BWW Interview: Alysha Umphress of HOOD: THE ROBIN HOOD MUSICAL ADVENTURE at Dallas Theater Center
With the challenges of putting a brand new musical on its feet, finding a moment where actress Alysha Umphress could steal away from rehearsal for this interview was a challenge of its own. And when we did connect, it was not without technical difficulties on my end, and a coffee spilling fiasco on her end as she prepared for her long day of rehearsal. Through it all, Alysha, who has appeared on Broadway in AMERICAN IDIOT, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, BRING IT ON and ON THE TOWN (starring opposite DFW's Jay Armstrong Johnson), was upbeat, down-to-earth, excited to talk about her new big gig, and just as happy to humor me with stories from her early career.
Name: Alysha Umphress
Hometown: San Francisco (before a steady career in New York City)
Current Role: Meg in HOOD: THE ROBIN HOOD MUSICAL ADVENTURE at Dallas Theater Center
Kyle Christopher West: Since many of our readers are aspiring performers, I'd love to hear about how you first fell in love with the stage, and your experience leading up to you moving to New York City.
Alysha Umphress: Sure! My mom took me to see a children's production of OLIVER when I was five. I always sang as a small child. I could memorize and sing on pitch at a young age, and my mom was like, "That's kind of weird." After OLIVER was over, I said, "I want to do this...tomorrow." I didn't understand that it wasn't like day camp. I auditioned for the next show, which was ANNIE, and I got the coveted role of the Pretzel Seller and, like, 10th orphan to the left. Not even an orphan with a name...one of the "fake" orphans [laughs]. It sort of was no turning back from there. I started doing community theatre, children's theatre, regional theatre. I did my first professional show, I think, when I was 15. I went to the Performing Arts High School in San Francisco and then I applied to the Boston Conservatory, so I went straight from Performing Arts High School to Performing Arts College and then moved to New York, showcased and the rest is history!
Kyle: When I lived in New York, I remember hearing your amazing voice all over the city, and I think I even remember you singing at Ellen's Stardust Diner. When I saw you were making your Broadway debut in AMERICAN IDIOT in 2010, I remember thinking that was long overdue. What can you tell me about life in New York leading up to that time?
Alysha: That's a great question. I worked on-and-off at Ellen's for three years. The first year, I actually loved that job. And then I entered XL Star, which was an American Idol-type competition [at the gay bar, XL]. That was the first of it's kind; now every gay bar does it. I did that and I won, and I got a month-long engagement at XL, which is now dead (rest in peace). The gig was paid, but they gave me vocal charts of whatever songs I wanted, which was the best thing I ever got and I still have them to this day! That sort of put me on the map, and then I started performing all over at gay bars and then I was at the Laurie Beachman [Theatre], and then I got William Finn's MAKE ME A SONG off-Broadway; I was the swing in that. With all of that, I was able to quit Ellen's around 2007, and then I got the workshop of AMERICAN IDIOT in 2008.
Kyle: You've added some great roles on your resume over the past few years, with Hildy in Broadway's ON THE TOWN and Cee Cee in the musical BEACHES [the world premiere at the Signature Theatre]. Looking back, what would you say are some of your career highlights?
Alysha: Honestly, I think AMERICAN IDIOT was the best Broadway debut you could have because it was a lot of young people making their Broadway debut. It was such a cool, innovative form of storytelling. Michael [Mayer, the show's director and co-book writer] was so excited about it; the band [Green Day] was so on board with it. They were there all the time and they invited us to everything. They were just awesome. And then, ON THE TOWN was amazing. It started at Barrington Stage, and it was just this little show that was going to be a cute summer gig. When we were in the room creating the show, I remember us all looking at each other and saying, "...this is really good, right?" Then, all these people came to see it, and it was very Waiting For Guffman: "Corky, are we going to Broadway?" [laughs]. Then we did! And we went to the biggest house on Broadway - which maybe wasn't the best idea - but it was just the little show that could. And the fact that they didn't recast anyone with stars was really a triumph in a lot of ways. It was my fifth Broadway show but, in a lot of ways, it was like I was making my Broadway debut because it was my first principal role and it was so tailor made for me. It was fantastic.
Kyle: I have to say, one of my favorite credits of yours is Jake Wilson's music video YOU MUST BE JOKING.
Alysha: Oh my God! That's so funny you say that, because Ashley Park, who plays Marian in the show was saying, "You know what I love? All of the Jake Wilson videos [that] introduced me to you." We were hanging out last weekend and she played it. I hadn't watched it for so long, and I was like, "Wow, this still holds up actually!" It was really good!
Kyle: Jumping ahead to HOOD: THE ROBIN HOOD MUSICAL ADVENTURE, how has the process been, so far, creating this brand new musical with Dallas Theater Center?
Alysha: Well, Dallas Theater Center is so lovely; they treat us so well! It's been great. I think any time you work on a new musical it's always about collaboration. They've done a few incarnations of this, but nothing like a full-fledged Broadway production. I had to come [to rehearsals] a week late because I was filming a pilot. They had already learned the first act and kind of plugged me in everywhere - but things just change so much [when you're doing a new show]. I learned all of the music the first day and, when we went to stage it, they had already cut a huge number because they needed to move the plot forward and not do too much exposition. It's hard to see the forest for the trees - no pun intended - but sometimes you have to kill these really amazing moments in the show for the greater good of the storytelling. I think it's going really well! We have our first audience on Thursday, and I think the audience is really telling.
Kyle: What can you tell me about the show, and how your role fits into the story?
Alysha: My role is the only character that was written for this production; all of the other roles are from the Robin Hood folklore in some capacity. Essentially, Meg was a girl whose father worked on the Locksley Estate when she was younger, so she and Robin sort of grew up together and played together. She leaves...and a lot of my backstory sadly was cut, so you'll see none of this [laughs]...but she goes off and becomes a prostitute and she lives a rough life. When Robin's father is killed and he's run off his estate, I find him in the forest and I basically whip him into shape. You'll have to see the show, but I'm essentially the character that inspires him to be "Robin Hood."
Kyle: Well, I know you have rehearsal starting around noon, so I will let you go. Thank you so much for chatting with me this morning. I can't wait to catch the show next week!
Alysha: Oh great. I'm anxious to hear what you think. Thank you!
Performances of HOOD: THE ROBIN HOOD MUSICAL ADVENTURE begin on Thursday, June 29 and run through August 6, with press night on Friday, July 7. Tickets are available online at www.DallasTheaterCenter.org or by phone at (214) 880-0202. All performances will take place at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St.