For those ready for musical theater, Porchlight Musical Theatre of Chicago delivers its virtual musical revue, New Faces Sing Broadway 1961, featuring 10 young artists, including Maurice Rex Randle of the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. Randle, 27, is an Oak Park native.
The show is based on New Faces revues produced from 1934 to 1968, which introduced such soon-to-be-knowns as Maggie Smith, Henry Fonda and Eartha Kitt. Host of the Porchlight show, Kelvin Ralston Jr., provides the back story as well as factoids on the musicals and songs in the program.
Musicals from 1961 range from the well-known How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to the virtually unknown Subways are for Sleeping to those with songs that became very popular, such as Do Re Mi’s “Make Someone Happy,” recorded by Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, the Supremes, and Jimmy Durante.
Singing has been an important part of Randle’s life since third grade. He remembers singing Motown music in the car with his grandmother and wanting to be a pop singer. As a student at Longfellow School in Oak Park, he said he was encouraged by his teachers, Ms. Martin and Mr. Weber. Randle said Weber was an avid theater performer and fan. He wasn’t in Weber’s class, but he thinks the teacher spotted him singing around school.
“When you’re that young and you have a gift, you are just bold and brave about it — you just do it everywhere,” he said.
Weber held an annual revue concert in his class, Randle said. “He asked me if I could sing a solo in it and the rest is history. I was like, ‘This feels good. OK, you’re doing this.’”
Randle sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent, which, he said, is a “favorite of a lot of theater people” including Randle (a complicated favorite at this point, he added). He didn’t understand what it meant at the time but was honored to be able to sing it at such a young age. He also was involved with Open Door Theater, attending its summer camp and appearing as a duckling in Honk and acting in other productions there.
After attending Julian Middle School for a year, Randle’s family moved to Bolingbrook, where he participated in local community theater. Randle also acted in Circle Theater’s youth productions in Forest Park.
Growing up in a single-parent household, his mom and grandmothers drove him back and forth from Bolingbrook to Forest Park to support his theater interest.
“They are my biggest fans,” he said. “There was never, ‘Well, let’s do something more practical.’ As soon as I said I wanted to do theater, they said, ‘OK. Broadway by 30.’” He also pursued theater in college.
Fast forward to early 2020 and Randle was about to sign his second contract performing with Celebrity Cruise Lines when COVID-19 hit. While the pandemic has “derailed theater,” and dried up stage work, he keeps busy at his job with Howard Brown Health, Chicago. He is a Youth Medical Benefits Navigator at the Broadway Youth Center, working with marginalized and unhoused youth to gain access to health-care resources, he said.
Meanwhile he kept looking to return to the stage. He auditioned for Porchlight’s full season last spring hoping to get into one of their New Faces shows before he wasn’t “a new face anymore.” Randle previously appeared in the company’s production of The Scottsboro Boys in 2017.
New Faces Sing Broadway 1961 was filmed at the Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, built in 1898, with more in-person performing than most shows in the area have had since the pandemic began.
Safety measures were taken — separate dressing rooms, separate filming days for small groups of singers, masks on until singing began and staying distanced. Randle said he was very impressed with how safely it was run.
“I got in there ready to work, ready to do my thing,” he said. “The pandemic is here, obviously, but I’m not focused on the pandemic. I’m focused on this work, doing these songs, doing what I love.
“And the way that they filmed it made me feel like a star,” he added.
During the in-person filming, in addition to small groups of performers, there was a film and sound crew of four or five people and the show’s director Brianna Borger, music director Tom Vendafreddo, artistic director Michael Weber, and producing associate and company manager Christopher Pazdernik.
Randle sings a solo, “His Own Little Island,” from the musical Let it Ride, as well as singing in a trio. For the trio, the singers are unmasked but socially distanced, positioned in and around an elevator as they sing “Been a Long Day” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Each performer shares a bit about themselves throughout the show — their pronouns and a fun fact — giving the production a personal touch.
Viewers engage in sing-alongs and the opening and closing numbers include all the New Faces. According to one of the singers, there were as many as five at a time on stage singing those group songs, a departure from the many individually recorded and edited numbers of other pandemic performances.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s “New Faces Sing Broadway 1961” is available for streaming through May 16. $25-$50. Tickets/more: porchlightmusictheatre.org/events/new-faces-sing-broadway-1961.