hard work — once you have to pretend to be something. And I said the blessing about it is [that] everybody accepted me for being me on 'Idol,' so I don't have to change. They knew 'Tasia, they knew what I've been through, and they know I'm not perfect. I don't speak perfect," she laughs, "but they accepted me for being me."
As for the possibility of returning to Broadway, Fantasia says, "I don't know. I know that after the six months of doing Color Purple, I will miss my music and I'll be ready to go back, but who knows? Maybe down the line, if something comes through I might do it."
[The Color Purple plays the Broadway Theatre, Broadway at West 53rd Street. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com]
FOR THE RECORD: "Streisand: Live in Concert 2006"
Barbra Streisand's voice is arguably the most recognizable sound of any American-born singer living today. It is a voice that has graced the Broadway stage, countless records and films as well as concert stages throughout the world. The award-winning actress is blessed with a rich, full, lush sound that ranges from smoky low notes through a gloriously pure middle register to a powerful high belt that reverberates with an emotion-filled vibrato.
Streisand's recent 2006 fall tour, which was co-directed by the Academy Award winner and Richard Jay-Alexander, was thankfully recorded and recently released in a lavish-two disc set by Columbia Records. Entitled "Streisand: Live in Concert 2006," the recording brims with a palpable excitement; just listen to the roar of the audience the moment the overture — the original Broadway Funny Girl Overture — begins. Streisand's simple murmur of "wow" as she enters the stage is equally telling of the lovefest that occurred between performer and audience as she made her way to cities throughout the country.
For her recent tour Streisand chose to revisit many tunes from her early career, including a healthy dose from both the stage and film incarnations of Funny Girl. But the celebrated performer wasn't content to rest on her laurels — she also tackled songs she had never before performed onstage, including her stentorian opening number, Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire's "Starting Here, Starting Now." Should fans have been at all concerned, that opening number proved that Streisand's voice is still in fighting form. Some notes are now more dark chocolate than milk, but the sound is as rich as ever, the range remains astonishingly wide, and the actress still has the power to move an audience profoundly. This recording also offers Streisand as free as she has ever been, singing melodies with an artful playfulness, adding a riff here and a gentle lick there. It is Streisand in a joyous mode.
Streisand also has the chance to strut her stuff as songwriter (both the little-heard "Ma Premiere Chanson" and the Grammy-winning "Evergreen"), pianist (she accompanies herself on the aforementioned "Chanson"), proud mother (the 58-piece orchestra, led by conductor William Ross, plays the lovely "Jason's Theme," composed by son Jason Gould) and social and political activist (thoughtful commentary about the state of the world, both global and national, pepper her intelligent patter).
Other highlights of the first half of Streisand's generous concert include a spirited "Down With Love"; a touching, beautifully sung rendition of her signature tune, "The Way We Were"; and several tunes from Funny Girl that climax with a thrilling version of that show's anthem, "People."
The second half of the recording is equally bountiful and includes perhaps the finest rendition one will hear of Maury Yeston's haunting "Unusual Way"; a gorgeous, full-voiced "Music of the Night"; a wonderful pairing of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carefully Taught" with Sondheim's "Children Will Listen"; heartfelt readings of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and "(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair?"; and a roof-raising version of "Somewhere" that brings the audience to a near frenzy. (The latter is performed with Il Divo, the strong-voiced vocal quartet that were Streisand's special guests.) The singer also offers three equally terrific encores: "My Shining Hour," the reprise of "Don't Rain on My Parade" and the charming "Smile." "Streisand: Live in Concert 2006" is a magical recording from a woman whose powers as a spellbinding artist remain undimmed.
Tony Award winner Faith Prince will return to Broadway in spring 2008 in the new Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical A Catered Affair. The production, directed by Tony winner John Doyle, will play a Jujamcyn theatre to be announced and will make its debut at San Diego's Old Globe in September. Prince will portray Aggie Hurley, mother of the bride. Fierstein will play Aggie's brother Winston. Prince, who was seen earlier this year in the Reprise! Marvelous Musical Mondays staging of Baby, will also head the cast of the English National Opera's summer production of Kismet. The June 25-July 14 run will mark Prince's London stage debut.
Liz Callaway will take on the role of the Narrator in the upcoming summer production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the St. Louis Muny, the nation's oldest and largest outdoor theatre. Directed by Pamela Hunt with choreography by Darren Lee, the cast of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical will also feature Eric Kunze in the title role with David Hibbard as the Pharaoh. Performance dates are July 30-Aug. 5. Tickets are available by calling (314) 361-1900, ext. 550; for more information visit www.muny.org.
Karen Mason, the acclaimed singer-actress most recently on Broadway in Mamma Mia!, will head the cast of the Westchester Broadway Theatre's upcoming production of Gypsy. Mason will play Rose in the forthcoming production, which is scheduled to begin performances May 31 for a limited engagement through Aug. 4. The production — directed by Richard Stafford — marks Mason's third time playing the stage mother of all stage mothers; she previously starred in the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical at the St. Louis Muny and at the Sundance Theatre in Utah. The Westchester Broadway Theatre is located at 75 Clearbrook Road in Elmsford, NY. For tickets call (914) 592-2222. For more information visit www.broadwaytheatre.com.
Lauren Pritchard, who plays Ilse in the award-winning new musical Spring Awakening, will perform a solo concert at the Ars Nova May 22. Part of the Uncharted series at the West Side cabaret, the evening will feature Pritchard's original music as well as her covers of Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, David Gray and CSNY tunes. Spring composer Duncan Sheik will accompany the singer on piano. Show time is 8 PM. The Ars Nova is located in Manhattan at 511 West 54th Street. There is a $15 cover charge. For reservations call (212) 268-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.
And, finally, congratulations to Leslie Kritzer, who won a Clarence Derwent Award earlier this week for her performance as Serena in the new Broadway musical Legally Blonde. In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda was also a recipient of the award honoring "the most promising female and male performers on the New York metropolitan scene." It's an award-winning time for Kritzer, who also recently picked up a MAC Award for her much-extended Joe's Pub show, Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches. Now that she's established herself, I think it's time for Leslie Kritzer Is Leslie Kritzer at Joe's Pub or, perhaps, that long-awaited Broadway revival of Funny Girl.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.