BWW Interview: Giving Back Some of the Magic: Felicia P. Fields
"It's the kind of music that makes you feel regal," actress Felicia P. Fields says, describing the genius of Duke Ellington. "The word 'sophistication' isn't used as much today as it was back then. There was an elegance in the period." Fields, who is one of the stars of Maine State Music Theatre's new production of SOPHISTICATED LADIES, which runs at the Pickard Theater from June 5-22, 2019, believes that the production, directed by Marc Robin with three individual choreographers and an eleven piece orchestra, perfectly captures the 1920s and 1930s and the big-band era.
She waxes eloquent about Ellington as a composer and performer. "He is a master of the keys. Just his touch on the piano! There are very few people who can make an instrument talk the way he did. In this production you get to see a little clip of that; it is so short, but probably they didn't want to try to match him up to anyone else, knowing that would falter."
Fields is a also master of these musical styles using her rich, dark contralto to create memorable renditions of blues, swing, jazz, and gospel, as well as all the musical theatre forms. Often, as in SOPHISTICATED LADIES, she has performed with her close friend and co-star E. Faye Butler. Together, they are also bringing to Maine this summer their original musical revue, LETTIN' THE GOOD TIMES ROLL, on July 1. She describes their show as" a very personal journey. We sit and talk about ourselves as people, not as characters. E. Faye and I both grew up in church and in Chicago; we have the same backgrounds, and the same values." The list of songs is flexible each performance, but features a mix of jazz, blues, gospel, and show tunes. "We sing songs we've done together and apart. [For example,] E. Faye has a big number from GYPSY, and I do 'Hell,No!' from THE COLOR PURPLE. Then in the second half, the show becomes more intimate. We talk reminisce about church, and I recall my father, who had been a big advocate for me in theatre and got to see only one show before he died," she says softly.
Fields also mentions their original song, "That Wasn't Me," which alludes to the two actresses' frequently being mistaken for each other. She laughs about a recent experience parallel to the one Butler has recounted, where a Mainer came up to her to compliment her performance in GHOST, insisting she had seen Fields seven times in the role, which Butler actually played. "When we're together," Fields says of Butler and herself, "I am the straight man, and E. Faye is the more outgoing in public."
Fields, too, like Butler, has known Director/Choreographer Marc Robin and MSMT Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark for many years, and like Butler, she has the highest admiration and affection for both men. "I first met Marc at the beginning of my career when we were both in THE WIZ at the Marriott Lincolnshire. He played a flying monkey. Who knew how our careers would grow? When I speak to young students, I always use that as an example of why it's important to be nice and kind to whomever you meet in this business. You never know whom you're standing next to and when your paths will cross again. Marc and Curt have certainly been examples of how being kind is much simpler than the other way. As a result of being connected to them, I have worked a great deal," she concludes gratefully. Some of those collaborations included children's shows and AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' at the Drury Lane Evergreen Park, and the Robin -directed/choreographed HELLO DOLLY in which she played Ernestine to Butler's Dolly. (Fields later played Dolly at the Drury Lane Oakbrook.)
Of Robin's vision for SOPHISTICATED LADIES, she says, "It is different his time from when we did it twenty years ago. It is amazing to watch these young artists tap and dance non-stop. You have to stay ahead of the audience, and that's what Marc does with this show. He has pushed it forward."
Fields also admires the decision to use the three choreographers for this production. "They each have their area, but they are also connected. Mark Stuart did a lot of the swing moments. He has a natural style that is protective of the body. Kenny [Ingram] worked with the Harlem style, and he just sizzles. And Marc [Robin] oversees it all and does the tap and musical theatre sequences; he threads it all together, cleans up and tightens everything. It has been an amazing experience to watch! It's like a train that moves like Amtrak."
Indeed, that description might be used to describe Felicia P. Fields' own rapid rise to stardom. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, she readily recalls her path to her vocation. "I got a lot of my musical training at church, and I worked at the Drury Lane Evergreen Park in many children's shows, when my own children were growing up. It allowed me to do a production, pick up my kids, go home for dinner, and still stay in this business. And as my son got older, he worked there on crew as well."
Fields had originally intended to become a teacher. Then serendipitously, her actual first professional experience came about through church. She recounts the story of how "I was singing in and directing the choir, and Julie Shannon was in the congregation. She was directing a show called STONES, and she needed someone to do the demo work. After the service, she asked me if I would be interested. We did a reading of the show, and a gentleman came up to me afterwards and told me I should audition for THE WIZ at the Marriott Lincolnshire. It was 1986, and that's where I first met E. Faye. I played the Good Witch/Aunt Em, and she played the Wicked Witch; we became friends and blossomed from that." But in addition to this friendship [and that of Marc Robin], another blessing that came from this production was the huge publicity it got. Says Fields, "I ended up on the front page of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE in s story that talked about the non-traditional casting - an African-American Aunt Em, a Portuguese Dorothy, etc."
From that point on Fields changed her vocational plans. She coached with Janet Louer, took acting classes in Meisner technique, and lots of voice lessons. "I was a soprano back then, but my voice has lowered to a contralto now." She worked energetically at all the major Chicago companies, including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Eastlight, Northlight, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and the various Drury Lanes. And she remains grateful for the nurturing atmosphere Chicago offers artists. "Outside of New York, it is a great city to work. There is an appreciation for the arts and many places to work. If you are good in Chicago, you will become a part of the acting scene there, and it is a place you can both work and have a family."
It was, in fact, while Fields was working at the Marriott Lincolnshire, playing Nettie in CAROUSEL, that her next big break came. She recounts how they were parading costumes under the lights for Director Gary Griffin to review. "I looked at myself in the mirror, and I thought 'I look like Oprah Winfrey in THE COLOR PURPLE. So I came down the aisle reciting some lines from that movie. Gary got on the microphone and joked, 'If I ever do the musical version of THE COLOR PURPLE, I already have my Sofia.' A few months later, he called me and said, 'You are not going to believe this, but I have been commissioned to do THE COLOR PURPLE on Broadway, and I want you!'"
They workshopped in Chicago and premiered it in Atlanta, and Fields was the only actor to transfer to Broadway, where it ran from 2005 - 2008. Her powerhouse, emotional performance won her a Tony nomination in 2006, and she won the Clarence Derwent Award from AEA and a Theatre World Award. She left Broadway in 2007 to do the national tour. Of those honors, Fields say, "To create a character like that and make it your own is special, and for your children and grandchildren to see you remembered in Wikipedia and in books is a source of pride."
Fields talks about making the character of Sofia her own. "Oprah is not a musical theatre person, but she is a personality. But, I say to people, 'I'm a personality, too.' I can embody that character. She is a strong female, and there is a lot of myself enfolded into her. I am pretty much a person who would not get hit."
"It changed a lot for me," she continues. "I met people I would probably never have otherwise met, and I learned a lot of lessons, both good and bad, but all that is what you need in order to grow in this business and have an appreciation for it."
The conversation turns back to SOPHISTICATEDCLADIES in Maine and how it is all part of her own amazing journey. Of Duke Ellington and the other composers she will be performing this summer, Fields say, "They are legends. They didn't just play the music; they embodied the music. They took you on a journey to a different time, to a kind of class we sometimes put aside." But Fields believes that is what is so meaningful to her about her profession. "Theatre can give back some of that magic." And Felicia P. Fields on stage is clear testimony that this is true!
Photographs courtesy MSMT, SL photo Kinectiv