Two River Theater musical ‘Songbird’ is a Seagull with a Nashville twang

Broadway leading lady Felicia Finley stars as country singer Tammy Trip in the musical SONGBIRD, onstage this weekend at Two River Theater in Red Bank.  Photo by KEVIN THOMAS GARCIA

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 8 2018

“This project is AMAZING,” offers Felicia Finley, in regard to her starring role in “Songbird,” the critically acclaimed musical that makes its New Jersey premiere as the season-closing production at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. “I mean, how do you explain this to people?”

Moments later, the actress and singer attempts to address her own question, with the view that “it’s very Jerry Springer at times…these people aren’t shy about showing their emotions!”

A late substitute addition to the Two River schedule (the previously announced “Oo-Bla-Dee” will instead be presented in June of 2019), and a show that made a big impression during its 2015 run at NYC’s 59E59 theater, “Songbird” is actually a loose adaptation and musicalization of Anton Chekhov’s 19th century drama “The Seagull,” with the action transposed from the Russian countryside to the country music capital of Nashville, and the play’s once-grand actress Irina Arkadina reborn as Tammy Trip, a fast-dimming recording star who returns to her old honkytonk haunt to reunite with the son she left behind during her pursuit of fame — and, perhaps, make amends by giving the young musician a leg up on his own dreams of stardom. 

The opportunity to “chekhov” such a bucket-list acting milestone, and in such a novel fashion, seems made-to-order for the Broadway veteran who “grew up singing bluegrass” in her native Appalachian region of North Carolina — and whose showbiz ambitions revolved more around becoming a ballerina or an entertainment lawyer, than the dynamic performer who wowed crowds as Linda in the original cast of “The Wedding Singer” (a show on which she met her future husband, theatrical director Paul Stancato), as well as in a celebrated two-and-a-half year turn as Tanya in “Mamma Mia!” Still, it’s the leading lady who expresses awe at becoming part of a company that boasts several carry-overs from the Off Broadway production — an experience that’s “been a joy, to say the least.”

“The company’s just incredible — your head starts to float a little bit — and there’s not an ego in the room, which is very rare,” observes the triple-threat artist whose own recording career has seen the release of a debut album (“Great Mood for a Tuesday”), and a headliner gig at Caesars Atlantic City. “And I love the process of our director (Gaye Taylor Upchurch)…she’s thorough, and patient, and really controls the room.” 

Emphasizing the fact that this is a “Songbird” of a slightly different plumage than the one seen by New York audiences, Finley explains that “the composer (Lauren Pritchard) brought in new songs, and our book writer (Michael Kimmel) does rewrites every day…which I happen to love. It’s important to take those big leaps and chances right now, before the opening night.”

“Almost all of the actors play instruments, too,” she adds about the show under the music direction of Kris Kukul. “The last time I saw this level of artistry was with ‘The Wild Party’,” a reference to an early success for the musical specialist whose resume further features ensemble/understudy engagements with “Superstar,” “The Life,” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” — as well as two tours of duty with the fast-thinking satirical troupe of “Forbidden Broadway,” an experience that led directly to her Broadway debut as Amneris in “Aida.”  

“It’s because of Forbidden Broadway that I can learn a song in a couple of hours, and know how to create a character,” says Finley, citing as an example her briefly seen but vividly memorable Linda in “Wedding Singer” (“the 80s weren’t pretty…women looked crazy then…and my Linda was a combination of Cover Girl and Tawny Kitaen from the Whitesnake videos”).

“Broadway is wonderful, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s blue collar…you go there each day and you WORK, doing eight shows a week,” she adds. “It’s very physical…I’ve seen young performers just wreck their bodies doing athletic stunts…and it takes an athlete’s mental focus too. When I started doing leads, I made sure I was in shape, for my sake and for the sake of the whole company.”

“I consider myself lucky, in that I got to work with the old timers and experience the changing of the guard,” she sums up, adding that she’ll be taking a tip from one of those iconic old timers, Gwen Verdon.

“I cook for my company, because it brings everyone together, and because I love my castmates and our crew. I’m making gumbo!” 

Going up in previews on Saturday, June 9, “Songbird“ opens on Friday, June 15 and continues its limited engagement with a mix of matinee and evening performances through July 1. Tickets ($20 – $70) and schedule info can be had by calling 732-345-1400 — or by visiting http://www.tworivertheater.org, where you’ll find details on a slate of related “Inside Two River” events that include an “American Whiskey 101” tasting event (June 18), and a special “Pride on the Plaza” reception and show package (June 21).