Virginia Musical Theatre (VMT) proudly presents its brand new season with the Tony award-winning musical “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at The Sandler for the Performing Arts October 4-6.
Making his VMT debut is veteran Broadway star Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Prince Topher. Recently, Herdlicka starred on Broadway in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” working with Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury.
A veteran of VMT for 21 years, Emmy-nominated actress Kera O’Bryon plays Marie, Ella’s Fairy Godmother. And award-winning Director Pierre Brault will direct the production.
Equally exciting is that Cinderella is played by Norfolk’s own Amelia Dobbs, a Governor’s School for the Arts alumnae, who recently received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre from Coastal Carolina University where she performed in “Legally Blonde The Musical” and “A New Brain” and had just moved to New York when she found out that she got the part.
Yiorgo: How exciting this must be for you to be performing such an iconic part in your hometown.
Amelia Dobbs: I’m so excited I get to play this role and so many people that I love get to see it. This production is exactly the same book and music that was on Broadway in 2013. People thought it was a revival, but the other versions were made for TV. Each time it has been slightly changed, from the dialogue to new songs to character changes. It was kind of like flour that was sifted through all these different sifters and the Broadway version was born. The book is very updated. It’s funny and they use a lot of modern language. It is so magical and lovely and you can bring everyone. It’s for the whole family. This particular production is special because we have such a blended cast. We have people that are local, from New York, from Governor’s School, some union and non-union people. I hope especially the character of Ella will prompt conversation because in this version there is a lot about women and gender politics as well as those who are and are not in power. It’s all on stage and it’s wrapped up in a beautiful bow with singing and dancing and gorgeous dresses. It is still relevant, so come out and enjoy the magic that is theater.
Y: How did the opportunity come up to play Cinderella and how do you even attack such an iconic role?
AD: I auditioned the day before I left for New York, I get up there, and the next day I get a phone call that I got the part and came right back. As far as playing Ella, I was very lucky to have seen the 2013 production on Broadway, where they reworked the script, added other numbers from the made for TV Rodgers and Hammerstein's version. I fell in love with it. I was 16 when I saw it. It is so grand. I certainly had sung some of these songs before because some of the songs are cut numbers from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows like South Pacific. It’s so fun to play Ella because she loves life even though she has lost both of her parents. It’s a beautiful ballad of light and dark. I feel a lot of responsibility to get it right because there will be a lot of little girls sitting in the audience who love Cinderella but may not know this version. How do I inspire them to be this version of Ella and not the Disney version?
Y: Tell us about yourself, you were born here in Norfolk, what schools did you attend and why did decide to go into musical theater for a career?
AD: I was born in Norfolk and I attended Larchmont Elementary, Blair Middle School and Maury High School. I decided to go into musical theater because I loved the Hurrah Players so much. When I got into Governor’s School, I was doing a workshop for the casting director there and he was talking to me about roles I could play. That’s when I realized that I did not have to be a chemistry major, that I wanted to do musical theater. So I was a sophomore in high school and decided that I was going to audition for colleges. I went to Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina for their bachelor’s theatre program.
Y: How were you first introduced to Hurrah and what are some of your favorite memories there?
AD: I told my mother I wanted to take a tap dancing class because I loved the movie “Singing in the Rain” so much. I took Mrs. Coe’s tap class for a long time. I was eight years old and I loved it so much. I remember being at Larchmont Elementary getting in trouble because I kept tap dancing under the table. Then I started to take the musical theater classes with Hugh Copeland and I was like I have to audition for these shows.
Y: Talk about Hugh Copeland and some of your favorite memories.
AD: Hurrah Players is a huge family and they all support each other. I have so many wonderful memories from being in dance and tech rehearsals with Hugh. I credit a lot of what I know about theatre to Hugh Copeland. I remember him saying, “When you are on stage you are always on. You need to be present, looking at everyone on the stage and be a part of that community.” That has really stayed with me.
Y: What were some of the productions you were in at the Hurrah Players?
AD: I did “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” I had the most lovely director, Aliki Pantas Semones. That was kind of a tradition for me because I was doing Holidays in Virginia Musical Review and Ali came to my acting class and said, “Hey, you need to audition for this play.” I was like, ok, but I had not done a play before. Well, I totally loved doing that. I was sad that I had to stop doing that play when I went to Governor’s School. At Hurrah I also did “Tom Sawyer” when I was 13 and I was very excited because I had my first leading role and I got to kiss a boy. I did a lot of the Disney stuff with them, “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Y: When did you start attending Governor’s school and what are some favorite memories there?
AD: I started when I was 14 in the ninth grade. I was nervous. It was very focused and I had to learn a whole new skill set, taking eight hours of dance classes. I learned about etiquette and working with equity people who did workshops at Virginia Musical Theatre, I learned a lot about theater outside of Norfolk. I started to expand my scope and realizing what it could be like to live in New York and travel to different places and get to do these magical shows.
Y: What was that leap of faith like when you decided I'm moving to NY to pursue my career and dreams?
AD: I decided to move to New York after my Showcase in college because I did not know what city I wanted to live in. My Showcase went really well. I was like God give me a sign and ended up signing with an agency and I was like, great, that is all I need.
Y: What is a Showcase?
AD: A Showcase is a selection process where they see a very small snippet of your work and then you go in to talk to different agents and then it’s about personality, how you gel and communicate well. Do you want the same thing for your career that this agent wants for your career? I found someone who I really clicked with, but I did not want to sign with anyone right away so I went back to South Carolina and he emailed me because he had gotten me an appointment with the National Tour of Bandstand. I was so impressed that he did that and he was not even my agent. I went up, did the audition and then I signed with that agent.
The whole summer I was in Hilton Head doing “Legally Blonde The Musical” I was nervous about the move, but some of the girls in the play talked to me for hours, giving me all kinds of advice from budget to what to pack and helped me to find an apartment. It reminded me of the Hurrah Players of everyone helping each other. I moved to New York, I was there for three weeks and I turned around, and came back to do Cinderella.
Y: What was the turning point in your life when you knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?
AD: I was in my audition for the Boston Conservatory, I’m 18 and auditioning for programs, they are looking at my resume and they say, “Oh, you played Tinker Bell.” I said, “Yes, that role is really significant for me because it was the first time I was in a professional show where I was only dancing and it really affirmed for me that I could be in a really high level production for dance and I loved it so much, I knew I was on track to be this person.” I got into the Boston Conservatory, but I chose to go to a small school in South Carolina, and it worked out pretty well.
Y: A wow moment?
AD: There have been a couple of them. One was when I spent a semester in Italy doing a physical theater program of acrobatics and clowning. It was very eastern European style theater. They took us to Slovenia to see a theater dance piece. It was not like anything else I had ever seen. I was like oh my gosh, little Amelia in Mrs. Coe’s tap class could never imagine that she would be part of a school program that would take her to these countries and let her experience this theater that I never dreamed as a college student. It was so inspiring. Now I have this dream that I want to get a grant and get some money and go back over there and be a part of creating the art over there.
Something happened yesterday at rehearsal and I’m dying to tell you that. I was working on a scene with the prince and in the room with us was Allan our music director, our director Peiere and Hunter who plays the prince. Hunter is so marvelous, he has been on Broadway. He is older than me and the minute we found out we were cast, he was like let’s get coffee, let’s talk. I’m really happy, I feel like I have gained a great friend. So we are working on this piece singing ‘Do I love you because you’re beautiful’ and there is some dialogue leading up to it, and Hunter looked at the page, looked at the director and looked at me, and said, “You know what, it’s kind of confusing to me because Prince Tofer, this leading man character, I do not have my own ideas, I only get them from Ella, and even though I have all the tools in front of me to be a good king, I still need guidance and I haven't really changed that much from the beginning of the show to the end. He was joking and I said, “Welcome to the female lead.” He looked at me with a puzzled look and I said, “Of course you are not use to it because you play leading men. In this version of Cinderella they really fleshed her out. She has her own motivations for sayings and you see her grow and overcome those obstacles. She is smart and kind. And that is pretty atypical especially in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. I think they totally flipped it around and I don’t know if it was on purpose, but I kinda like it.” I felt immensely privileged to play this girl who is so smart and has her own things that she wants.
Yiorgo is a Hampton Roads arts, entertainment and sports writer. A stage, TV and movie actor, he is also an educator, motivational speaker, writer, storyteller and columnist.