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Winter 2021-22
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Broadway is Back!
Hometown Celebs Share What it’s Like Returning to the Stage Now
Nkeki Obi-Melekwe stars in the title role in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
by Liz Rothaus Bertrand
The lights are shining bright on Broadway once more after 20 long months of pandemic living. Here in Charlotte, audiences have been celebrating the return of touring Broadway too, beginning with Wicked, Blumenthal Performing Arts’ first major theatrical production since the COVID-19 shut down.
The show drew more than 70,000 attendees over its four-week run and even smashed a box office record in its final days, marking the highest grossing week ever for a Blumenthal presented show at Ovens Auditorium.
As productions ramp up in New York City and all over the country, many things have changed, but one thing remains the same: Charlotte’s talent continues to thrill audiences on some of the country’s biggest stages, both as performers and in key behind-the-scenes roles. Here’s a look at what just a handful of our homegrown talent is up to now and a deep dive into what it’s like to be making theater again.
2019 Blumey Awards Best Actor winner Sayo Oni, above, has joined the Hadestown cast on Broadway, along with two-time Tony nominee Eva Noblezada, below, who won the Best Actress award at the Blumeys in 2013.
Two-time Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada returned Sept. 2 to her starring role as Euridice in Hadestown on Broadway. The Northwest School of the Arts alumnus got her professional debut in Miss Saigon after winning Best Actress at the 2013 Blumey Awards, Blumenthal’s high school musical theater awards celebration. Sayo Oni, 2019 Blumey Awards Best Actor winner who represented Central Academy of Technology & Arts, has also joined the Broadway cast of Hadestown. The musical merges two classic myths and features a beguiling musical score as it journeys to the underworld and back. (Note: This hit show comes to Charlotte this fall!)
Meanwhile, two blocks away Nkeki Obi-Melekwe is starring in the title role of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. A Central Academy of Technology and Arts alumnus, 2013 and 2014 Blumey Awards Best Actress nominee and former Charlotte Squawks cast member, she previously performed as Tina in London’s West End and for select Broadway performances. Now, she takes over full time from Tony Award-winning Best Actress Adrienne Warren, who originated the role.
Reneé Rapp, the 2018 Blumey Awards and Jimmy Awards Best Actress winner and a Northwest School of the Arts alumnus, was the last to play Regina George in Mean Girls on Broadway before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the show’s run. She’s pivoted to TV and is one of four stars in Mindy Kaling’s new HBO Max series “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which first aired this fall.
Reneé Rapp, left, stars in the new HBO Max series “The Sex Lives of College Girls.”
Hamilton’s Tyler McKenzie, a Central Academy of Technology and Arts alumnus, says it has been a joyful experience returning to the theater.
McKenzie, who has frequently led master classes and emceed special events at Blumenthal, spent the summer at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, performing Jimmy Buffet tunes in an outdoor production of Escape to Margaritaville, before rejoining the cast of Hamilton this fall.
In Maine, audience members sat in pods of two and were asked to mask up whenever they left their seats. Cast members were also tested twice weekly for COVID at the theater. Luckily, these precautions were effective, and the show was able to complete its entire run without any missed performances.
The cast of Hamilton welcomes Tyler McKenzie, center, back to the show.
McKenzie now serves as a universal swing for Hamilton, one of seven full-time company members tasked with “saving the day” when an ensemble member is out in any of the five productions (New York, Los Angeles, and three North American Tours) currently playing across the U.S.

At the moment, he is stationed with the Broadway team, but prior to that he filled in with the Philip tour company in Atlanta. In all, he covers six performance tracks for each of the productions, meaning he could be called on – at any time – to step in for one of 30 different potential actors.
“I recognize the privilege it was, and is, to return to performance work,” McKenzie writes from New York. “Too many artists still don’t have that opportunity yet … I’m loving being back in performance. I’ve missed my community.”
Cast of Escape to Margaritaville.
Tom Gabbard, Blumenthal’s president and CEO, says Broadway is definitely coming back, but it’s happening in steps. At the time of this writing, 22 shows have opened, and 13 more are slated to open by the end of 2021.
That's been possible, Gabbard says, thanks to support from the Shuttered Venue Operating Grant – an infusion of federal funds helping to revive live entertainment events across the country, including right here in Charlotte. Particularly in New York, where tourism typically drives Broadway ticket sales, investments in theatrical productions are riskier than usual.
“Broadway would be dark right now,” Gabbard says, “were it not for that money that provided a backstop on the risk.”
In New York City, it has helped give producers the reassurance they need to move forward. That paired with more empty theaters than usual is also creating some unique opportunities.
“As a result, we’re seeing some really interesting new plays that we might not have seen before,” Gabbard says.
Blumenthal is a player in this field too, as a current investor in 27 theatrical productions, ranging from current Broadway shows and upcoming national tours to off-Broadway plays and shows still in development.

It’s been crazy. Producing theater amidst the global pandemic is like walking in mud.
— Thomas Laub, New York producer
A Rising PRODUCER’S Perspective
Among those investments are two co-productions with New York producer Thomas Laub, a Providence Day School alumnus who was also a two-time Blumey Award Best Actor nominee. He launched his company Runyonland Productions in 2016 while he was still a student at the University of Michigan.
To learn more about the industry, he interned with Theatre Charlotte and several New York theatrical organizations before joining Disney Theatrical Group as a sales and analytics coordinator in 2019. He recently moved to Apple, where he works full time as studio strategy and operations manager, in addition to his producing work.
His newest production, Fairycakes – a comedy by Douglas Carter Beane – began performances off-Broadway at New York’s Greenwich House Theater on Oct. 14. Blumenthal is also co-producing the show, and Laub is grateful for the continuous support coming out of the Queen City.
“As always, Tom Gabbard and the Blumenthal team have gone above and beyond to support theater-makers from Charlotte,” Laub says.
Runyonland Productions, which is lead producing the show, first started working on Fairycakes way back in January 2020. At the time, the company planned on about five months of pre-production work with the show debuting and finishing a limited run before the end of 2020.
Instead, it took 22 months to get to opening night.
“It’s been crazy,” says Laub. “Producing theater amidst the global pandemic is like walking in mud.” His other current shows include David Byrne’s American Utopia – in which Blumenthal also invested – and Slave Play, the most Tony nominated play in history.
But he believes Fairycakes is just the kind of show we need right now. “When is the last time we’ve gotten together with a bunch of people we don’t know to laugh together?” he asks. “... We’ve missed communal laughter for so long.”
Right, cast of Fairycakes.
Now, more than ever, Laub’s priority as a producer is ensuring everyone’s safety at the theater. That includes following industry and public health guidelines for best practices dealing with COVID-19 – things like requiring proof of vaccination and universal masking for audience members (except in designated areas for eating and drinking), and upgraded cleaning and air filtration systems.
It also means taking steps to ensure mental and emotional comfort for the company and crew, in response to last year’s social justice uprising and widespread calls for more equity and representation in the arts.
“It’s a constant game in negotiation of getting back to the parts of the industry that brought us joy ... the reasons that we do this,” he says, “… and not coming back to the parts that brought us stress and fear and all of the things that we’re looking to leave behind.”
They won’t just go away on their own, he adds. “We have to take active steps toward rooting those out and changing our processes to (become a) more healthy industry on a number of levels.”
Fairycakes is the first piece of commercial theater in New York to officially partner with Broadway for Racial Justice as part of their ally program. The organization helped the production team develop comprehensive guidelines for everything from casting and selecting an advertising/marketing partner to determining who is invited to press events.
Laub says everything is done with the goal of a more inclusive, better industry in mind.
For McKenzie, change and reform are absolutely necessary. “We’ve learned a lot over the last year and half,” he says. “Trust me, there is still more to learn, and there is a lot of reform that needs to happen. I remain patient and hopeful. I continue to manifest a theater community and audience that is colorful, open-minded, safe and inviting to all. We can do this – we just have to stick together as we do the difficult work.” ◼