You might not recognize their names – unless you are Broadway musical fan – but you have seen them in films and on TV.
Between them, the six performers for the Legacy Theatre’s Sunday Broadway Concert Series that begins Sunday, Feb. 26, have acquired numerous Tony nominations (and awards), plus too many nominations and awards from the other major Broadway awards groups (Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk) to count. Plus, Grammy and Emmy nominations and awards from major critic groups in cities around the US.
Colin Sheehan, producer of the series for the Legacy Theatre has put together these series (this is the third) using his extensive New York and Broadway contacts.
The goal is “to provide something for everyone: as well as to outdo last year’s series,” Sheehan said. You will hear Broadway show tunes, but also pop, rock, country, and even opera.
He talks year-round with people he has worked with; he’s been in the industry most of his life. A Branford native, he performed at St. Mary’s school but as a teenager appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. During and after college, he continued in the business, producing television shows, serving as the entertainment coordinator for R Family Vacations and much more. Now he is director of the Branford High School Spring musical; Arts, Culture & Special Events Coordinator for the Town of Branford; and produces and coordinates special events for organizations.
“I am constantly doing research,” he said. This includes reaching out to musical directors in the City, keeping track of performers doing sole cabaret styles shows and contacting people he has worked with previously.
The series begins with Nikki M. James on Sunday, Feb. 26, Max von Essen on Sunday, March 5, Eden Espinosa on Sunday, April 2, Jenn Colella on Sunday, May 2, Orfeh on Sunday, June 25 and concludes with Hugh Panaro on Sunday, July 2.
The programs will be very different, but the performers use the same criteria for selecting the music: it has to be something they love.
Eden Espinosa (who played Elphaba in Wicked on tour and on Broadway) said one criteria was “to sing songs that challenge me and a few that I’ve always wanted to perform but haven’t been brave enough.” For Hugh Panaro (who starred in Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera and Lestat), the show includes “the stories and songs that have shaped my life in music from the time I was 12.” That was echoed by Jenn Colella (Come from Away, Chaplin) who is including “some songs that inspired me on my journey.”
Putting together a show can lead performers to realizations about themselves. For Max von Essen (American in Paris) the music that felt “most natural, most like me were songs from the American Songbook and classics from the golden age of Broadway,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to an era gone by and after two years performing in An American in Paris on Broadway, singing so many classic Gershwin tunes, I realized that not only do I love singing in that style on stage, it also felt most like me.”
Nikki M. James (she won a Tony for Book of Mormon) found that her song selection revealed a theme: My House. “I’m playing around with the idea of home and how my definition of home has changed over the past few years.” She added that this would be her first concert since becoming a mother. The show started with wanting to include “My House” from Matilda.
For Espinosa, she tries to have a new set list of songs for each concert. She includes some songs she is known for plus new songs. “I like to expand my repertoire whenever I do a concert.”
Other performers also said that their shows are constantly evolving. Von Essen said he works with his musical director, the well-known Billy Stritch to arrange a new song or two. “That way the show keeps morphing, but slowly,” he said. “When it evolves over time, it still feels like the show I originally envisioned.” He acknowledged that it could be hard to let go of a song he has fallen in love with.
Performers mention wanting to take the audience on a journey which means making sure that the selections also include a variety of up-tempo numbers and ballads. It is an art; too many up-tempo numbers and as von Essen explains it can feel as if the audience is being bombarded. Too many ballads in a row and the audience can lose energy.
Panaro’s show is very autobiographical, even talking about the parts he didn’t get. He debuted the show last year and presented it in NYC at the cabaret 54 Below in October. His aim, he said, “is to let everyone get to know me through song and have an authentic, sometimes silly, sometimes irreverent, but also truthful experience.”
Each performer said that doing these shows can be scary but also enjoyable. Colella said, “I treat the audience as if they are all my friends and we’re simply hanging out for a bit.” That was echoed by Espinosa who said “I like being myself on stage. I always want the audience to feel like they’ve gotten to know me a bit.” She added that the audience is an active participant in the shows.
The live quality of cabaret/concerts is what attracts von Essen. “I love the immediate and close connection to the audience,” he said. “You’re sharing yourself with the audience.” James talks about it being “thrilling to feel like you can break the fourth wall and make a connection.”
Yet it is also scary. These performers mostly play characters – whether on stage or in other mediums. “At first it terrified me,” von Essen said. “In reality what draws many of us to the theater is that we get to be someone other than ourselves.” Colello echoed that saying, “There’s no character to hide behind. It’s just me up there, raw and vulnerable.”
Yet she, the others, find it “equal parts terrifying and liberating and I love it,” she said.
The performers are all working on different projects. Panaro has the live recording of his cabaret performance at 54 Below, which he hopes will be released in April. Von Essen has some concerts and auditions; he admits one of his biggest loves is musical theater. Espinosa is hoping several new musicals will make it to Broadway soon. James starts shooting a series for Disney+ soon.
For tickets visit LegacyTheatreCT.org
Some interesting facts about the performers
Eden Espinosa received award nominations from several groups for her voice-over work in Tangled: Before and After. She originated the lead role in the Broadway musical Brooklyn. She was the standby for Idina Menzel in Wicked before starring in the national tour and then returning to Broadway to take over the role of Elphaba.
Orfeh starred as Annette in the Broadway production of Saturday Night Fever where she met her husband, musical theater actor Andy Karl. She won raves playing Paulette in Legally Blonde – the Musical and later played Kit De Luca in the musical Pretty Woman.
Hugh Panaro has played the Phantom for more than 2,000 performances on Broadway. In addition to starring in the first national tour of Lez Mis, he has played both the leading roles in Les Miz on Broadway, starred as the title character in the musical Lestat, and starred as Sweeney Todd in the site-specific off-Broadway revival in 2017.
Nikki M. James starred in The Book of Mormon, Eponine in the revival of Les Miz and Viola in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night.
Mas von Essen starred with Micharel Crawford in Dance of the Vampires, played Enjolras in the revival of Les Miz, originated a role in the musical Death Takes a Holiday off-Broadway, and played Henri in An American in Paris.
Jenn Colella won raves for her work in Come from Away, the musicals Urban Cowboy and Chaplin.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com