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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    After nearly giving up NYC, Norwich native Christopher Faison made it to Broadway in the ‘My Fair Lady’ ensemble

    Christopher Faison is backstage at “My Fair Lady.”
    After nearly giving up NYC, Christopher Faison made it to Broadway in the "My Fair Lady" ensemble

    Christopher Faison was done with acting, and he was done with New York City. He had been on so many auditions that had gone nowhere. He had seen so many dreams go unfulfilled. So, last year, at age 39, he decided to move back to his home city of Norwich.

    “I was ready to go … I was really just over the struggle. I was not finding success,” says Faison.

    It’s not that he hadn’t had nabbed gigs in the years since graduating from Norwich Free Academy in 1996. He was in shows at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich. For a decade, he performed in revues on cruise ships. Starting in 2013, he spent three years as part of the national tour of “Book of Mormon.”

    But for the past two years, he was stuck in a dry spell. He hadn’t gotten any performing jobs, save for a stint as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury.

    He was living in New York City, working part-time with a theater concession company and at a restaurant — and was still not making ends meet.

    He had just directed a show in Norwich, at the Chestnut Street Playhouse, and thought that he might explore directing.

    He wasn’t bluffing. Faison had lined up someone to sublet his NYC apartment as he prepared to return to Norwich. He was packing up his stuff. Then his agent, Rikky Fishbein, called him and said there was one more audition he wanted to send Faison to. It was for the Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady.”

    “I said, ‘Who now? What?’ I’m thinking it’s going to be ‘Dreamgirls,’ ‘Once on This Island,’ one of the black shows or something,” says Faison, who is black. (Many productions of "My Fair Lady" in the past have consisted solely of white actors, but this one was more open to multicultural casting, which is a blossoming trend on Broadway.)

    Faison figured, OK, he’d go to this one last audition. It went well. He got a callback.

    About a month after the initial audition, Faison was in a dollar store in New York, returning an $11.99 pair of jeans he had bought there because, well, he could afford to buy clothes at the dollar store.

    While there, his cell phone rang. It was his agent.

    Faison had nabbed an ensemble role in “My Fair Lady.”

    Since he was in public, Faison remained composed. He told the agent he’d call him back. And he did, but first, Faison says, “I returned my clothes — I got my $11.99, thank you very much.”

    And so, earlier this year, he acted on Broadway for the first time.

    The show — Lincoln Center Theater’s revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater — began previews in March. Faison turned 40 on April 14, and five days later, “My Fair Lady” had its official opening.

    “It was perfect timing … I couldn’t have asked for a better gift,” he says. “I’m having the time of my life.”

    Singing at the Tony Awards

    This version of “My Fair Lady” is not just your average show. It’s been much acclaimed and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including for best revival of a musical. Its stars include Dame Diana Rigg (whose credits run from “The Avengers” to “Game of Thrones”) as Mrs. Higgins; Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”) as Eliza; and Harry Hadden-Paton (“Downton Abbey”) as Henry Higgins.

    And it’s directed by Bartlett Sher, who says of Faison, “Chris is a very rare mixture of talent in the musical theater: He has the sweetest and purest voice, one that we use to hold the tenor line so sweetly in our Quartet, and one which he uses to perfection for ‘On the Street Where You Live.’ This is combined with an understated honesty as an actor. He is vivid and intelligent and extremely versatile in his talent. We are so lucky to have him in ‘My Fair Lady’ because he is as convincing working in Covent Garden as he is parading at Ascot. He is a superb artist.”

    Not only is Faison performing in “My Fair Lady” eight times a week to packed houses, but he also appeared in two production numbers in the Tony Awards ceremony held June 10 at Radio City Music Hall and televised on CBS.

    He was one of the ensemble performers in the opening number with hosts Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles. Groban said the ensemble members from all the nominated musicals were “representing the hardest-working men and women on Broadway.” Faison was also part of the “My Fair Lady” medley (which was introduced by Amy Schumer). “My Fair Lady” won just one Tony Award that night, for best costume design, but the evening was still an incredible experience for Faison.

    “It was over in the blink of an eye, but it was phenomenal,” he says. “It was really special to be asked to represent the show and to have the opportunity to look out and see these people — I looked out, and Bernadette Peters was in the first row, then there’s Brandon Victor Dixon, who I adore. There were all these super talented people that I’ve watched forever. To be in their presence and to be singing for them and, in the case of Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban, with them — Josh Groban, I sang with for years in my living room.”

    The night also gave him a new understanding of and respect for the theater community.

    “I really appreciated what we do, who we are, the hours and hours that it takes, and the years and years and years, in my case, of rejection,” he says.

    Wouldn’t it be loverly?

    In “My Fair Lady,” Faison appears in various scenes, dressed at first as a common-man worker in a newsboy cap and earth-colored clothing as he and his cohorts watch when Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins first meet. He later gets decked out in top hat and tails for the “Ascot Gavotte” number.

    While ensemble members, by nature of their job, tend to be in the background, Faison does get some star-adjacent moments. Leading into “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” for instance, he and three other male singers (dubbed The “Loverly” Quartet in the program) take center stage and harmonize before ceding the spotlight to Ambrose. She sings, and, at one point, Faison weaves a contrapuntal harmony. He takes her by the elbow and leads her toward the front of the stage.

    “I get to sing with Lauren Ambrose eight times a week, and I watched her on ‘Six Feet Under’ for years,” Faison says. “I was obsessed with that. I wanted to be a funeral director because of that show! I’m telling you, I was living for it, and now I get to work with her.”

    Not only is she wonderful to work with, he says, but she also sent him a “beautiful email” after Faison — who understudies the role of Freddy, Eliza’s suitor — went on as Freddy for a performance during the Memorial Day weekend.

    “It’s really special to me because she’s someone I admire,” he says.

    Faison loves working with all the tremendous performers in the “My Fair Lady” cast. Being with this group in this show on Broadway, he says, “is still the stuff of dreams. I pinch myself daily.”

    Faison spoke about his “My Fair Lady” experience between a recent matinee and evening performance. (He had just returned from going to his apartment to let outside and feed his beloved dog, Gus, a 3-year-old Jack Russell/chihuahua rescue). Before he went backstage, Faison sat on a bench inside the theater building, and the location was near a wall of posters featuring past Lincoln Center Theater productions. One of the nearest posters was, ironically, for the show that helped spur Faison to pursue musical theater — “Sarafina!,” which was a Lincoln Center Theater production.

    Faison recalls travelling from Norwich on a Martin Luther King Center trip to see “Sarafina!” in the mid-1980s. He knew as a child that he wanted to continue to sing as an adult, but he wasn’t sure if it would be in church or as a recording artist or in another forum. Seeing “Sarafina!” — a South African musical about students in the Soweto Riots protesting apartheid — clarified his future.

    “It was the first show I saw that had people who looked like me, and I was blown away ….” he says. “That was like oh, OK, this is something I can actually do, that is a real career for me.”

    Norwich comes to New York

    Norwich friends and family have already come to see Faison in “My Fair Lady.” First among them, naturally, was his mother, Carol Marshall, who still lives in Norwich. She and Faison's best female friend dating back to high school, Melanie (Marotte) Brown, were there to see Faison's debut at Freddy. (Incidentally, Brown's daughter, who is Faison's goddaughter, wants to take acting and lessons after seeing Uncle Chris on the Tonys.)

    Faison spoke with a group of Norwich Free Academy students who travelled down to watch the musical.

    Teachers who had Faison as a student in Norwich have made the trek, too. Music teacher Sue Johnston went to “My Fair Lady,” along with his former sixth-grade math teacher, Arlean Pollack.

    “He’s always been so charismatic and just a beautiful personality,” Johnston says. “He’s just the type of person you want to be around. He’s full of life and energy and joy.”

    Johnston gave Faison piano lessons when he was a youngster, and she had him as a student first in kindergarten or first grade, she says, and then in fourth through eighth grades. She gave him his first singing solo, with “Rockin’ Robin.”

    “It was such a thrill to see him finally make his dream and be on Broadway stage, and he was excellent. It blew me away,” Johnston says.

    Indeed, Faison and this show seem like a good match. Faison says the material for “My Fair Lady” really suits his voice because he has an old, classic sort of sound to his voice.

    Looking back on his audition, Faison says that something happened that he’d never experienced before: He knew he was going to book it.

    “It was a gut feeling of: This is going to be the one, this was going to be the game changer,” he says.

    It helped, in a way, that he didn’t feel the stakes were high going into the audition. He was ready to move back to Norwich. Other performers have talked about their own similar experiences, that a sense of “no stakes” relaxation during an audition somehow helps them perform well and book the job.

    Faison has reached his dream and, he says, “Now that I reached it, I have to keep it alive … I plan to stay the course.”

    Nobert Leo Butz, who plays Eliza Doolittle’s father, and the ensemble — including Christopher Faison, far right — in a scene from “My Fair Lady.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    If you go

    What: "My Fair Lady"

    Where: Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., New York City

    When: 7 p.m. Tues. and Thurs; 8 p.m. Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Wed. and Sat.; and 3 p.m. Sun.

    Tickets: $97-$187; digital lottery on show website for $42 tickets; $30 LincTix tickets, LCT's program for 21- to 35-year-olds

    For tickets: telecharge.com, (212) 239-6200

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