PHOTO: The original Dreamettes group in the story was made up of (from left): Mary Patton as Deena Jones, Nattalyee Randall as Effie Melody White, and Lexi Rhoades as Lorrell Robinson. Photo by Patrick Weishampel
Portland Center Stage will open its season Friday, Sept. 26, with Dreamgirls, directed by Chris Coleman. Judging by the dynamic performances on view at a recent rehearsal, Dreamgirls will be one of the most vibrant and enjoyable productions in recent memory. Loosely based on the story of The Supremes, Dreamgirls tells the story of the Dreamettes, featuring music with a Motown sound along with beautiful costumes and dancing that will transport theatergoers back in time to the 1960s.
Starring in the show as the original Dreamettes are: Nattalyee Randall as Effie Melody White, Mary Patton as Deena Jones, and Lexi Rhoades as Lorrell Robinson. Antoinette Comer plays Michelle Morris, the singer who joins the vocal group after they’ve reached stardom as The Dreams.
Helen Silvis talked to Nattalyee Randall about her career and the show. A classically trained singer Randall was named Broadway’s Next Big Star by Ken Davenport on BroadwaySpace.com.
Helen Silvis: Where did you grow up?
Nattalyee Randall: I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, about three hours outside of Chicago. It’s a town of about 200,000. It’s the Land of Lincoln. I love Abraham Lincoln, so I let everybody know that he grew up there.
HS: You studied music and English Education at University, so did you study music as a child?
NR: My parents are both pastors so I grew up in the church singing and I got involved with musical theater- community theater when I was in 6th grade. That was when I did my first show. It was Annie, and I was an orphan, and it’s still actually one of my favorite musicals to this day, as clichéd as that is. I just remember being on stage, because we have a really big community theater in my hometown. It seats nearly 2000 people; it’s really big. It’s an opera theater and just being on that stage and performing for everybody was definitely life-changing to the point where I wanted to continue doing it as an adult.
HS: Did you see yourself becoming a performer from quite young?
NR: Yes, actually I was talking about this the other day. When I was growing up I was thinking about being an entertainment lawyer. I played the flute growing up. And when I was younger you had to choose between choir and band so I always chose band. Finally they changed it so you could do both. I joined the choir in 8th Grade, and thought, ‘This is pretty fun’. When it came to my senior year, I had to choose either vocal performance or flute. I’m very grateful now that I chose vocal performance. But yes, I almost became a band teacher.
HS: How did you make that transition from being at school to becoming a professional?
NR: I went to school on and off and during that time I would do regional work, every summer. So I also would occasionally work at community theaters in my hometown, but we would usually do regional work in the surrounding areas. And I actually worked in Montana in a theater. So I said after I graduated college, no matter what, I would move to New York to continue on in the profession. I graduated two years ago and now I’ve moved to New York to see what happens.
HS: You have played a lot of interesting roles. You’ve been Church Lady Jarene in The Color Purple, and Motormouth in John Waters Hairspray. What have you enjoyed most?
NR: My favorite role probably would be Church Lady Jarene in The Color Purple. I did the New York regional premiere at Equity House in White Plains, about an hour outside of New York. That’s always been one of my favorite shows and La Chanze who played Celie (on Broadway) is one of my favorite theater actors. So I’ve grown up with her and she actually ended up coming to my show.
Honestly that was one of the best moments of my life, having her watch me perform and then afterward coming out and talking to her. I introduced myself and said, ‘I played Church Lady Jarene.’ And she said, ‘ I know which one you played.' She probably doesn’t know this, but it was just one of the most humbling experiences knowing that someone I’ve grown up admiring would have the time and care to come and see our show. It really let me know that the Broadway community and the theater community are really close knit and tight. It just drives me more to want to succeed in this profession.
HS: Did you know any of the actors you are working with in Dreamgirls?
NR: Actually I knew none of them before I came here. The theater community is big but at the same time it’s small so I had heard of a couple of people. Once I met Lexi I realized she was in an off Broadway show that I’ve seen. And the girl playing Deena, Mary Patton, I’d heard of her because she was in the Dreamgirls tour. And Terry Lavell who is in the ensemble; I freelance with a couple of agents and he works with somebody I work with. So it’s all connecting.Just being in the theater community and hearing of people, and seeing videos, I knew of a couple of people.
HS: You’re too young to remember Diana Ross and The Supremes in the 1960s. So how did you first learn about them?
NR: I don’t actually remember them, but I’ve grown up on Motown. My parents and my grandparents played Motown music for me. So I’ve always known of The Supremes. The first time I did Dreamgirls in 2006, was when I dug deep into the whole dynamic of The Supremes and what happened with Florence Ballard. That was very eye-opening.
That was the first time I really looked into The Supremes and listened to all their music, and learned about all the Motown history. I’ve always loved The Supremes. They are a legendary group. They’re icons, they really are.
HS: Your role Effie is loosely based on Florence Ballard. But her story is very different. How do you see that?
NR: I am so happy that this show was made because Effie White is kind of like Florence Ballard. Unfortunately, Florence Ballard died at the age of 32. I don’t know all her circumstances. But I learned she was kicked out of the group, and heard she was an alcoholic. She tried to do other work but it didn’t go the way she wanted it to, and her life was cut so short.
One thing I love about this show is that things don’t go Effie’s way in the beginning but…. I don’t want to ruin the story, but Effie gets down and out just like Florence Ballard did, and Effie could have let circumstances take her down completely, but she does not let circumstance get her down. She reconnects with some people and she comes back. And she comes back stronger than she was in the beginning.
I don’t think Effie needed to be in the front in the beginning because I don’t think she was ready to handle it at that time. She just needed to take a seat back and just let things happen until her time came. And I think that’s true for everybody. If I had become famous at 18 I don’t think I could have handled it, but now at 26, with all the roles I’ve been given and all the opportunities: I definitely think I have a way better handle on it than I would have had eight or 10 years ago.
HS: Is there a role you want to play sometime?
NR: I’m one of those lucky actresses who can say I’ve played a lot of my dream roles. I’ve always wanted to play Sarah in Ragtime; that’s one of my dream roles. I’ve played Sarah’s friend which is an awesome role too but I’ve always wanted play Sarah.
HS: The show contains a lot of dance routines. Is that fun for you?
NR: In the first act the Dreamettes, we just go boom boom boom, from dance to dance to dance and choreographer Kent Zimmerman is amazing. He breaks down every step for us. He’s so helpful with everything. Back in that time period they did a lot of movement and they did a lot more live than we do today. They were moving and singing and putting on a full show. So we move a lot. I love it. I would say I am a good mover, so it’s pretty easy. The other two girls are great dancers too and in the second act they get to do way more dancing than I have to do. And I can sit back and take a break.
HS: How do you like Portland?
NR: Portland is beautiful. I’m from the Midwest so I don’t get to see mountains very often. And moving to New York—I live in Harlem—I still don’t get to see mountains. So being on the West coast there is no humidity, mountains everywhere, and I get to go at a slow pace. It is beautiful. In New York you are going to be sweating and you don’t want to walk outside; here at 88 degrees it feels amazing. I love sitting outside and being in the sun here.
HS: Do you get time to do that?
NR: We do rehearse a lot but our cast is really close knit and during lunch break we might all go get lunch together and sit outside. Or during breaks we come out for fresh air.
HS: What inspires you and keeps you going through life?
NR: I think what inspires me the most are my parents and my grandmother. And then music. The reason I originally became a music teacher is because my music teacher Mrs. Powell, she inspired me to continue on in music. So I feel that in musical theater, if I can inspire one person to continue to follow their dreams, I’ve done my job on earth. I feel like I have done what I am supposed to do.
HS: What are you listening to right now?
NR: Just so as I can get in the spirit and the mood I’m listening to a lot of Motown, right now. I have Motown on my Pandora. And I listen to a lot of Beyonce, because I work out every day to help with my core and my strength and stamina for singing. It’s motivational and it keeps me wanting to move on the treadmill.
Book your tickets for Dreamgirls at the Gerding Theater at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave., Portland 503-445-3700 or online at www.pcs.org/dreamgirls/