Thursday, February 19, 2015

A conversation with DREAMGIRLS star Chanel Bragg and director Damon J. Boling...

Chanel Bragg
(Photo: Tiffany Bollock)
by Gil Benbrook

The hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls is back in Phoenix in a dazzling production at Desert Foothills Theater in North Scottsdale through March 1st. The six time Tony winning show follows the backstage story of the R&B group the “Dreams” and includes such showstoppers as “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going,” “I Am Changing,” “One Night Only” and the title song.  The show hasn’t been produced in the Valley in almost ten years and we asked Chanel Bragg who stars as “Effie White” and director Damon J. Bolling to answer some questions to get their thoughts on the important messages of the show, their history with it and why they think the musical is rarely produced.

First up, our questions with ariZoni winning actress Chanel Bragg who has appeared in numerous productions across the Valley.  Just in the past year Bragg appeared in the ensembles of both Memphis at Phoenix Theatre and Hairspray at Arizona Broadway Theatre as well as in the sweet, touching and moving play Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle at Childsplay.

Any concerns in taking on such an iconic role so identified with Tony winner Jennifer Holliday and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson?

Chanel Bragg - "It is an incredibly daunting role. Holliday along with Hudson, set a standard that cannot be matched. I decided that in order for me not to feel intimidated, it would be wise for me to rely on my strengths as an actor and take on my own interpretation. My only want is to be truthful in this role. I am appreciative to Damon and Desert Foothills Theater for this challenge."

Have you ever played the part before?

Bragg - "I have not, nor have I ever thought I'd be given the opportunity here in Arizona. I applaud Desert Foothills for having the courage to pursue a show with a cast of all minorities. Lack of diversity in show selection in Arizona does not provide much option for local black talent as most of the roles that could feature us are farmed out to out of state ethnic actors."

Effie is the emotional anchor of the plot of the show, and has a lot of bad things happen to her. How do you prepare for a character that has such negativity thrown at her?

Bragg - "I feel it is important to humanize her struggle. She deals with all the same things we do from day to day! This includes: insecurity, poor self esteem, jealousy, struggling economically, and being a single parent. Although fictitious, she is a real person. In my personal life, I have experienced great struggle. It is easy to parallel the feelings I have dealt with in my own life to bring a higher level of verisimilitude and coping to the character."

Any other type of research you did for the part?

Bragg - "Our amazing Director provided notes on the show to help us understand what state the nation was in at that time, as well as the woes of the music industry. I also created elaborate story lines of how our character relationships intertwined with one another especially concerning the three girls.  It is rumored that Effie is based on the life of Florence Ballard, the original leader of the Supremes. Her story is so heart breaking that it makes it that much sweeter that this musical ends with Effie on top, whereas in real life Florence passed away from depression and a drinking problem."

Osiris Cuen, Carlos A. Lara and Chanel Bragg in
Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle- Childsplay 2014
(Photo: Tim Trumbule)
I’m assuming you’re not at all like Effie in the way she is a bit of a “diva” - with her take charge mentality, her stubbornness and how she is a bit aggressive – so what do you draw upon to bring out those characteristics?  

Bragg - "Some could argue on the Diva thing.- Kidding!  I take my craft seriously and those  who have worked with me know, I am not afraid to stand up for my choices. I am the eldest child, and the only girl born to my parents. I am a natural leader, and I am sure my brothers think I'm pretty bossy. I think the opportunity to play super sassy pants is every girls dream. I am most opposite from the character of Effie in the "I am telling you" number. I don't think I could possibly be that pitiful over losing a man!"

What was the rehearsal process like?
Bragg - "We were blessed to have had the music as early as November. I didn't realize this show was quite the operetta. Ample time was given to learning the music which was needed. Damon did an amazing job making sure we  talked through our fights to make sure the singing of our dialogue did not take away from the intention of our words. We also carefully mapped out our rehearsal space which made the transition to our performance space easier to adapt to."

Have you ever worked with Damon before?

Bragg - "Only alongside him  as Joanne to his Collins in a production of Rent. I was also very fortunate to see him originate the role of Curtis when he did Dreamgirls with Black Theatre Troupe."

Any concerns in that this is his musical directorial debut? 

Bragg - "None that I can think of. We're friends, so you always wonder how blurred the line can become in regard to friend vs. Director. I think that Damon did an amazing job as a first time director. His instinct is spot on, and he asks the questions that should be asked to ensure that a scene is playing out as it should. He is very encouraging to his cast and inspirational."

Chanel Bragg, Krystal Pope and Jacqueline Rushing
(photo: Tiffany Bollock)
Your relationship with Krystal, Ebony and Jacqueline who play the other members of the Dreams is so realistic. Did you know or work with any of them before this production? 

Bragg - "Yes, I know and have worked with all three of them.  Krystal and I did Blues in the Night together at Black Theatre Troupe. She also is a principle member in my own independent performance troupe," The Soul of Broadway" co-founded by myself and my brother Mitchell Vantrease and I love her dearly. I had the pleasure of working with Ebony on a Christmas show with the Black Theatre Troupe back in 2013. I actually informed her of the Dreamgirls auditions the following Fall, and I was ecstatic when she landed the role of Michelle! She really has an amazing voice!  Jacqueline and I both participated in the local premiere of Hairspray with Phoenix Theatre, and we have been inseparable ever since. She has also performed in "The Soul of Broadway." She is a perfect Laurel!"

What is your favorite moment in the show? 

Bragg -"A close tie to when Effie reconciles with her Brother C.C. and when she reconciles with Deena. I feel the composers nailed it in those spots. The music is so moving paired with the lyrics. Plus it makes my whole life to sing with such talented friends such as Matravius and Krystal."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

Bragg - "Not to sound cliche, but to never give up. Be your own champion. I believe it is a lesson in humility, and understanding that when it is your time to shine, you will gloriously! It is so important to operate in love and kindness, and to remember the true concept of family."

Valley actor Damon Bolling is making his musical theatre directing debut with this production. He has been a fan of Dreamgirls for thirty years, having studied the photos in the cast album religiously as well as being rewarded with tickets to the 1986 national tour that came through Phoenix by earning straight A's in school that year.  He played Curtis in the Black Theatre Troupe production of the show in 2006 and in the past year starred in The Full Monty at Mesa Encore Theatre as well as in Stray Cat's The Brothers Size.

Damon J. Bolling and Michael Thompson in
The Brothers Size - Stray Cat Theatre 2014
(Photo: John Groseclose)
Since this is your first time directing a musical, what experiences did you draw upon? 

Boling - "I am a musical theatre actor, and I have performed on Broadway, so I knew that eventually this would always be my path having experienced some amazing directors in my career and their influence on me.  I have always had a vivid imagination and I have always felt I had a natural ability to communicate well. I have a practical sense of reality  also,  and I naturally combined those traits to be as effective as possible.  I hope it worked out!"

From your notes in the program I know you’ve been a fan of this show for 30 years, and since you’re such a fan, what were your biggest concerns with directing a production of it?

Boling - "Truthfully, I wasn’t concerned at all.  I knew this was going to be exciting and challenging, and most of all: fun.  I was very confident in driving this particular boat.  I would never have picked a show for my first time that I couldn't sing in my sleep and have imagined a million ways."

What was the audition process like and did you already have any of the parts cast beforehand?

Boling ; "The initial auditions, I could have cast the show twice over. People came out of the woodwork! Unfortunately, as the schedule drear nearer, we had people who were not familiar with the commitment it takes to mount such an epic piece, and did not continue on with us, nor had they had any theatre experience.  I will say this though, that everyone in the show now, are exactly the right people who were supposed to be in the show. I had an idea, generally speaking, of which actors in town were definitely needed to pull this off- but I didn't know which way it would go until auditions, and ultimately call-backs."

Since the show has now opened, is there anything you now wish you could or should have done differently? 

Boling - "Not really, maybe in rehearsal we would have adhered to the thrust of the stage a little better,   we were given the challenge of working in an intimate space, and we are not the first theatre company to do so. We made minor adjustments after the first performance with some spacing issues that the thrust stage requires.  If I had a million dollars though…?!"

Boling in The Full Monty- Mesa Encore Theatre - 2014
Julian Peña, Michael Leeth, Damon J. Bolling, Barbara McBain,
Andrew Lipman, Jonathan Holdsworth, Chad Campbell and Aaron Zweiback
(photo: Wade Moran) 
Why did you decide to forego a large set?

Boling - "Well, the original production’s set design was sparse as well.  Lit scaffolding and transparent tables… Granted the scaffolding in the original production was 50 feet tall…we don’t even have that kind of space.  It would have looked really weird. I just decided to bring 2015 technology into the concept of using animated projections to enhance the story.  The main reason I didn’t want a large set, was this isn’t a show about a large set.  There’s a story here, and it needs to be told, not watched."

Your direction and Lynzee 4man’s choreography was so seamless, have you ever worked with her before?

Boling - "Lynzee and I have been friends for about 9 years now? And we have done 2 productions together on stage - Rent and Blood Brothers."

In your bio you mention that you were in the AZ premiere of the show in 2006.  What part did you play and why do you think it took 25 years for the musical to premiere in AZ?

Boling - "I played Curtis Taylor Jr. in the 2006 Black Theatre Troupe’s production at the Herberger Theatre. It took 25 years to produce that musical for several reasons.  If I’m not mistaken, I believe was there was some litigation with the Michael Bennet estate and licensing, so rights to produce the show were very difficult to optain, if not really expensive.  The year the movie came out, Dreamworks launched a brilliant marketing campaign that stipulated that if any community theatre produced the show within the 2006 calendar year: they would cover the cost for the rights by Tams Witmark."

Why do you think this show, with such a great story and score, isn’t produced so often?

Boling - "As far as I can tell, this is the second time Dreamgirls was produced here.  There have been 2 tours, one in 1986 and the most recent in 2013.  This is the first cast that is all local talent. When I did the show at the Black Theatre Troupe, five of the principals were from out of town. Here’s the deal: We live in Phoenix, Arizona and the number of local actors of color who are in musical theatre that can act, sing, AND dance is few and far between, I know because we are all friends!  Sadly, this is why most theatre company’s hire out of town, because they are going to get actors who by trade support themselves doing this and can spend all day perfecting their craft.  We have to go to work at a job to pay our bills, then go to rehearsal, and by doing that other theatre companies are getting a “consistent” product.  I’m always a fan of supporting local, though- so that wasn’t even an option for me, I would rather spend the time with an actor and get the best I can out of them and enjoy the process of watching an artist grow and get better and better every day.  It is as 'epic' as Les Miserables.  You have to have 8 dynamic principals, and an ensemble of equal caliber."

Krystal Pope. Matravius Avent, Mason Reeves, Miguel Jackson, DeJean Brown,
Chanel Bragg, Jacqueline Rushing and Ivan Thompson
(photo: Tiffany Bollock)
What is your favorite moment in the show?

Boling - "Wow, that’s a Sophie’s Choice decision!  I have to pick two:  One is when the “memory” of Effie appears in the opening of Act II during the Dreams’ Number singing “I Will Always Be There!” reminding us, the audience, that Effie White was and always will be a "Dream."  It has never been scripted that way, but it was a neat discovery to make seeing that having Effie there made the most sense (in the score it is listed as 'Gospel solo')  I thought, we can take this to the next level, give it to Effie, and make it a commentary.  The second, is the reconciliation between Deena and Effie- It’s such a beautiful moment, and the music is gorgeous."

What do you think the most important message of the show is?

Boling - "The importance of family and friendships during the sudden rise of fame.  At what cost is the price of stardom for some people?"

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