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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 1 month ago

Challenge and Response

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The pandemic forced Nygel D. Robinson to exit the stage. He turned the downtime into a creative opportunity.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

According to Toynbee, history moves in a process of challenge and response. Those who rise to history’s challenges survive and thrive. Those who don’t become, well, history. That’s a more intellectual way of saying, “When life give you lemons, make lemonade.” Any way you put it, the pandemic was an existential challenge to the theater community­—cabaret performers, especially.

These artists lead a nomadic existence. The multi-talented Nygel D. Robinson is no exception. He was part of the cast of “That’s Amoré!” at Florida Studio Theatre. After it closed on Feb. 2, he flew up to Chicago to work with a band, then zipped over to New York City for a piano gig at Joe’s Pub. By mid-March, Robinson was heading down to North Carolina to appear in another new show. It never opened—but Robinson got out of the Big Apple before the mayor imposed a lockdown on March 20. Cities across America did the same—and live performance was dead from coast to coast. And Robinson was stuck in his apartment in LaGrange, North Carolina. The nomad was grounded for nearly half a year. And he hadn’t seen it coming.

“If someone had told me on Jan. 1, 2020, ‘You’re going to spend five months at home this year,’ I would’ve laughed at him. There’s just no way.”

Initially, it felt stifling. Picture Steve McQueen, stuck in a P.O.W. camp in “The Great Escape.” Robinson could relate. He felt claustrophobic and frustrated. After a week or so, he decided to do something about it—with a series of long-distance collaborations.

“That choice was my only choice,” he laughs. “Collaborating over the Internet was my last remaining option in this crazy, new, dystopian, pandemic world we live in.”

Robinson began with Brian Quijada, an actor/playwright associated with Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. The project: “Mexodus,” a musical about the lesser-known Underground Railroad of slaves escaping to Mexico. “Brian and I work with a process I call ‘Frankensteining,’” Robinson says. “We stitch bits and pieces of things together until our creation comes to life.” Did lightning strike yet? “We should have a concept album by the end of the year,” he says. “New York Stage and Film has supported us every step of the way.”

As work on this phase of “Mexodus” was wrapping up, Robinson needed a new project. Fortunately, lightning struck twice.

When “That’s Amoré!” was in its final weeks, Robinson approached Richard Hopkins (FST’s producing artistic director) with an idea for his own original cabaret show. Hopkins offered to help Robinson develop it—and that was no small promise. For a cabaret production, the gestation process involves long brainstorming sessions, intense research, and hours of listening to work-in-progress. They shook hands­—and put a pin on the collaboration until the time was ripe.

In the long hot summer, the time seemed ripe indeed.

Alexa Doggett (FST’s casting and hiring coordinator) and Catherine Randazzo (FST’s literary manager and associate artist) gave Robinson a call.

“They asked me, ‘Do you still want to work on your cabaret thing? We have the time to do it now. We figure you do, too.’”

They figured right.

With the aid of the Internet, Robinson, Sarah Durham, FST's assistant to the managing director, and Randazzo got to work. For the young performer, it was a whole new ballgame.

Robinson can act, sing, and play a trunk full of musical instruments from keyboard to stand-up bass. He’s got years of experience performing in other people’s shows. This time around, he’ll be creating his own show. How does he feel about that?

“Totally confident,” he says. “I’m working with Catherine and Sarah at every step. They’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have, and I trust their instincts and ideas.”

“I Love a Piano” is the working title for Robinson’s one-man cabaret. He describes it as an adventure through time exploring the songs of piano-playing composers. (As you probably guessed, he’s the piano-player who’ll bring their songs to life.)

 “I start with Irving Berlin and go to John Legend,” Robinson says. “We’re including songs like ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,’ ‘Georgia,’ “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and “Imagine,” so it’s a wide range of genres.”

These hit tunes have been produced and overproduced. Robinson’s arrangements boil everything down to three performers. Just a vocalist/pianist, bassist, and drummer. Period.

 “I find beauty in simplicity,” he says. “When you take away the fluff, you can see how good a song really is. We get down to the essence—and that’s what truly moves the audience.”

When will his new show find an FST audience to move?

“Whenever it’s safe,” he says. “It’s a feel-good show. God knows we’ll need to feel good once we put this pandemic behind us.”

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