I’m sorry that when Ashanti was growing up, she didn’t get to take classes with Jeremy Quinn.
Ashanti, God love her, is trying to be a good Dorothy in The Wiz at Encores! Summer Stars Series. She’s really doing her best. True, if you saw this performance from a seasoned pro, you’d say she was phoning it in, but that isn’t what the Grammy-winner is doing. Ashanti is concentrating hard on what she must say and do next throughout the two-plus hours show. But that’s part of the problem: She looks as if she’s only intent on getting to her next line or song. She simply isn’t prepared for all that Dorothy Gale must do.
In “Be a Lion,” poor James Monroe Iglehart's Lion reacts with great emotion, as if Ashanti’s Dorothy has really taught him something, but he’s reacting to far more than she’s giving him. At the end of the song, when they’re standing next to each other, note the difference in how Iglehart holds out his left arm with great enthusiasm and style – while Ashanti positions her right arm out in the most perfunctory way.
“Everybody Rejoice” starts out brightly with everyone’s singing exuberantly, but when Ashanti takes over, she sings with the excitement of a student telling her high school teacher that cosine zero equals one. When everyone is joyously singing “Can you feel a brand new day?” Ashanti shows that she can’t, in fact, feel it at all. When the Wiz balloons out of Oz without her, Ashanti says, “Oh, I’ll never get home” with the same intensity that another person would say, “Oh, I forgot to get baking soda while I was at the store.”
She should have gone to an acting school, that seems clear – and that’s where Jeremy Quinn comes in. He’s the Director of Education at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. Even in the late ‘80s, when Quinn was matriculating at the University of Miami, he was teaching educational theater. Quinn continued after he was graduated, teaching by day and performing at night.
When he moved to New York, Quinn started work with New York Youth Theatre, and soon he was working in educational theater at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Theatre in Nyack and Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. At the latter, Quinn directed Jennifer Damiano in The Who's Tommy and had cast her in Footloose when she got Spring Awakening on Broadway. “She was so apologetic that she was leaving Footloose,” Quinn recalls with a smile, “while I was saying, ‘Enjoy yourself! You’ve got a Broadway show!’”
Damiano isn’t the only Quinn alumnus in Next to Normal; Tim Young is an understudy there, too. Add to those Quinn’s kids in Dracula, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and 13, and you can see why Ashanti would have profited from knowing Quinn while she was growing up in Glen Cove.
“Every five minutes there’s a youth company cropping up,” says Quinn, who isn’t above admitting, “Kids on a stage equals money. Between the kids who want to do musicals and the parents who like them doing it, it often works out well. For many companies, it’s just about putting on the show: Come in, learn the notes, learn the steps, let's slap a costume on you, here’s your set – go! There’s no training going on, at least no accurate technique-based training. At White Plains, we give them acting training, dance training, and vocal training. So, for the kids who want more, we provide a more sophisticated outlet.”
One of Ashanti’s biggest flaws in The Wiz is one that Quinn sees quite a bit. She makes sure she gets every melisma (“Ho-oh-oh-ome-mm”) and has a “Here’s where I hold the note” look – but can do little else with the lines and lyrics. Says Quinn, “I get kids who can sing like crazy, and they and their parents believe they’re all set, that’s all they’ll ever need. And I tell these kids, ‘You sing pretty. That’s nice. Now -- what are you talking about? What are you saying? Why are you singing this song?’ That’s missing in the Broadway community, too. People riff, and they don’t care about illuminating what’s on the page. That may even be why some people have issues with musicals. They say, ‘All of a sudden they start singing and I don’t care.’ That’s because the performers didn’t invest them in the story.”
As Ashanti can’t. She even has problems with the way that she walks across the stage; it suggests she’s never been on one before. Quinn nods in understanding. “I block organically,” he says. “I have the kids first read through at the table, where they decide who their characters are. I ask everything from ‘Who is your character?’ to ‘What do you think he’d wear?’ Once they get their characters, that's when I want them to move. I want to see what movement works for them, build on it, and perhaps tweak it.”
Such a process encourages ingenuity. “So many kids are rarely empowered to bring something to the table. They much more need the trust and the responsibility to create than to be spoon-fed. Kids are provided for by their parents and nurtured by their teachers with the tools they need for success in life. But NO one is entrusting them with the responsibility in front of 400 people to bring something of themselves to the show. I don’t treat them as kids, but as adults, even if they’re 10-year-olds. By giving them a voice in what happens, they feel honored and respected.”
In The Wiz, when LaChanze sings “Believe in Yourself,” Dawnn Lewis (The Good Witch of the North) and Ashanti stand next to each other. Watch the difference between them. Lewis has genuine excitement all over her face, while Ashanti has a glassy smile on hers. Indeed, Ashanti spends a good deal of stage time displaying that same glassy smile. One size fits all, no matter what the situation. True, Dorothy s confused at being a stranger in a strange land, but Ashanti’s look reveals a performer who doesn’t know how else to react. She’s learned the part by rote, and doesn’t feel it.
“That reminds me of something else,” says Quinn. “One of our girls was in a student production of Les Miz somewhere else, playing a prostitute in the ensemble. The director told her, ‘Stand downstage right and smile.’ A moment later, our girl raised her hand and said, ‘There’s a lot of fighting going on here in France; I’m hungry, I’m tired, and I’m selling myself – so why am I smiling?’ And when this story was reported back to me, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely one of our kids.’”
En route, Quinn stresses acting – which Ashanti could use. After she’s told she’s killed the Wicked Witch of the East, she says “Oh, no” with the same level of distress as a female theatergoer who sees how long the queue is for the ladies’ room.
Quinn says, “I’ll tell a kid, ‘I don’t believe a word you’re saying right now, and you don’t, either. So let’s start over, talk about your character again, and put you in the situation he’s in. I give ten-year olds conservatory-like training, because they understand it. They get it! I tell them that if they’re really in character, any choice they make will be the right choice.”
Had Ashanti been part of Quinn’s program, she would have had ample opportunity to play all kinds of roles. “I always cast the underdog, and I’ll even change gender if the situation warrants. When I did Big, I didn’t have the right guy to play the CEO, but I had a great African-American girl, and I knew she could fit the role beautifully. I do non-traditional casting all the time, and open the floodgates to ethnically diverse, completely color-blind casting across the boards. No parent or audience member has ever railed against it, maybe because the results are so good. I love hearing from parents, ‘I can’t believe they’re just kids,’ though I’ll often answer them by saying, ‘In a way, they’re not.’”
Finally, Ashanti would have been challenged by Quinn, who chooses atypical musicals. “Look,” he says. “I know that high schools do a certain type of show, so I often select ones they’re not going to do. I mean, in school, they can do Bye Bye Birdie without its costing them a penny, while here we work on a tuition basis – so why do Birdie here? Oh, I’ll admit I’m having the sophomore and junior company do Thoroughly Modern Millie (June 29-July 18), but they’re also doing Starmites (July 20-August 8), while the senior company is doing Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party (June 29-August 15).”
Too bad that Ashanti is now too old for the program (and, by the way, too old for Dorothy Gale as well).
Peter Filichia's Diary is written and edited by Peter Filichia, and updated every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. TheaterMania.com acts solely as host and as such shall not be deemed to endorse, recommend, approve and/or guarantee any events, facts, views, advice and/or information contained therein.