Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
I review the notes of my interview with the performer Vanessa Sears, and somehow, I’m not surprised by her success so far. Her career is in its early stage, and her star is already on the rise. On the heels of graduating from Sheridan College’s musical-theatre program, she landed the role of Nicola in the Canadian production of Kinky Boots, and she recently wrapped up Dorothy in the Young People’s Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Both were huge hits with audiences. Prior to her years at Sheridan, she undertook the vocally-demanding role of Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Now, as I write this, Ms Sears is preparing to play Lorraine in Drayton Entertainment’s All Shook Up, a musical which re-imagines William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Twelfth Night subplot . . . featuring Elvis Presley’s hits!
Despite a hectic schedule of rehearsals, costume fittings and production photography, she answers my questions with such lucidity and precision that I’m fairly certain I know her secret: she works hard. As her responses demonstrate, rather than relying solely on her considerable talent, she’s thorough in her preparation and tenacious in her desire to be the best she can. With several recognizable characters under her belt, she’s blunt in asserting that “that there is absolutely no point in trying to replicate an iconic performance. I would rather watch a truthful and unique performance over a carbon copy of someone else’s work every time.” She muses that, “when people mention ‘Over the Rainbow,’ the voice you hear singing in your head is Judy Garland’s. Trying to replicate her performance would be foolish. You’re encouraging that comparison, but more importantly, you’re limiting your ability to explore the role for yourself.”
And limiting herself is not part of Ms Sears’ make-up. When approaching a new role, she goes through the show meticulously, with a careful eye on a) what her character says about herself, and b) what other characters say about her. This approach gives her an initial outline. Then she dives back into the script to pull out as many facts as she can: age, interests, dislikes, back story. “Anything the librettist has included is there for a reason,” she insists, and she analyzes these clues to “map out her character’s journey.”
Preparing for Lorraine in All Shook Up is no different. With the opening squarely ahead of her, Ms Sears admits she’s learning a bit more about her character (“a hopeless romantic”) in every rehearsal. And she expects to discover even more while playing her. “So much of the information about the characters is in the script,” she reflects, “and you have to keep playing with the material and opening yourself up to new discoveries to unearth the information that you might take for granted during the first read.”
Once she has a good handle on the character, she takes the time to consider how she herself would react to the circumstances in the musical: “Have I ever been in this situation? If not, can I imagine what it would be like? What works best in this context? What’s the most truthful?” She also mines the show’s creative team: the costumes (designed by Adrienne Vranckaert) “tell a lot about the characters. You get to really discover how they walk, stand, and move…so many elements to explore.” Then, of course, there are the “timeless songs…so beautifully arranged for this production” by music director Steve Thomas. In particular, she credits director Lee MacDougal, who has taken time with each actor to discuss the show’s character arcs — a “rare and wonderful” opportunity that she utilized to inform her characterization.
All Shook Up is set in 1955. The racial segregation of this era adds an emotional complexity which has required both research and empathy. Ms Sears has reflected on “what it would’ve been like to live as a woman of colour during the time of segregation? How would that affect your relationships, your dreams, and goals?” Deeper themes resonate in All Shook Up: prejudice, gender identity, societal norms, and rebellion vs. conformity. Ms Sears beams when discussing the overarching theme of love: “Our show is light and fun, but at its core, it’s about the power of love and how it can light up your life and fill the world with beauty and hope.”
All Shook Up plays at the Dunfield Theatre in Cambridge for a 3-week run into summer-vacation season, which should allow plenty of time for families to experience it. It’s a highly relatable show, Ms Sears, enthuses, “because it has the power to bring people even closer together through a shared love of music.” She expects that audiences of all ages will walk away humming the show tunes and want to explore Elvis’ original renditions.”And of course,” she adds, “I hope people walk away remembering that ‘love is never impossible’.”
Based on Ms Sears’ work ethic and career to date, I walk away believing that success of any kind will never be impossible for her.
News You Can Use
What: All Shook Up, book by Joe DiPietro; choreographed by Mike Jackson; music direction by Steve Thomas; directed by Lee MacDougall
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: On stage until July 10
Where: Dunfield Theatre Cambridge, 46 Grand Avenue South, Cambridge, ON, N1S 2L8
For information and Tickets: DraytonEntertainment.com or 1-855-372-9866
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya