The 5th Avenue is fast becoming a reliable conduit for developing musicals that end up on Broadway. This July, previews on Broadway start for First Date, and local lead Eric Ankrim is rehearsing in New York as the understudy for the lead, and guaranteed to go on for some weeks of early performances! In fact, Eric’s wife, Michele, is ready to perform in the ensemble of The Pirates of Penzance at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and Brandon O’Neill says that he and Eric and Michele (Gray) Ankrim were all in the ensemble of Village Theatre’s production of Annie, and that’s how Eric and Michele met. (Awww)
The idea that Disney would develop a stage version of Aladdin for Broadway was not a stretch. The coolness factor was that it started its stage life here in Seattle. Brandon O’Neill originated the buddy-role of Kassim and may shortly be starring in Aladdin on Broadway, himself!
Brandon O’Neill’s path to the stage started with growing up in Spokane, Washington, in a church-going family. Brandon says, “My mother and father are singers and my dad was in barbershop quartets with his twin brother. There are seven recording artists on my dad’s side, practicing musicians.
“I learned to sing in the church, primarily. Later I performed with rock bands, as a lead singer. I had some regional success, and recorded a couple of albums, but I moved to Seattle with the idea that I’d find more musicians who were more serious.
“At 15, I was a worship leader for a 1000 member congregation, leading a band of 15 musicians and a full choir. I learned how to be the man up front that all the eyes were on. You sing gospel stories from your toes and not just with the perfect technique. It comes from deep within.
“I took that into theater. People who are trained as musical theater performers don’t necessarily get that training to sing from the toes up. It’s served me in this business because it set me apart.
“In the church, we did skits. We acted out little things in youth group. I toured to Europe twice with church choirs, but I didn’t have a theatrical background, I just had a knack.
“I was did some break-dancing in the ’80s. (We danced at my church.) My brother is an incredible dancer. We did special numbers where we sang and danced and rapped. We were their sales tools. I had never taken a dance class in my life. It was all ‘on the job.’”
Around 2001, Brandon came with his wife and baby son to Seattle. His sons are now 14 and 9 years old. “The first guy I met, Rob Knop, was writing a rock opera called Diana Moves. He needed someone to sing on the demo so he could shop the script. I said I was game, got nothin’ goin’ on… We did a reading at the (Seattle) Rep(ertory Theatre), a reading at On the Boards, and (one) at Village Theatre. That’s when I was discovered.
“Within three months, I had a year and half’s worth of (stage) work. I booked three shows and a children’s educational tour with Book-It Repertory.
“My first theatrical show, The Ark, at Village, was based on Noah’s Ark, a comical retelling, and I played Japheth, the oldest brother and inventor. Bobbi Kotula played my mother and Hugh Hastings played Noah and they showed me the ropes. They gave me confidence because I didn’t know what I was doing. They showed me basic upstage, downstage, stage left, stage right, all those basic things. How to navigate a show, how to be aware of other people on stage. It’s not a one man show. Everyone is trying to hit their mark at the same time. It was a different world.
“I joined the union with the Rocky Horror Show at 5th Avenue. And (number three was) Annie at Village.”
Brandon has had a string of very big roles, recently, several with 5th Avenue productions. He played Collins in the all-local production of RENT, last summer. He also played Hanuman (the Monkey King) in the huge ACT Theatre-developed production of Ramayana. He also was a key player in the small cast of First Date that is now opening on Broadway.
While he had an opportunity to debut on Broadway with First Date, the producers knew that he was up for Aladdin and if he got cast there, he’d leave First Date way too soon for them. If he gets the role of Kassim, he will leave for New York City this summer to settle in and start rehearsals in the fall. (Note: Aladdin is slated to open in March 2014, with a pre-Broadway run in Toronto, November 2013 to January 2014.)
Brandon comments on these recent shows. About Rent and performing as a gay character: “Having a guy like Jerick (Hoffer) be my first male kiss on stage was lovely. I’m in musical theater and there’s more than one love story to be told. I wasn’t telling a ‘gay’ love story, it’s just a love story. Period. I was proud of it. And he was so extremely giving as an actor on stage, great eye contact, very present, goofy as can be, like putting two class clowns together. He’s an outstanding actor and performer.
“And I’d never watched an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race in my life and suddenly my buddy’s on there, so my wife and I had to watch. It was fun.”
First Date: “I remember laughing out loud reading the script for the first time, which doesn’t happen that often. The music was very contemporary, like pop songs; it wasn’t classical musical theater, but when I auditioned I had a lot of fun. I knew they wanted funny and for someone to own the part.
“Once we added an audience, it was incendiary. It blew my mind how much fun the audience had. The men, 30 and up, were having the most fun. That never happens in musical, hardly ever. “
And he recently got to add a new skill to his resume – sword fighting. He says, “For Aladdin, I had to learn sword fighting and for Ramayana we had a full week where it was just weapons. And now sword fighting in Pirates!
“Next week, I get to be the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, here at the 5th. We’re doing a Northwest twist on it, setting it in British Columbia. Instead of English police, we’ve got Canadian Mounties!
“We have great sword fighting. It’s my first foray into Gilbert and Sullivan. I need to warm up my tongue (Note: G&S language is complex and spoken or sung very quickly) and face as well as my arms and legs. It’s even great fun that it’s at the same time as the Seafair celebration, too.
“I want to announce a challenge to the Seafair Pirates to a sing-off with the Pirates of Penzance! Any other challenge, we’d (probably) lose. I’ve got a couple guys who might be able to drink ‘em under the table, but I know we’d win if we challenge them to a sing-off!”
Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” is currently in previews at The 5th Avenue Theater and has its press opening on Thursday, July 18, 2013 and runs through August 4. Tickets available HERE!