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!

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How to Converse with Theatre Nerds (and Survive a Tony Awards Party)

The Tony Awards night is Christmas for theatre people (or actually Hanukkah would be more fitting, wouldn’t it?).
It’s the magical June night when a group of the best people in the world (theatre kids) pile on the couch to unashamedly geek out and fangirl for a solid 3 hours. Public Tonys viewing parties are some of few places where you can bet a group of 100+ strangers will think it totally natural to discuss the worst Tony Awards tragedies of all time, and instead of giving you weird looks when you burst into some Broadway tunes, they’ll pick up the harmony alongside you. And then BOOM! BFFs for the evening.
But it is possible that some run-of-the-mill fans step foot into such a gathering without a full breadth of Tony knowledge and love for obscure Sondheim shows. My heart goes out to those who receive incredulous looks for not knowing who Patti LuPone is or the number of minutes in a year. So to rescue those people, I have compiled a simple cheat sheet to surviving any conversation with a hardcore theatre nerd. And coming out of a Tonys party without looking like a fool.
  1. Eight times a week. This refers to the Broadway performance schedule. And you will hear this phrase every five and a half seconds during the Tonys. Please note that when someone says it, it’s bound to be part of what they consider a really profound statement. Practice your adequately awed face in the mirror.
  2. THEATRE. Because theatre nerds are anglophiles, it’s “theatre,” not “theater.” To answer your question, yes they can tell from your voice how you’re spelling the word in your head.
  3. OBC. This stands for “Original Broadway Cast” and is a vital step in understanding nerd-speak. Theatre nerds will repeatedly remind you that the original actors to play [name that role] on Broadway were the best, though hipster nerds prefer the original out-of-town tryout understudy.
  4. Ensemble. No one refers to the “chorus.” The cool kids say “ensemble” instead, because chorus sounds as though the members of the company are less important. Tiny, laughable distinction, really. But seriously, don’t say chorus.
  5. Colm Wilkinson. Aka, “Mr. Les Mis.” This brilliant guy was the original Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on the West End and Broadway in the ‘80s. He fittingly played the bishop in the Les Mis movie as well. Because he’s perfect.
  6. Idina Menzel. I dearly hope anyone who steps foot in a Tonys party now knows her name, but what’s a cheat sheet for if not to save the day? She originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked, for which she won a Tony Award. And oh yeah, she voiced Elsa in Frozen. And she’s perfect.
  7. Aaron Tveit. He’ll honestly never stop being a relevant, gorgeous leading man, having made himself known through his appearance as Gabe in Next to Normal, Enjorlas in the Les Miserables movie, and of course Danny in the recent Grease Live. But get in line, because everyone and their mother is in love with him.
  8. Andrew Lloyd Webber. British composer who wrote many, many award-winning musicals including the currently running Sunset Boulevard, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. His works are constantly produced on and off Broadway, and you could say they will never die (with the exception, of course, of The Phantom of the Opera 2: Love Never Dies).
  9. Broadway is always better. If you tell a theatre nerd that you loved Les Mis after only seeing the movie, you’ll get the death stare. Even worse would be if you let it slip that you actually liked a movie soundtrack better than an OBC recording. Rule of thumb: Terrence Mann beats Russell Crowe any day.
  10. Lin-Manuel MirandaOk, if you don’t know him, I’m not helping you.

Follow @BwayGinger on Twitter for more Broadway love, Atlanta theatre news, and sassy live-tweets. And then let’s be best friends, ok?

A version of this piece was originally published as part of the KCACTF Region IV Institute for Theatre Journalism Advocacy. You can read the dated, pre-Hamilton version from February 2014 here.

Musical Swap! Become Obsessed with 7 New Musical Albums this Summer

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Is there anything quite like the thrill of consuming a new musical? It’s that insatiable need only quenched by the blessed “repeat all” button.

After a decade or so of nonstop musical consumption, new musical obsessions seem a far-gone delight as formerly novel shows now sit overplayed in the music library. But take heart! New (or previously unknown) albums are as endless as the INTO THE WOODS prologue. So let’s have a good old-fashioned musical-swap.

Using seven musicals probably long past the looped listening stage, I’ve extrapolated- sometimes liberally- parallel shows possessing similar characteristics. But mostly it’s an excuse to promote some of my favorite shows. Let’s kick off the summer by diving into some new musical obsessions!

Worn out Les Miserables? Check out Ragtime.
1998. Music and lyrics by Lyn Ahrens and Charles Flaherty.

Packed with rousing number after (over)dramatic ballad, RAGTIME possesses the heart of LES MIS sprinkled with the musical sound of turn of the century America. Throw in Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and just try listening to anything else for the next month.

Best hit: “Wheels of a Dream”

Recommended recording: RAGTIME Studio Cast Recording (also check out the Original Broadway Cast recording’s version of “Sarah Brown Eyes” which was written after the studio cast recording)

Worn out Dear Evan Hansen? Check out Next to Normal.
2009. Music and Lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey

It’s the modern rock musical style that so defined early 2000s Broadway. There’s angst. There’s mental illness. There’s a pole-dancing hallucination (WHAT? Yes, kinda). Like this season’s Tony Awards ringer, N2N dives into the values of friendship and family, ultimately resting on the value of life over happiness.

Best Hit: “You Don’t Know/I am the One”

Worn out Newsies? Check out The Scarlet Pimpernel.
1998. Music and Lyrics by Frank Wildhorn.

You know that musical that defined your childhood, but apparently no one else’s, and you’re lucky if you discover anyone who has even heard of it? Oh hey, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. This underappreciated adaptation of the classic novel stars a post-LES MIS Terrence Mann and includes- if you listen closely enough to group numbers- a pre-legendary Sutton Foster. Like NEWSIES, inspirational male underdog choruses centered around an adventure to take down the bad guys dominate this 25-song album.

Best Hit: “Into the Fire”

Worn out Wicked? Check out The Wild Party (Off-Broadway)
2000. Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa.

Idina Menzel’s showstopping “Life of the Party” is the electrifying “Defying Gravity 2.0” we didn’t know we needed. This addictive prohibition-era musical depicts a disintegrating night in the life of a clown named Burrs (a sinister Brian d’Arcy James at his best), a vaudeville performer named Queenie (an on-edge Julia Murney), and their unbalanced friends (including Menzel and her then-husband, the always-smooth Taye Diggs). Note: as odd Broadway trivia would have it, another composer penned a musical of the same title using the same subject material. It’s inferior.

Best Hit: “Life of the Party”

Worn out The Book of Mormon? Check out The Fantasticks (Off-Broadway)
1960. Music and lyrics by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.

It’s Pyramus and Thisbe without a lion and with some crazy parents, a semi-trustworthy narrator, and a comical song about fake rape. You wouldn’t recognize the voice of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s Lumiere- Jerry Orbach- as he croons the sentimental opener, “Try to Remember,” and maybe classic Broadway seems in no way to resemble modern hits. But with the same parodied flavor as THE BOOK OF MORMON, THE FANTASTICKS compiles outlandish circumstances atop a solid ’60s musical theatre platform.

Best hit: “It Depends on What You Pay”

Worn out Into the Woods? Check out A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
1962. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!” Honest. Simple. This opener leaves no question about what we’re getting into. Before Zero Mostel biddy-biddy-bum-ed as Tevye in Anatevka, he won a Tony Award as the clever slave Pseudolus in ancient Rome. Like Sondheim’s later hit INTO THE WOODS, FORUM has a whimsical, yesteryear setting. But with fewer fairy tale characters and more Roman guards. And tragical courtesans.

Best hit: “Comedy Tonight”

Worn out Hamilton? Check out Gypsy
1959. Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

No, GYPSY is nothing like HAMILTON. But the entertainment industry-centric GYPSY is a must for all theatre fans, ranked by some as the best musical of all time (and I’m not just saying that because theatre people are egotistical and love shows about themselves). Just as Rodgers and Hammerstein is a prerequisite for the entire musical canon, the best work of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s chief inspiration must precede anything Miranda. Lyrically, it’s hard to beat good old Steve.

Best hit: “Everything’s Coming up Roses”