Julissa Sabino Talks Returning to IN THE HEIGHTS with Aurora’s Musicals by Moonlight Series

Displaying JulissaSabino_TheatricalHS2_AMT.jpgJoyful is the best way to describe Julissa Sabino.

With enough excitement to fuel all of Metro Atlanta, this diligent actress clearly possesses a contagious passion for her work and a relentless desire to continue stretching herself as a performer. In the interview below, she shares about the process involved in returning to the role of Vanessa in Aurora’s encore performance of IN THE HEIGHTS- previously featured on BroadwayGinger as one of Atlanta’s must-see shows of the summer– and how she is more than ready to dive back in and explore the character once again.

How has it been revisiting IN THE HEIGHTS?

I think it’s always great! I got to revisit TOXIC AVENGER before, and I’m revisiting IN THE HEIGHTS, so this is my second time revisiting a show, but this show in particular is so much about community and choosing the parts of your tradition you’re going to keep with you as you move on, and which parts you’re going to leave behind. Especially the second time around, those relationships are really amplified among the characters in the script. It’s really great. It’s such an ensemble show; I don’t think there’s a small part in that. Everybody’s so integral to the community, and they all form it.

So what effect do you feel like doing it again and again over a long period of time has on the show and the way it comes out?

Gosh, I feel like it’s such a wordy show! You know? It’s not a normal musical where everything is very legato; everything’s very staccato and very fast, so I think doing it a second time and getting out of your head word-wise- our Usnavi, Diego, he’s done this show I think 3 times now, and you can see his finesse on stage. That’s the perfect word for it. His cleanliness, and finesse in the performance because he just is Usnavi at this point and doesn’t have to think about his lines. He gets to just kind of observe the world around him, which is what every actor wants to do, to go on stage and not think about what we’re doing, only observe what everyone else is giving us, and I think that’s the really cool gift of getting to do something like this a second time around.

How is the process going to be different for the concert version?

Gosh, you know, for concert versions I think always energy is the number one word, and of course you have less time to make everything really clean. Ann-Carol Pence, our wonderful leader in music she makes the show, so I know she’s going to stress our cut-offs being extremely clean because anytime you’re in a field- this sounds really nerdy- but there are no walls, there’s nothing for the sound to reverberate off of, so things can get very muddy. Everyone sounds like Ariana Grande, and you can’t understand where one word starts and the other finishes.

So diction is really important when you’re outside and making things entertaining when you’re far away in a field and not in a beautiful theatre. And then Aurora’s really nice, because you don’t get a bad seat the way it’s set up very close. There is premium seating for this event, for those who want to get closer, but I know energy is going to be a huge thing. We’re still going to do the lines, I’m sure the dances will be a little bit smaller, and stuff like that, but essentially, it’s going to be the essence of the same show. It’ll be nice to do it concert-style so we get to concentrate on the words.

It sounds like the perfect show for a concert since it’s so dense!

[IN THE HEIGHTS writer Lin-Manuel Miranda] is so presentational anyhow as a human being, and this show is his baby, so it really shows the best parts of his personality, so I think just being at a mic and just singing the show is great. Usnavi has so many funny lines, it’s just going to be really great to play those straight out to the audience.

As far as “making things entertaining from far away” like you mentioned earlier, how will you personally be doing that?

Yeah, gosh, for me, voice is so important. you can always make people watch you if you’re saying the right thing with the right intention. My hair always helps! [laughs] I’m a head-bobber. But for this is going to be all about positioning and taking equity of the stage. I think we’re on the festival’s center stage, so we’ve been on this space for a small concert before, so it will be about highlighting the people who are on stage up front. Just really using all those theatre tools we learned in college! It’s crazy, the more professional I get, the more I’m like, “Oh yeah, I should be warming up every day like my college teacher told me.” Because it really does make a difference in your work.

So what are you most looking forward to about this version?

Gosh, I guess seeing everybody again! It sounds really lame, but this is one of the most special shows to me. Everyone from our dance captain to our ensemble, they were working non-stop in rehearsal. Even when people weren’t using them, they were working backstage cleaning stuff. I’ve just never seen a process where people, no matter far the show was, they always wanted the show to be better during rehearsal and during the run. So I know that when we get together this time again, everyone’s just going to be more clean and it’s just going to be a sharper, better show.

It’s a cool opportunity for the patrons who missed it last year, because I know a lot of people missed it because we had so many nights sold out. I’m really excited to get the cast together again now that we’ve all had a year of other shows and a year to just grow and stretch our muscles. To get to do this one again will be so much easier for us.

So particularly with your character, what are you looking forward to most about stepping back into that?

Our director, Justin Anderson, I hadn’t worked with him before, but I had known him in the theatre community for a long time, and I knew he always asks a lot of his actors. So my particular task for IN THE HEIGHTS was to be more grounded. I’m very happy as a human being; joy is not hard for me to display on stage, but stability and strength while being vulnerable and not completely falling into a puddle is very hard for me because I have the inclination to want to lean towards extreme emotion.

Vanessa doesn’t really show very much emotion. That’s her face guard, how she protects herself. So I got a lot of, “That’s great, but less.” So I’m really excited to get to try that again, because I feel like as we age, we always experience different things in life, and I feel like this year, I have kind of hardened a lot, and not in a bad way, but just that I know how to deal with people and I’m not emotional all the time. So I’m really excited to visit the character now that I’ve grown, and the things that were a challenge to me before, I’m excited to tackle them now instead of being overwhelmed by them like I was the first time.

That’s so great to get a chance to revisit and see how you’ve grown and how you can apply that!

Yeah, because by the end of the run, I really felt like I got it, but I really wished that I’d had it from the beginning. So I’m excited to be able to do it for one night and just hit it right from the top. And the show is really fun! It’s not a show where afterwards you’re like, “Ugh I’m just going to go home and cry!” It’s a joy to do!

Aurora continues their Musicals by Moonlight series with IN THE HEIGHTS tonight, June 17, at the Duluth Town Green at 8pm. Aurora says, “Free to the public and part of Duluth Art Week, the show will be held on the Festival Center stage. Bring the whole family and a picnic dinner (cooler with drinks perfectly acceptable) to enjoy during the show. Lawn seating begins at 5:00pm for the 8:00pm performance. Beer and wine also available for purchase.” Click here for more information!

It’s Too Darn Hot, so Check out Atlanta’s Top 5 Must-See Shows this Summer!

dancing handkerchief at theatrical outfit

Summer in the South can be downright miserable without proper distraction from the heat.

Fortunately for us, the Atlanta theatre family is offering ample distractions in the forms of some rockin’ shows all summer long! From parks to beloved local venues, ITP to OTP, this season in Atlanta has us counting ourselves lucky to be southerners. Now that all of our interstates are back in place (BLESS), let’s celebrate by venturing all around the city and laughing as we sail through.

beauty and the beast lyric

Beauty and the Beast at the Atlanta Lyric Theatre

When: June 9-25
Elevator pitch: I mean first of all, it’s one of the best Disney musicals ever. As for the timing, God bless the Lyric for capitalizing on the recent release of the Emma Watson movie. I give them 5 stars and a cookie for this decision. But better than the movie, this version will include the songs written for the Broadway show, including my personal favs, “If I Can’t Love Her,” and “If I Can’t Love Her (reprise).” (although, tbh I could go my whole life without hearing “Human Again” again)
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? But to get right down to the point, the big draw for me is seeing the hilarious Jeff McKerley work his antics as Lumiere. Y’all, I would watch this man read the phone book. Serious question: is that a thing?
Get those tickets!

dancing handkerchief 2

The Dancing Handkerchief at Theatrical Outfit

When: June 1-18
Elevator pitch: To close their 40th season, Theatrical Outfit is bringing us a brand new musical that has yet to see the light of day. According to TO, this world premiere “blends the emotional accessibility of Disney princesses with the odd-ball pop-rock sensibility of Sergeant Pepper or Ziggy Stardust and evokes the imagined lands of Narnia and Alice’s Wonderland.” Literally, what’s not to like?
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? Get excited y’all, because the songs are written by the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award-winning Robert Lopez, who brought us FROZEN, AVENUE Q, and THE BOOK OF MORMON! I, for one, will be on the edge of my seat waiting for the next Lopez earworm.
Get those tickets!

robin hood serenbe

Robin Hood at Serenbe Playhouse

When: June 2-August 13
Elevator pitch: When’s the last time you remember hearing about a stage production of ROBIN HOOD? (Your nephew’s middle school play doesn’t count) The oh so familiar story of the good guy running through the woods, robbing the rich to feed the poor, and romancing a fair maiden in the process is perfect subject material for this creatively outdoor theatre.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? It’s no secret that this spring’s fabulous production of GREASE made me promise myself I’d never miss another Serenbe show (see: 10 Reasons You Can’t Miss GREASE at Serenbe). I’m excited to see a refreshingly fun, family-friendly adventure story. And how often do you get to see a woodsy play actually take place in nature?
Get those tickets!

memphis aurora

Memphis (AGAIN!) from Aurora

When: May 20 on the Suwanee Town Square
Elevator pitch: If you hate FREE Tony Award-winning musicals with infectious music and uncontrollably awesome dancing, skip this one. But if you’re human, the millionth reincarnation of Aurora Theatre/Theatrical Outfit’s MEMPHIS will kick off your Atlanta summer with just the right combination of excitement and inspiration.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? I fell in love with MEMPHIS when I saw the original Broadway cast and first tour, and I can tell you Aurora’s production was just as good. With dynamite vocals and endless, lovable energy, Travis Smith’s Huey Calhoun is not to be missed.
Get those tickets!

nobody loves you horizon

Nobody Loves You from Horizon Theatre

When/Where: June 14-17 at Piedmont Park
Elevator pitch: Can we just agree that it’s a crime to not go see a FREE musical? Ok perfect. Now that’s out of the way… Horizon has been the real MVP of the Atlanta theatre scene for the last few years as they have brought back crowd favorites- usually starring local stud Nick Arapoglou, if we’re being honest- for free encore performances in a popular Atlanta hangout spot.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? As a general rule, I’d pay to see Leslie Bellair work her comedic magic any day of the week (see: her single-handed portrayal of a two-character fight in TOXIC AVENGER). If it’s free, that’s what you’d call a no-brainer.
Get those tickets!

in the heights aurora

BONUS: In the Heights from Aurora Theatre

When/Where: June 17 at the Duluth Town Green
Elevator pitch: Free shows on free shows, y’all! Honestly, this is an easy one. Before there was HAMILTON (the musical, not the historical figure), almost-EGOT-er Lin-Manuel Miranda penned a semi-autobiographical musical called IN THE HEIGHTS. This encore performance of Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s non-stop Dominican party about the importance of family and identity closes out the Lawrenceville company’s FREE Musicals by Moonlight series with a bang.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? Opening Aurora’s new season late last summer, IN THE HEIGHTS perfectly combines musical theatre rap- which is apparently a thing now- with endearing characters and a heartfelt message. But let’s be real, the endlessly talented Julissa Sabino as Vanessa makes attending this show a moral imperative.
Get those tickets!

Hit me up on Twitter (@BwayGinger) and tell me which shows you’re hype for this summer! 

NATIVE SON is Non-Stop at Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square

native son 1A hazy stage, so smoke-filled one can hardly see through it. Just before the play begins, it clears to reveal two platforms and chain-link fences in the background. An African-American man enters frantically with clothes in hand, pulling on his pants and shirt as he addresses the audience. Other characters vocally supply eerie sound-effects on their gradual entrances. Thus begins NATIVE SON at Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square. Its fragmented nature throws the audience into the middle of the story, a perfect prelude to a frantically-structured narrative.

Bigger- yes that’s his name- chauffeurs for a white family, but when he brings home the oldest daughter Mary (Shay Alexi) very drunk and tries to keep her silent as her blind mother hears them arrive late at night, he accidentally smothers the girl to death. And no, that’s not a spoiler, as this all transpires in the first ten minutes.

The play follows the story of Bigger (Dee Jordan) almost entirely non-sequentially, as the audience sees his choices interrupted by the voice in his head, another character altogether (known as “Black Rat,” which you’d only know with a labeled production shot in hand). Black Rat (Rahshaun Cormier) functions at first as the voice of reason- or foolishness- but as the play progresses, both he and the real Bigger alternately live Bigger’s life. One moment, Bigger is speaking to the private investigator, the next it’s his alter-ego doing the interacting as Bigger supplies the voice.

native son 2The experience is exhausting in the best way. The jumpy, though not impossible to follow, style mirrors Bigger’s perpetually conflicted mental state. As such, this allows the audience to ride along with him and truly sympathize with his plight. Under the powerful direction of Emil Thomas, the piece exemplifies how a theatrical style alone can convey the emotions of the central character. From the moment it starts, we’re all in and without an intermission, don’t get a reprieve until the very end.

With no microphones in sight, a bare bones set, and few- if any- recorded sound effects, this unplugged atmosphere refreshingly emphasizes Nambi E. Kelley’s rich text, allowing it alone to tell the story. This script choice suits the Emil Theatre’s small space well, and the subject matter rings relevant in a time when race relations continue to dominate social media discussions. Its fast pace is accentuated by an equally fast-paced and poignant lighting design by Stephen Reilly, to whom I’d give star billing.  Why do Bigger and Black Rat strip down in the final sequence? I couldn’t tell ya. I also couldn’t tell ya what those last few lines were.

Follow @BwayGinger for more Atlanta theatre news, reviews, and snarky opinions. And then let’s be best friends and talk about how much we love Aaron Tveit.

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10 Reasons You Can’t Miss GREASE at Serenbe Playhouse

25Full disclosure: GREASE is not my favorite musical. As a rule, it’s one of those movies reserved only for girls’ nights every few years or some other context in which there are enough distractions involved that we can all forget it has no plot. But y’all. Serenbe Playhouse’s production has completely changed that image for me. Set outdoors on a T-shaped stage in a wide open field, this interpretation is the best I’ve ever experienced. And here’s why.

  1. That opener though.
    1It begins at the Rydell High School graduation with Miss Lynch, Patty Simcox, and Eugene Florczyk remarking on the classy behaviors these supposedly Wally Cleaver-type teens exhibited during their time at this learning institution. Their rose-colored speech is interrupted by the first chords of the title song as dancers slide in and Rizzo (a powerful Julissa Sabino) takes the stage, mic in hand, to own “Grease is the Word.” I think my exact whispered words to my companion, after dropping my jaw, were “Oh I was NOT ready for that!”
  2. Summer Nights. Need I say more?
    As the intro to possibly the most popular song from the movie started, I could see the whole audience very visibly adjust their posture in anticipation. The whole song can best be described as completely satisfying. With the Pink Ladies on one set of rolling mini-bleachers and T-Birds on another, choreographer Bubba Carr incorporated a wonderful mix of “standard” sequences we’re all expecting to see from this song specifically, while building on them to bring a fresh look to the beloved piece.
  3. Triple threats on triple threats.
    10
    Since Serenbe uses the Broadway version- as opposed to the movie we’re familiar with- significant portions of the narrative in this adaptation look different from what some may be expecting. But only in good ways. Serenbe’s production is primarily ensemble-based, contrasting to the movie which shifts the focus to heavily showcase stars like John Travolta. This company-led musical demands that every single one of the core of about ten characters not only sings as the featured singer in a solo/duet (which, I might add were a delightful addition!), but every lead performer flaunts top-notch dance abilities as well. Not to mention the ensemble who we’ve come to assume at this point is made up of brilliant dancers. To answer the question all nerds are asking, yes, Keneckie sings “Greased Lightning” instead of Danny.
  4. Atlanta celebs.
    Thrown in for cameos, local Atlanta radio personalities appeared in the show as well. Cindy Simmons (former co-host of Star 94’s morning show for a hundred years or so), along with her mother and husband, was featured as one of the stars of the drive-in movie that Danny and Sandy attend, and “new guy Brian” from Q100’s Bert Show slips in there as the Teen Angel at some performances.
  5. Rizzo. RIZZO, Y’ALL.
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    There aren’t enough words to express how much you must see Julissa Sabino as Betty Rizzo. She was adorable as Vanessa in IN THE HEIGHTS at Aurora last year, and as Rydell High’s resident bad girl, she takes her skills to the next level. Oozing with that appealing rebellious nature you’d expect of Rizzo, Sabino also brings out the heart of the character, reminding the audience this bad-ass is really just a teenager at the end of the day.
  6. It works in ways the movie didn’t.
    Remember how in the movie the characters are one-dimensional at best with barely any development? This adaptation fixes those problems significantly. Patty Simcox has a thing for Danny, which Danny takes advantage of to make Sandy jealous. ChaCha doesn’t own the dance floor at all, but actually makes a fool of herself at the prom. As for the rest of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, their aforementioned solos/duets show these Rydell cliques are made of real people rather than space-fillers. Oh and they don’t even try to have that car race that was so epically lame in Fox’s GREASE LIVE that even Aaron Tveit’s lovely face couldn’t redeem those awkward five minutes.
  7. Sandy doesn’t change for a guy.
    18
    The clencher, the most significant element that makes this show a refreshing change from the movie is the way Sandy and Rizzo’s characters overlap. Rizzo sings “There are Worse Things I Could Do” to Sandy after discovering Rizzo is pregnant. In a move that ultimately transforms Sandy’s character, the song placement makes it about Rizzo directly telling Sandy that while she realizes she’s “the bad girl,” at least she has life experience and depth, unlike the squeaky clean blondie. “Sandra Dee (reprise)” powerfully follows right after Rizzo’s exit. With this in mind, Sandy doesn’t change her wardrobe and demeanor because she wants Danny to like her again; she changes because, boys aside, she wants to take chances and experience the world. She wants to be fearless. She wants to have depth. She wants to be Rizzo.
  8. India Tyree.
    With a recent featured appearance in Aurora’s premiere of SWEEP, I’d add India to the list of Atlanta actors to see in 2017. As Jan, the Pink Lady in pigtails, her charisma overflows in the adorable delivery of every line, and the precision in her characterization makes her a joy to watch.
  9. The lovely men.
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    As much as I’d love to stick to serious, professional-sounding critiques, the reality is you just can’t talk about GREASE at Serenbe Playhouse without mentioning how attractive all the guys are. Michael Stiggers Jr. does not disappoint as Danny. Jeremiah Parker Hobbes’ swag is out of this world as Keneckie. Honestly, the men are all straight-up eye candy. Thanks, Serenbe fam.
  10. It shows us vast possibilities of where theatre can go.
    20
    Is it still an incomplete story with large plot holes and a leading lady that has no character? Absolutely. But it’s the most delightful two or so hours you could spend in this lovely spring weather. The execution of the music is spot-on. The dancing is nostalgic as well as inventive. The set takes advantage of modern technology through the use of a backdrop screen. The whole show utilizes an immersive drive-in movie motif from the moment you step onto the property. It’s one of those refreshing shows that brings something new to the table and reminds us why live theatre is an art form. It reminds us how a Broadway musical can be expanded into something new and exciting.

GREASE runs through April 16 at Wild Flower Meadow at Serenbe Playhouse. Click here for more information and tickets!

Photo credits: BreeAnne Clowdus

Review: Tony-Winning Music Prevails in Aurora’s THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

bridges auroraLaundry lines. Walls made of doors and windows. With no curtain to hide the set, Aurora Theatre invites the audience into the world of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY the minute they walk in the door.

The music in BRIDGES showcases some of composer Jason Robert Brown’s best work. There’s no question every time Kristin Markiton (Francesca) and Travis Smith (Robert) open their mouths to sing, pure gold emerges. Brown’s Tony Award-winning score comes to life brilliantly in the hands of Aurora’s performers. Were this an in-concert performance, the show would be nearly flawless. But it’s primarily in the execution of the book that this piece falters.

BRIDGES tells the story of Francesca, a housewife left alone at home for three days as her husband and bickering children leave on an unexciting trip. When a handsome stranger, Robert, knocks on her door asking for directions, what Francesca had envisioned as a quiet weekend alone becomes a whirlwind affair that causes her to question where her priorities really lie.

The first act’s story coasts on introduction of characters, inciting incidents, and sexual tension, but the beginning of act two reveals the aforementioned plot preliminaries are all the narrative has to offer. The show is then left with an empty second half that runs out of steam, kept afloat only by the music. Pick any song involving the two leads, and it could be considered the best in the show, rounded out with minimal but sufficient company involvement.

We could talk forever about the excellent symbolism communicated in the set: walls made of frames constructed from household doors and windows, and how these set elements represent the connection between Francesca and Robert, and so on. And then there’s the realistic kitchen, which maybe has microphones in the kitchen cabinets? Whatever attention to detail enabled the cabinets to close loudly enough to be heard around the theatre was not wasted. Ironically, the same cannot be said for the sound mixing of many spoken lines which were drowned out by background music.

Kristin Markiton as Francesca soars on her expert vocal skills, though she lacks much more. Her nearly expressionless performance as the central character falls flat, leaving much to be desired and many questions about her character at the end. Rather than a woman torn between staying with her family and running off to her romantic fantasy, her one-dimensional portrayal comes across as altogether indifferent.

Known to Aurora audiences as Huey Calhoun, the graceless DJ with a heart of gold from 2015’s production of MEMPHIS, Smith is anything but awkward as Robert. His voice enraptures the audience from the first moment he sings, and his stirring portrayal embodies the ultimate dreamlike hunk with his every movement, while simultaneously carrying a very sweet quality as well.

The Bridges of Madison County is presented through April 16. A discount matinee will be offered on Wednesday, March 29 at 10 a.m. with tickets starting at $20. Regular tickets range from $30-$65 and can be purchased online at tickets.auroratheatre.com or by calling the Box Office at 678-226-6222.

Photo credit: Chris Bartelski