Unflappable

With a 2016 Tony Award nomination for her role in one of Broadway’s hottest shows, singer and actress Adrienne Warren’s star is on the rise. 

Adrienne Warren (center) as Gertrude Saunders in Shuffle Along at the Music Box Theatre in New York. 

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Chesapeake native and Norfolk’s Governor’s School for the Arts graduate Adrienne Warren made her Broadway debut in 2012, but she would wait more than three years before taking on her next New York theater project.

She knew it needed to be special.

And it is. Her performance in Shuffle Along: Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed earned Warren a 2016 Tony nomination for best featured actress in a musical—her first nod from the American Theatre Wing and the first ever for a GSA grad. The show opened in April to reviews that gushed over not only the performances by its Broadway veterans, but Warren’s star turn in this unconventional update of the hugely successful 1921 original. 

In it, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald portrays leading lady Lottie Gee, and Warren plays not one, but two of her protégés. In Act 1, she’s the effervescent flapper Gertrude Saunders, and in Act 2, she’s Florence Mills, the much shier songbird who replaced Saunders later in Shuffle’s 504-performance run.

Before Warren auditioned, the show’s creator, renowned filmmaker, theater director and playwright George C. Wolfe, worried he’d never find an actress who could sing both roles, plus keep up with tap dancing legend Savion Glover’s choreography. 

Wolfe has since called Warren, “his miracle performer.” 

Warren’s Tony nomination was one of 10 the show received, and though she didn’t win—up against an actress from juggernaut Hamilton—Warren’s mother, Dr. Andrea Warren, executive director of the Governor’s School for the Arts, is confident that she and her husband will have other chances to attend Broadway’s biggest awards night with their talented daughter. 

Warren, 29, earned a theater degree from Marymount Manhattan College in New York, and promptly headed off on tour with the musical Dreamgirls. She first performed on Broadway in 2012 in Bring It On: The Musical, and has sung with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, appeared on TV shows, including Orange is the New Black, and done voiceover work for Maybelline commercials. But she’s also faced some frustrating droughts.

“I’ve received the calls when auditions haven’t gone well, when she’s crying and doubting whether she should be in this profession,” Andrea Warren tells me. “But Adrienne has a gift, not only to perform, but to mentor others, especially other young African-American performers. I’m very proud of the young woman she’s become.” 

I was singing from the age of two on, and dancing ever since I was three. I started working with the Hurrah Players [a family theater in Norfolk] when I was around six years old, and theater became such a passion of mine. But I was also an athlete in middle and early high school. Then I stopped growing [at 5 feet, 5 inches], that’s when I realized I should start taking my theater training a bit more seriously. I auditioned for the Governor’s School for the Arts, and from that moment on, I knew that theater was what I wanted to do. 

Working with Savion Glover was terrifying, exciting, exhilarating, frustrating and one of the best experiences of my life. Savion is obviously one of the best tap dancers in the world. It was an honor, but it was extremely daunting to put on tap shoes and stand next to him. I worked so, so hard. I came in early before rehearsals and would stay late, because I wanted to be as confident as possible. But I was so grateful for the challenge, because I have grown so much as an artist. We focus on the sound and the story telling our feet are doing, on what the sounds convey to the audience. 

Ann Roth, our Tony-nominated costume designer, is a legend. Watching her put such specific details on my costumes really helped a lot with character development. Everything I wear informs how I stand, and my confidence. And we have the best wigs I’ve ever seen in a show.

Pretty early on, I learned that I’d be portraying two different characters. It was nice to play around as a vocalist, and really discover skills that I didn’t know I had. There are so many nuances and stylistic flavors. I’ve really been influenced by a lot of 1920s artists and jazz musicians who I wish were better known.

From the beginning, George C. Wolfe made it clear to us that this is not about us competing with any other show, or about winning accolades, but it is about the importance of telling this story that we share with an audience eight times a week, and saying the names of these incredible artists, like Florence Mills and Gertrude Saunders, to people who may never have heard of them. That’s the reason I come to work every day; I’m not only entertaining people, I’m also educating people. 

I knew, after Bring it On, that it was going to be very important to be very selective with my next move on Broadway. Frankly, I didn’t want to do another role where I was someone’s sidekick. I wanted to be a human being that was of importance, and who could inspire others of all colors and shapes and sizes. I am glad I held out for this, because this is truly amazing. ShuffleAlongBroadway.com

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