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After a pandemic layoff, Norwich's Christopher Faison returns to the stage — in Finland

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Last year, Christopher Faison was back living in his hometown of Norwich, after several years of performing on Broadway and in national tours.

The pandemic, of course, shut down theaters across the globe, and actors everywhere had to just wait it out.

Faison started coaching singing, something he says was “very soul-satisfying.”

And now, Faison has finally returned to the stage. He is in Finland, playing Riff in “West Side Story” at the Savoy Theatre in Helsinki. The production, in English, starts on Sept. 1 and runs for three weeks.

Asked how it is to be back rehearsing a show, Faison replies, “Oh, my gosh, it’s like coming home. It really is. … To be back in the space and to be rehearsing and learning lines and struggling with choreography, it’s pure joy. It really is pure joy. It’s a reminder of who I am, and it’s made me a stronger actor. Having the time away from the stage has made me a stronger actor in that I’m really able to dissect and really look at the text and pay attention to things that you maybe didn’t so much pay attention to (before) — especially playing a leading role now. Riff is a leading role. I’m not in the ensemble or an understudy.”

He has also just been hired to join the national U.S. tour of “My Fair Lady” as soon as he’s done with “West Side Story.” Faison was in “My Fair Lady” on Broadway in 2018 and 2019.

That tour runs through July 2022, and there are stops at The Bushnell in Hartford in March and at the Providence Performing Arts Center in May. Faison will be in the ensemble and will understudy two different characters, and he’s in the “Loverly” Quartet.

“I’m thrilled for the work. It’s going to be exhausting not having any time off, but I’m so grateful for my agent Rikky Fishbein, who has been phenomenal in getting me gigs,” Faison says.

How he was cast in Finland

A friend of Faison’s from “Book of Mormon” — Faison was in the national tour of that musical for three years — said a friend of hers was doing “West Side Story” in Finland, and the production was looking for a Black actor to play Tony. She gave Faison the contact information, and he got in touch with the Savoy Theatre team, who said they had heard of Faison and had seen his website. He auditioned for them via Zoom. They originally offered him the role of Action before changing their minds and casting him as Riff.

“I am so thrilled to be here doing this show,” he says during a Zoom call from Finland, where it was 10 p.m. at night but still light out. “‘West Side Story’ is not a show that had ever, ever, ever come (my way). I had never given any thought to this show ever in my life. Now here I am. It’s really interesting to be a Black person telling this story. Because this story is traditionally about whites and Latinos and to be a Black person telling the story is really fascinating. … The creative team is really taking a very different approach with the show.”

The cast is racially mixed, with the majority being Afro-Finns, he says. Three other actors besides Faison are from America — the performers who play Maria, Tony and Action.

Another unusual angle in the production: It’s not set in the 1950s but rather in Shakespeare’s time; “West Side Story,” of course, took inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Everything visually is very pulled up, it’s very Shakespearean … Everything (in the costuming) is the high collars, it’s the ruffled sleeves. It’s not the 1950s leather jackets … They’re really going back to ‘Romeo and Juliet, to the original text,” he says.

“Without giving too much away, the show is really told from Maria’s perspective versus these two gangs. It’s a fantasy in her mind that we’re seeing. The show starts with her reading ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and then she’s sort of transported into that world.”

By having a multiracial cast, he says, the emphasis is less on the race of the two gangs and more on the hostility they have for each other.

“It’s focused on the fact these two gangs hate each other, and it makes the absurdity of that hatred more absurd,” he says.

In the midst of all that is the fact that “West Side Story” is, at heart, a love story.

“They’re really emphasizing the love between ALL of the characters, so it’s not just about Maria and Tony, it’s the love that Bernardo has for his sister, the love that Bernardo has for Anita, the love that Anita has for Maria, the love that Riff has for Tony. It’s really about love,” Faison says.

A new movie version of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg, is scheduled to come out this December. Faison says, “It’s like, OK, it’s almost a perfect time for this show.”

Color-conscious casting 

Discussing “West Side Story,” Faison says, “I get to travel to another country I’ve never been to before to do a show I never, ever in a million years thought I would do, to play a role that (I never thought I’d play).”

With the casting in this production, he gets the chance.

Faison says he doesn’t like the term “color-blind casting” and instead prefers to call it “color-conscious casting.”

“I’ll be honest with you, I wouldn’t have my career if it were not for color-conscious casting,” he says.

A lot of the roles he’s played, going back to his time as a student at Norwich Free Academy, weren’t written for a Black actor. In high school, for instance, he was in “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

“It wasn’t about my color. It was about my talent. I appreciate that,” he says.

Faison is grateful that people took a chance on him and cast him in those roles.

“I think that’s where theater is going and should be going. I don’t see any reason why people of color cannot play roles that were not written for them to play. Why can’t there be a Black Sweeney Todd?” he says.

 

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