Next Big Thing: Evan Tyrone Martin

The young Chicago-based singer-actor appears in the Jaeb Theater for his acclaimed holiday concert—and guess what? His mom lives in Tampa and will be at every show. If you want to be there, you better get tickets soon because they’re hotter than chestnuts in an open fire right now.

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The Straz Center often has artists at the cusp of breaking out in their careers, like the time we hosted Jon Batiste and Stay Human (who?) only months before they landed their gig as Stephen Colbert’s house band (oh, them!). We have another of those acts lined up for a Christmas show as part of our cabaret series—Evan Tyrone Martin, whose show An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas strikes a perfect holiday harmony of golden-age nostalgia and youthful earnestness.

We caught up with Evan on the phone just a few days before the show started its holiday tour, which lands in the Jaeb this Thursday for five performances through the weekend.

The show originated last year, playing to packed audiences in St. Louis. The success of the show encouraged the producers to put Evan on the road the subsequent holiday season, and here we are.

“This is the first opportunity that I’ve had to tour with something that is my own, that actually features me,” says Evan, whose extensive performance career in Chicago included everyone from Jesus to King Triton. “Producers Michael and Angela Ingersoll had been looking for a new kind of show for Artists Lounge Live. Because they do so many iconic singers, they had been thinking about Nat King Cole for a little while. And they were kind of nervous about trying to find someone who could take on that particular catalog. It’s a very specific voice. It’s one that everybody holds near and dear. If you meet someone, they know about Nat King Cole and are probably a fan. If you hear a bad version of ‘The Christmas Song’ … it kind of angers you, you know?”

Evan, however, had an ace up his sleeve about landing the gig even though he himself didn’t know he was being considered to take on Nat King Cole for Artists Lounge Live. “They [the Ingersolls] called me and said, “We heard that you sound a little like Nat King Cole. Are you familiar with his catalog?” And I just about fell out of my chair because I grew up listening to Nat King Cole. He was one of my grandmother’s favorite artists.” Evan, who’d come to the Ingersoll’s attention by way of a music director who worked with him and the Ingersolls for separate projects, submitted a clip of “Smile” and was on contract by the end of the evening.

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Evan performing in HAIR. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Although—as you’ll see at the show—Evan not only sounds like Nat King Cole, he also looks like Nat King Cole. An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is not about Evan impersonating the great singer, however. The show is Evan taking us through a musical memoir of sorts, balancing Cole’s songs with his own family stories. “My goal was to hearken back to him as much as possible in the way that I present his music, the way that I sound, the way that I move, so that people felt as though they were at one of his concerts,” Evan says. “Throughout the concert, they could not only get to know a little bit more about him through me talking about his life, but they could get to know a little bit more about me because our trajectories, as far as music and performance, are kind of similar. We kind of had similar upbringings.”

Evan’s grandmother passed away while he was in high school, so she never got to see her grandson step into the legacy of her favorite singer. For Evan, though, performing the songs of someone so important to the greater Martin family helps him stay connected to his grandmother and others. “[Performing this show] brings me a little bit of joy to be able to hearken back. Both of my grandmothers taught me so much about music and all of it. And, my dad, who I actually recently lost this year,” he says “I’m able to hearken back and pay tribute to all of those people who taught me so much about performance. And they were non-professional performers, for the most part. But, I’m able to tie them into the show that would have meant so much to all of us and weave them into the fabric of the show. It means so much to me. I get to sing a song to and for my grandmother every time we do the show.”

“There’s something that changes in a singer’s voice and presence when there’s such an emotional connection to the music,” Evan says. “You can love a song, but when you feel as though you are literally connected to a song, that takes it to an entire different level in your performance and in the way that people feel it. I think that the fact that I can feel my family with me on stage and can dedicate certain songs to them specifically, I think that makes the connection just that much deeper and richer for both myself and the audience.”

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Evan’s mother, herself a singer and Tampanian, plans to be at each of the five shows. “She’s putting together a cabaret show, knee-deep working on it now. She joined a couple bands in Tampa but moved to Alabama to take care of some family. [She’s back in Tampa now] so she really does just want to get back into seeing what’s possible. I’m excited to have her in the audience and maybe, maybe I can convince her to get up on stage one of those times,” he laughs.

To see An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas starring Evan Tyrone Martin (and maybe his mom), get your tickets for any seats still available this weekend.

 

 

Jane Lynch Launches Holiday Performance Season @Straz

The merry, mighty and mighty merry Jane Lynch (Glee, Hollywood Game Night) saunters into the Jaeb Theater this weekend for a retro-Christmas cabaret concert featuring her pals Kate Flannery (Meredith on The Office) and the dashing Tim Davis. Caught in the Act caught up with Jane on the phone recently to get the buzz about her show A Swingin’ Little Christmas.

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Tim Davis, Jane Lynch and Kate Flannery star in A Swingin’ Little Christmas.

Caught in the Act: Hi, Jane. We can’t wait for you to get down here to Tampa.

Jane Lynch: Me too! I’m so thrilled. Can’t wait.

CITA: We can’t wait either and you’re gonna be in the best space, too. Wait until you to see the cabaret space that we have. You’re gonna love it.

JL: Great!

CITA: Let’s talk about you growing up and then we’ll head into the A Swingin’ Little Christmas show which we’re so excited about. So, at what point in your life did you figure out that you were funny?

JL: It wasn’t like a startling revelation, and it wasn’t something that I would proudly say, “I’m funny.” But I love to laugh. I have spent my life finding the funny in any situation—it’s never too soon for me. And although I might not say it publicly, inside I’ll always have a joke about something, just horrible. Ironically, that puts it in a place … you can have a good belly laugh. It’s a gift I was born with. My family is the exact same way. We are always miming things for the irony and not gut laughs, a lot of it is always smirky kind of laughs—like little funny laughs. But that’s kind of where I come from and I am on a relentless search for the funny in a situation. It’s a very, very satisfying path.

Jane and her sister. (Photos from Instagram: @janelynchofficial)

CITA: You had two siblings, right? You grew up south of Chicago … did you have an older sister and a younger brother?

JL: Yes.

CITA: What were the three of you like growing up? Were you cutting up? Were you giving your parents all kinds of fits? Were you testing out material?

JL: Well my brother and I had very much the same sense of humor—he’s two years younger than I am. My sister was a little apart from that … she could laugh but she was driven, from almost the moment she was born, to leave our family and start her own. She loves kids. She loves … you know, she’s a stellar teacher. But my brother and I certainly shared a lot of laughs growing up. We watched television together, we would re-enact scenes and, yeah, we loved it.

My parents loved to sing. My parents were really funny, too, but they loved to sit around the kitchen table after dinner and sing. I would join them after a while. My sister would roll her eyes and go to bed and my brother too. But I loved doing that.

CITA: Did they play instruments? Did somebody play the piano or you would just sit around and sing songs?

JL: No, it was all a capella. We loved musicals, and my father was a great harmonizer and my mother loved to sing. They knew all the songs from the musicals—all the songs from their day, which would was in the late 40’s, early 50’s. That’s how I fell in love with that music, like Glenn Miller and we wouldn’t sing that of course because that’s instrumental, but Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Rosemary Clooney. My mother could sound and looked a lot like Rosemary Clooney. Yeah, so we had a great musical education growing up. I didn’t know it was an education, I just knew it was really great music, and I got to sing it with them. But nobody’s musical. My brother plays the piano. But it’s not like we were pulling out our instruments like the Partridge Family or anything like that.

Jane’s family at Christmas. (Photos from Instagram: @janelynchofficial)

JL: Sometimes we’d put on a record and sing with the record but when we were at the kitchen table and my parents had a couple of whiskey’s in them, then we would be singing together. It was so much fun.

CITA: We love that story. So, alright, when you guys had your Christmas holiday, did you have albums that you would listen to as a family?

JL: Yes. In fact, we listened to the same stuff Christmas after Christmas, and they were usually compilations like … Firestone used to put out a compilation every year of pop singers doing Christmas songs and choirs as well. So, you’d have a combination of Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Rosemary Clooney and then some choir that did some beautiful devotional hymn. Every once in a while, I’ll hear one of those cuts on the radio for Christmas music and it just brings me back.

CITA: Yes. We had Johnny Mathis and Doris Day. One note of Johnny Mathis and we go right back.

JL: Yep, I hear you. Yeah, that’s good Christmas music.

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CITA: Now we have a lot of audience here in Tampa for you, and they’ll know you mostly as Sue Sylvester from Glee. Which won’t make them different from many of your other audiences probably, but there’s a big jump from Sue Sylvester to Jane Lynch in A Swingin’ Little Christmas. So, can you just help us make this mental leap so that nobody shows up thinking it’s Sue Sylvester’s Swingin’ Little Christmas?

JL: Oh, I think they’ll adjust pretty quickly. I don’t think there’s much of an attitude adjustment. But let me tell you, though. You know Kate Flannery who was Meredith—the drunk in The Office?

CITA: Yes.

JL: She’s my very good friend, and we’ve been singing together on and off for decades. We’ve been doing sketch comedies together, and every time we would do a sketch comedy show—which was almost every night when we were coming up—we would do a song. We harmonize very well together and we have a lot of fun together. So, I enlisted here to sing with me. As soon as The Office ended, Glee ended around the same time, and I said, “Let’s hit the road.” So, we hit the road with this wonderful five-piece band and the Christmas album came out of that collaboration. The Christmas show came out of that as well.

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So it’s basically A Swingin’ Little Christmas which is the album. You can get it on Amazon or iTunes. And also we’ll be selling them at the show… we’ll sign them for you. And we’re doing all of that music and it’s the late 50’s- you’re gonna love this. The late 50’s, early 60’s. Some of it’s full orchestra on the album of course; we’re only traveling with a quintet and the rest of it is a five-piece jazz stuff. We got like a Dave Brubeck [style] “Three Kings of Orient.” We’ve got a Louis Prima King Wenceslas song, so we’re all over the place. It’ll remind you of the Christmas albums you grew up with—a lot of those arrangements.

It’s going to ring true to where most of the Christmas music that endures, are songs recorded in the late 50’s or early 60’s—the Rosemary Clooney’s and the Bing Crosby’s and the Perry Como’s. We’re very much in that ilk.

CITA: Oh, we cannot wait. How much fun is this show for you, really?

JL: It’s the best! You know, we haven’t done the show since Christmas last year and we just love it. Kate and I have our shenanigans together. She’s very much a wild card and spontaneous. I’m very precise and a little bit anal retentive. It really works well within a comedy. And Tim is like our Lyle Waggoner- I don’t know if you’ll remember the Carol Burnett show? If you remember Lyle Waggoner, he was the very handsome guy who just stood there and laughed at the ladies and he’s got an amazing voice. He was the vocal arranger on Glee, so all of our songs were vocally arranged by him with some real tight three part harmonies.

CITA: Yes. Okay, so if we have not communicated how excited we are about this show, let us just reiterate. Kate Flannery is hysterical. How did you all meet each other? Were you Second City players together?

JL: Yeah. We met at the Audience Theater, which is this crazy theater that’s still around, that does wild kind of rebellious improv shows. We met doing the Real Life Brady Bunch where we did actual episodes of the Brady Bunch dressed up like the characters and it became kind of a cult hit. We traveled all over the country with it. We ended up at the Village Gate in New York for about four or five months. We bonded there and then we went onto L.A. When we all got to L.A., we did sketch comedy shows and we were going to have a theater for a month so we put together a crazy little improv-based show. Kate and I would usually do a song almost every show. So, we’ve known each other… we’ve been swimming in the same pond for probably 30 years.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Maybe this isn’t going to make any sense to you, but you and Kate are sometimes so funny we can’t laugh. You both say things in a way that’s so funny, we can’t even laugh at it. Like ninja humor. And you both have that. We can’t imagine you both onstage at the same time.

JL: Thank you. I think you’re gonna love it.

Kate and Jane. (Photos from Instagram: @janelynchofficial)

CITA: Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind. So, you talk about Carol Burnett who I know is a huge hero, heroine to you, and you all got to perform together on Glee. One of our favorite recent things that Carol has done is when she went on Jimmy Fallon and she was teaching him her tricks for how she wouldn’t crack. And she would bite her knuckle so hard that the pain would help her keep from cracking.

JL: [laughing] Understood.

CITA: We were thinking about you and all the films that you’ve been in and how funny you are and all of these hysterical people that you have been in shows with, and how do you… how do you not crack? And when you’re on a stage with Kate, how are y’all not cracking each other up all the time?

JL: Well when I am tempted to crack up I just start saying the Hail Mary, internally. “Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…” I just do the Hail Mary really fast, so I can get my focus on something else.

CITA: Are you good at keeping it straight?

JL: I am pretty good at it. I will give myself that. But you know, sometimes, you just can’t help it with Kate. And also, I do … I’ll crack up right in her face sometimes. I mean, it’s that kind of show. I’m allowed.

Listen to part of Jane’s interview on our podcast, Act2.

See Jane crack up in A Swingin’ Little Christmas in the Jaeb Theater this weekend, Dec. 8 and 9.

Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

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A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.

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Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.

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The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

The Thief and His Thief-Taker General

The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”

Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.

This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.

As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.

She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.

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Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.

Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.

After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”

A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.

If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.

A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.

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A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.

Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.

By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.

Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.

Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.

Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.

Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.

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“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.

In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.

And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.

The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.

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Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.

The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.

In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”

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Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.

Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.

If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.

 

The First To Taste The World

Singers, entertainers, recording artists and twins Will and Anthony Nunziata. (Photo by Andrew Werner.)

Singers, entertainers, recording artists and twins Will and Anthony Nunziata. (Photo by Andrew Werner.)

Rarely do we get twins performing together on stage at The Straz, so it is a double (quadruple?) treat to have Will and Anthony stopping by the Jaeb this Saturday for their cabaret show. We thought we’d celebrate this rare occasion with some interesting factoids about twins from around the world. We also threw in a few interesting factoids about Will and Anthony, just for fun.

In African Yoruba mythology, twins are knows as Ibeji, sacred spirits called Orishas, that symbolize wealth, power …. and trouble. The first born is called Taiwo, “having the first taste of the world,” and the second is Kehinde, “arriving after the other.”

The Aztecs were not as generous. One twin was killed to save the life of a parent and the other was thought to possess evil powers. No bueno.

The Lillooet tribe believes bears are the parents of twins.

Some famous mythical twins include Romulus and Remus, suckled by wolves in ancient Rome, and, of course, the Weasely Brothers, of Harry Potter legend. There’s also Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Artemis and Apollo, and the Hindu Ashwini Twins, who act as Healers.

Will and Anthony Nunziata. © Stephen Sorokoff

Will and Anthony Nunziata will perform Broadway Our Way as part of our Cabaret Series on Dec 6 and hold a workshop on Dec 7. (Photo by Stephen Sorokoff.)

Will and Anthony got their start on stage playing Judas and Jesus in Godspell. Wait til the show, and they’ll tell you who was who.

Their mother told them apart by dressing one in red and one in blue.

Their first professional gig was stealing (inadvertently, of course) a Cheerios jingle from the Harlem Boys Choir.

The twins’ first major show was called “Thank God the Egg Split: A Twin Show.”

They played with Upright Citizens Brigade. They are charming. They are funny. They are good-looking.

Seems like they prove a lot of the twin mythology just may have more than a little grain of truth.

The Lioness Returns

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons’ early career began on stages around the Tampa Bay region, one of which was our Jaeb Theater. She left for New York City the week of Sept. 11, 2001, to audition for Aida, a Disney production. Her audition led to an interest in her for The Lion King, and she and her husband stayed in the city during the chaos of the September 11th crisis. That Monday, Sept. 17, Kissy was cast as Nala in The Lion King, directed by lauded Julie Taymor, and began a decade-long journey with the show on Broadway, in Las Vegas and on the first national tour, which came to Morsani Hall in 2002.

Kissy, short for Kissimmee, a town close to her birthplace of Floral City, FL, returns to the Jaeb Theater Nov. 1, 2014, for a solo show as part of our brand new Cabaret Series. In many ways, she is returning to her roots, and we are happy to welcome her home. Caught in the Act caught up with Kissy by phone in her New York City apartment to talk about identity and place and her upcoming performance in the Jaeb.

CitA: We’ve been hearing rumors that your show is going to be a retrospective/introspective look at your life from the Straz to Broadway and back again. Is this true? And will you talk a little bit about how your upbringing in Florida has shaped your life as a performer?

KS (laughs): My show centers around the Straz, how I got my start, and where life has gone. For me, it all hinges from church. I was just a church girl who wanted to play the organ. I saw our organist in church and I thought “oh my goodness, I want to play the organ!” My talent derived from that environment and was facilitated there—even acting. We did skits and had to deliver Christmas speeches. You know, you don’t think about ‘down the road’ when you’re doing it, but now I look back and see. I look at my daughter (2-year-old Sadie), and I know that experiences like that matter. It makes a difference, at least it did for me. Those are my roots. The Straz … well, that was a really big deal. I had this idea of being a performer, but I didn’t know what that meant, it felt like a fantasy. I didn’t know how I would get there. I would audition at the [Florida] theme parks and couldn’t get a job with them. Luckily, the Straz was there and I was able to do so many cabaret shows. The Straz was a blessing. I even got married there!

We didn’t know that! Do tell.

Yes, by the water. We were in rehearsals for Swing! Swing! Swing! I approached Judy [Lisi, Straz Center President] to do something small, and she was like “oh, honey…” and my little idea turned into a wedding I never could have imagined! It was run like a show with calls and everything.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center's brand new Cabaret Series.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center’s brand new Cabaret Series.

That’s fantastic. So this is a real coming home for you.

I feel no shame in where I’m from. I’m from Floral City, the town with one traffic light. I walk around New York City in my cowboy boots. That’s where I’m from—I’m a small town country girl. You are who you are. For me to come back from being away and experiencing so many cultures, Vegas, New York … it’s refreshing to come home and see how people can ground you. When I go to Winn-Dixie [the grocery store], people say hello. My high school friends who stayed now have their kids at Inverness Middle School. It’s nice to see people I have roots with rooted in their own families. There are so many people to keep me connected, and it’s important for me to come back—but it is just as important for me to give back. You realize people have been rooting for you this whole time, and it’s a two-way street. It’s an opportunity to perform for people who supported me. People give me the strength to be able to do this, and I like to give it back. I’ll always be in and out of Florida even though New York is where we are.

You are an extremely down-to-earth person, with a relatively normal life, long-time marriage, a child … how do you stay humble in the entertainment business and stay out of a lot of the traps of the lifestyle?

I met Anthony [her husband] when we were both running track at USF [the University of South Florida]. I saw him and knew that was what I wanted, and that was that! (laughs) I know entertainment is what it is. I see it as such a blessing and opportunity. I get to do what I love. All jobs are important. All of our jobs no matter what it is are so important, and I view life that way. To blow it or waste it, for me, would be tragic. I know people recover [from addictions] and overcome, which is wonderful. But I just look at it like a huge blessing that I get to participate in. I’m my own worst critic, and in this business, it’s subject to people’s opinions. It’s a judged environment, and that can be hard. I learned humility through church, and maybe if I didn’t know to pray then I would be tempted to do something external to help me out, but I can stay grounded in being grateful for the opportunity. But that’s just my perspective, just the path I have been on.

We are really looking forward to having you to all to ourselves for your cabaret show. Will you give us a little sneak peek of what we can expect?

Let’s just say … expect some familiar tunes! Especially from shows done in the Jaeb. This performance is going to be a great time. Expect lots of fun and fun moments. Stan Collins, my piano player—he’s phenomenal. I wouldn’t do this show with anyone else! It’ll be me, Stan, and bass and drums. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.