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BWW Interview: Abbey O'Brien Choreographs A BRONX TALE at Axelrod Performing Arts Center

The Axelrod Performing Arts Center reopens its doors with A Bronx Tale: The Musical this fall!

BWW Interview: Abbey O'Brien Choreographs A BRONX TALE at Axelrod Performing Arts Center

The Axelrod Performing Arts Center reopens its doors again with live musicals for its 2021-2022 season. Their first show is A Bronx Tale: The Musical, which opens on October 29. This production is directed by Broadway veteran Richard H. Blake. The musical is based on Oscar nominee Chazz Palminteri's play and film.

A Bronx Tale is set in an Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx of the racially charged 1960s. With a rock and Motown-infused score bursting with high-energy dance numbers and original doo wop numbers by Oscar and Tony winner Alan Menken, A Bronx Tale has been described as the intersection between West Side Story and Jersey Boys. The book was written by Glenn Slater and tells the story of an impressionable nine-year-old boy who is torn between the father he loves and the much-admired mob boss he would like to be. The original production was directed by Robert DeNiro, who starred in the film, and Jerry Zaks.

Abbey O'Brien is the choreographer of A Bronx Tale. She is currently the Associate Choreographer of the new Alanis Morissette musical, Jagged Little Pill and Waitress. Directing credits: The Rocky Horror Show, Meet Me in St. Louis, 13 The Musical, A Quarantine Cabaret. Choreography credits: Extraordinary (Directed by Diane Paulus), SUGARLAND (music video), The Late Show with Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Dreamgirls, Smokey Joe's, Big Fish, Rock of Ages (Theatre Raleigh), Mamma Mia (Casa Manana), American Idiot (TUTS). Associate: Is There Still Sex in the City, Odyssey (Public Theatre), Elf (Paper Mill), Ragtime (Lincoln Center), Company, National Pastime (Bucks County), A Taste of Things to Come (Broadway Playhouse). Some of her favorite Performing credits: Spamalot (Broadway), Pal Joey (Broadway), Radio City Rockettes, SMASH (NBC).

BroadwayWorld.com had the opportunity to interview the choreographer of A Bronx Tale, Abbey O'Brien.

How did you get started in the theatre industry?

My first professional job was on Disney Cruise Line when I was still in college and to this day, still one of my all-time favorite jobs. I highly recommend the cruise ship industry for young talent because you're making a lot of money, you get to save it, and then you get to move to New York with a bank account, but you feel comfortable to where you don't have to take a side job and you can focus on auditioning.

When did you make the transition from being a performer to a director and choreographer?

I started off as a performer and always knew I wanted to be on the creative side since I was younger. I always wanted to assist or help the people I was working with creatively in some capacity. After getting a few Broadway shows and some TV shows, I felt fulfilled as a performer and needed to do something else to challenge my brain differently and figure this other side of the table out. I quit performing cold turkey and never looked back. I never auditioned again and just really pounded the pavement to be somebody on the creative teams.

I remember specifically working on the TV show Smash and standing on stage looking past the director, and there was a whole mass of people on the other side of the camera. I was like "What do those women do over there? Who are those women? What are their jobs and what do they do? I wanna know what they're doing and I wanna do it." I'm so much more excited now about learning a new skill and learning the other side. After making that decision, I wrote to everybody I knew and said "Hey, I will work for free. I want to be on the other side of the table if you ever need an assistant, associate, or somebody to help create with, please think of me." A few people reached out and took me up, one being Lorin Lattaro, and that's how I created my awesome relationship with her. That kind of spiraled into me doing some really great associate work and directing and choreographing on my own.

Who are some of the people who have inspired your career?

Mrs. P. down in Florida was my first dance teacher. She's the one who always had me assisting her ever since I was little and coming up with choreography when I was 8 years old. After that would be my second mentor, Kenneth Green. He was my high school jazz teacher and did the exact same thing. He took me under his wing, he forced me to do warm-ups and choreography when he wasn't there, and really guided me. He's actually the one who ended up becoming the head of Disney Casting and cast me in my Disney Cruise Line show.

Casey Nicholaw was the one who gave me my first Broadway show and that was life-changing for me, and the way he worked and it was early in his career. I think he influenced me massively. And I have to say, my biggest influence right now is Diane Paulus. It's very important for her to guide young artists, especially female artists, and give them the skills, knowledge, and opportunities. She has taught me a lot and I am grateful for that relationship.

What has the experience been like as the Associate Choreographer of Jagged Little Pill and Waitress and seeing these popular shows reopen on Broadway?

It's amazing. We never knew that Waitress was gonna have as long of a life as it's had and it's continuing. It's not stopping. It's really exciting. We are all so grateful for that and how the show has really resonated with so many audiences. We have such great fans. The creative process was amazing with the all-female team. Everybody was just at the top of their game and being in that room was amazing.

Jagged Little Pill is a completely different show. Very hot topics. Very political and social topics that are current right now, which makes the show really heavy and it's a different approach to tackling the material. That's across the board - costumes, choreography, whatever it may be. I loved the journey. And it was a journey - highs and lows putting that show together. It's exactly what it was supposed to be because you're dealing with tricky subject matters that are sensitive to all people. But it's very exciting and really awesome to be a part of two massive shows that are on Broadway right now.

How did you get involved with Axelrod Performing Arts Center's production of A Bronx Tale?

I got a text message from a Broadway friend, Megan Sikora, that said, "Hey, would you be interested in choreographing A Bronx Tale with Richard Blake? He's looking for a choreographer." And I was like, "What? Of course, that would be amazing!" and she gave me Richard's contact. So I reached out to Richard and we set up a quick call and we touched base and it was all happening so fast. Axelrod reopened and made the decision to do it, and once they made that decision it was like, "rehearsals start in three weeks." It was really exciting talking with Richard on the phone. We were on the same page about everything. My schedule, to be honest, was tricky because I was doing Waitress and Jagged Little Pill at the same time as choreographing this show. They were very flexible with me, and I have a great associate, Shannon Mullen, who has helped when I've been away jumping to other rehearsals. It's been an awesome process.

What can audiences expect from your choreography in the show?

The choreography is really fun. It stems from the 1960s, when the show takes place. We stylistically hone in on that time period. There's a lot of groove, a lot of soul in the movement. If you think of Temptations, a lot of that kind of movement. We've also done some movement that's a little funny and quirky to add to the storyline. But mostly it has that soulful groove that they had in the 1960s.

Do you have a favorite scene or song that you've choreographed in A Bronx Tale?

The one I'm most proud of is "I Like It," which is with Young Calogero, who in the script is 9 years old. It's when Sonny, the mobster, befriends him and the whole town starts to notice so they treat this young kid like he's a star. He walks the streets of Belmont Avenue, which is the Italian community in the Bronx. It's a really fun song.

Why should people come and see the show?

To be honest, the fact that theater is back is one reason. If you're someone who appreciates the arts and theater, go for that alone just to show support for the arts. But, besides that, the music is awesome, the storyline is based on a true story. It's about Chazz Palminteri's life. If you're somebody who grew up in the Italian culture, you will absolutely love this. I think it's really just a fun night out. If you love the movie, you're gonna love the musical even more.

To keep up with Abbey, you can follow her on Instagram @Abbeyonyc, or visit her website at www.abbeyo.com.

Tickets for A Bronx Tale can be purchased by calling 732-531-9106 ex.14 or by visiting the Axelrod Performing Arts Center website at https://www.axelrodartscenter.com/a-bronx-tale. The show will be performed in the Vogel Auditorium through November 14. The theatre is located at 100 Grant Avenue in Deal Park, NJ. For more information on Axelrod Performing Arts Center, you can follow them on Twitter and Instagram @axelrodarts or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/axelrodarts/.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Wolff



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