NEW YORK, NY – Springfield native Laiona Michelle knows she has a long day ahead. The actress and singer is in technical rehearsals – a 12 hour day – for the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace,” which opens on July 16 at the Nederlander Theatre.
The technical rehearsals works through issues with lighting and sound, Michelle explained.
“It’s a lot of stops and go” as they progress through the play she said. “I’m very excited. I’m thrilled to make my Broadway debut,” Michelle told Reminder Publications in a telephone interview.
The show tells the story of how the beloved song was written, and for Michelle it has been a journey of six years to Broadway. She joined the project when it was just a reading and her part has grown.
Set in the late 18th century during the slave trade, the play tells the story of John Newton, who had a religious conversion. Michelle plays Nanna, a woman taken from her home in Sierra Leone and brought to England as a slave to serve in the home of Mary Catlett, an early abolitionist and the central figure in this story, Newton’s love interest.
She said her part was originally very small, but through rewrites had grown and is now one of the main characters. She based her performance of Nanna on her grandmother who had been a maid most of her life, “but had so much dignity.”
While perhaps not always historically accurate, the play keeps with the theme of the real events of love and redemption, Michelle said.
The play made its debut in Chicago, IL, last year, and Michelle said the Chicago audiences gave the cast and crew “so much information” that was incorporated into changes for the New York production.
Michelle is a graduate of Cathedral High School whose life was never the same after she saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Romero and Juliet” at the age of 12. The eloquences of the play’s language “shocked” her.
“I didn’t know we could talk like that,” she recalled. She started to read Shakespeare and “realized I had a hunger for performance.”
She wrote in a journal at the time that she wanted to do important work on Broadway.
After graduation, she attended Alabama State University and then Brandeis University for a masters in Fine Arts.
She has since worked in regional theater and on television and garnered a number of awards and nominations for her work including the NAACP Hollywood Award and the Barrymore and Carbonell Award.
In 2007, she starred as jazz vocalist Dinah Washington in the off-Broadway production of “Dinah Was,” a play based on the life of the singer that received great reviews. Carl A. Rossi in The Theater Mirror wrote, “Now Ms. Michelle strides on to the Merrimack stage, a white fur coat as her armor, and immediately breaks down all barriers between role and audience, with her fierce, funny and superbly sung Dinah ... Ms. Washington might envy the rich soaring pipes with which Ms. Michelle has been blessed.”
More recently she has been part of the ensemble cast of the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon.” She explained the repetition of a performance can “weigh on you” but the supporting players must give their all to help the lead performers to “serve it up fresh.”
She added, “It can be a train wreck when you don’t.”
Although she has had roles on “Law & Order” and is in the new television film “Sneaky Pete,” theater is her preferred means of performing.
“There is nothing like it,” she said. “Theater has a way of striking you to your core.”
She has also given back to her hometown by being involved with the D.R.E.A.M. Studio in Springfield by establishing a program to introduce young people to Shakespeare and performing.
She said that as she looks up in the historic Nederlander Theater, her eyes go up to the upper balconies where decades ago servants were seated as they waited for their employers who watched performances from the choice seats below. It is a historic connection that is not lost on her.
“This is really what I’ve prayed for,” she said.