Justin Adair | Performer of the week

Justin Adair, Rachel Klippel

Justin Adair, Rachel Klippel Photograph: Adam Veness

Currently starring as Fabrizio in Theo Ubique’s gorgeous production of The Light in the Piazza, Justin Adair has the difficult task of making the audience understand the heart of his Italian character even if they can’t understand his words. It’s a task the classically-trained singer accomplishes with aplomb. Growing up in the suburb of Woodridge, Adair sang in his high school choir, but it wasn’t until studying at College of Dupage that he was turned on to musical theater by his vocal coach and girlfriend. He graduated from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University in 2009, where he received the training that would help him tackle Adam Guettel’s complex operatic score. Adair speaks to us about nailing his character’s accent, adjusting his singing for the No Exit Café’s intimate space, and what the professional has taught him out of school.

Were you familiar with The Light in the Piazza before you auditioned?

Yeah. When I saw the audition posting go up—it’s like my favorite show. I went to go see the tour when it came around in 2006 at the Auditorium Theatre, and the show just means a lot to me sentimentally. So I knew the whole score when I went in to audition for it.

After you were cast, did you watch the film or read the book?

No, after I got cast I wanted to read the book, but I did not. I wanted to create the character based off what the directors were telling us to do and what I was reading in the script and just my own work. I didn’t want to copy anything, even subconsciously, from what was going on in any of the recorded versions of the show. In other productions, I’ve gotten inspiration from listening to recordings and things like that, but as soon as I got cast I didn’t listen to the CD or watch any recordings of it.

Do you speak Italian or have you been to Italy?

No, going to Italy would be a dream. I took a couple years of Italian at CCPA, it’s part of the degree. They require two semesters of Italian, so one year. Then I took a semester of Italian diction, so the singing in Italian, going into it was something I was very comfortable with and something I had done just studying classical music.

When you weren’t singing, how did you work on Fabrizio’s accent?

We had an amazing diction coach, Eva Breneman. Eva was the diction coach when Light in the Piazza was at Goodman Theatre, so she was really, really helpful. Also, having a director who is Italian and having some cast members who have Italian heritage, we all were bouncing ideas off each other and correcting each other in other places. Especially since a lot of the people in the cast have some kind of classical music background and training, everybody’s had some form of Italian diction classes or lessons so we were able to help each other out with things. But yeah, Eva huge in creating a working Italian accent while speaking the English.

How do you make emotions clear when singing in a foreign language?

The first step was just really having a clear understanding of exactly everything that you’re saying in Italian as you’re singing it. While I’m singing in the Italian, I’m thinking a direct word-for-word English translation of it. And two: not mugging for the audience, but singing with the intention you would if you were singing the song in English. It makes your gestures and your intentions acting-wise clearer, because you’re not thinking of a generalized ideas, you’re thinking of specifics in the translation and how that translates into the physicalization of the piece.

I also worked with [co-director] Brenda Didier on inside and outside moments in the song.  There are moments that are expressed outside, like his emotions for Clara when he’s first declaring them. Then there are other parts, and those are maybe not directed toward the audience, when it changes color a little bit, and he’s saying, “Clara won’t love me, she won’t love this little boy.” That leads into the scene where he’s asking Papa to help him more lovable or more attractive to Clara by having him wear a tie and a suit jacket and things like that. That part is more inward, and that’s done by changing the color of your voice a little bit, and you can direct it more at the audience like you’re sharing a secret or a concern.

What kind of vocal adjustments have to be made for the compact space of the No Exit Café?

It was really cool, I love working in the Theo Ubique space. Part of the reason why is you can make really intimate moments very intimate. You can use different colors vocally, you can sing true pianos and true soft dynamics. You’re not worried about it carrying in a large room. It makes it more comfortable and more realistic. And then also, part of the process at Theo Ubique is involving the audience more. So there are parts when you get to involve the audience in your feelings and your emotions and treat them as a sounding board or as someone you’re communicating your feelings to. There are so many songs in this show where it’s just these soliloquy moments where you’re not really singing to anybody, but you’re singing to the audience, and we’re directed sometimes to address the audience. It’s just nice because whenever you’re communicating something to a person it’s much stronger than just communicating out into this space. The café environment really helps with that.

What was the most difficult aspect of the score for you?

It’s very high. When it comes to musical theater, I sing tenor and baritone. When it comes to opera, though, I’m more of a high baritone, so there are some parts in the arias that are higher and that can be challenging. The music that Adam Guettel writes is very complicated rhythmically, and the biggest challenge is taking this complex rhythm that he’s written on the page and making it sound conversational and relaxed musically. It’s kind of like when they write pop music down for a high school choir or show choir. On paper, the pop music rhythm looks really complicated, until you hear the song and you hear how comfortable the rhythms are and how conventional they are to a common era.

The way Adam Guettel writes, its very ergonomic. He has his own language, so when it’s represented in the music, sometimes it looks really complicated. Learning to take what’s on the page, make it comfortable and conversational was a challenge, but one that after you spend on it, you reap the rewards of getting into the groove of the music and understanding his language.

And you teach children music for your day job, correct?

I teach music at three schools in Chicago right now. It’s great. I work for this company called Pulse Beat Music, and it was created by a performer for performers so if an audition or callback comes up, it can be the day before, and I’m able to get a substitute or reschedule a class. It’s wonderful. I never thought I’d be a teacher, but I really enjoy teaching. I teach K-8th grade, all the way from teaching general music classes to teaching afterschool guitar and piano classes.

Has teaching helped with your performance?

Yeah, I do. It has taught me a lot of things, especially because when you’re teaching children, you have to be so clear with your instructions and you have be very concise and succinct with what you say. They listen to everything you say, but if you start to speak to much, they get bored and tune. The whole idea of being concise and direct, making a decision and going with it, definitely informs my performing. The same way when you’re in a show acting, you can’t make half-decisions. You have to be confident. If you walk, you walk. They have to be very clear choices, so there’s a parallel between teaching and performing that I think has influenced me.

Is there anything you’ve learned in the professional world that you weren’t taught in school?

Yeah. At school, they talk about auditioning, but they more talk about your technique and what you’re doing. The one thing that I’ve learned, which I don’t know if it’s necessarily something they would teach you in school, it’s just to really go for everything possible. When I was auditioning for this show—I mean, this is such a beautiful musical and it’s so well-known, how many people would love to be cast in this musical? When you think of all the guys that want Fabrizio or any character, it’s kind of like a shot in the dark. Just to find opportunities and go for it and see what happens, that’s something I’ve been learning more. You have to open yourself up to every possibility for failure in order to succeed.

As a student, I don’t think you realize how hard you have to work once you’re outside of school trying to pursue performing, because there’s so much that goes into it. Two jobs: you’re working one job to support yourself, one job to flourish as a performer. And while they tell you in school its very hard and a hard life, it’s something you don’t learn until you’re doing it. I’m very blessed because I have this job where I have extreme flexibility, which is something that’s kind of rare. I think I’m very blessed to have that opportunity to reschedule things or to not have such a strict schedule, because it really helps out with all my performing. Performers in Chicago have to do so much work, and they work so hard because there are so many amazing people in this city. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it.

Theo Ubique's The Light in the Piazza runs through April 29 at No Exit Café (6970 N Glenwood Ave, 800-595-4849). Read our review of The Light in the Piazza.

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