Elizabeth McKoy wasn’t expecting to do any casting when she ventured across the Bay to attend Glide Memorial Church’s rousing Thanksgiving service in 2011. The Berkeley Playhouse founder was simply doing “what all good Jews do, going to a great social justice program,” when she encountered the ostentatiously talented vocalist Vernon Bush, a featured singer in the Glide Ensemble Choir.
“He was so theatrical and larger than life, much more than an incredible gospel singer,” McKoy recalls. “I rushed up to him at the end and asked, do you act? I’m looking for a Willy Wonka.”
That encounter led to Bush’s starring role in the Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” last summer, a critical success that brought Bush back to the theater after almost two decades immersed in music, from video work with Whitney Houston and recording with Nancy Wilson to leading his own jazz combo and joining the celebrated Bay Area a cappella ensemble SoVoSo. In another case of almost ridiculously apt casting, Bush returns to the Julia Morgan Theater on Saturday in the title role of “The Wiz,” a Berkeley Playhouse production that runs through Aug. 25.
For Bush, starring in “The Wiz” is particularly resonant, bringing him back to an early source of inspiration. As a child growing up in New York City in the 1970s, he soaked up the score for the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit “The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which was made into the far less successful 1978 film “The Wiz.“
“I listened to the music and fell in love,” Bush says. “It was the springboard for me to get into theater. It connected everything that I was into musically, gospel, R&B and jazz. It just rocked my world and I was bitten by the bug. I wanted to do theater, theater music.”
Decades later, trading the bandstand for the stage turned out to be easier than he’d expected. “Everything started coming back,” Bush says about his turn as Willy Wonka. “My dad used to always ask me when I was going to be doing any theater, and boom. It just sort of happened. And now ‘The Wiz’ has brought everything back full circle.”
With a book by William F. Brown and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, “The Wiz” features a bevy of excellent songs, including “Ease On Down the Road,” “Home,” and “If You Believe.” Directed by Kimberly Dooley, the show could have been tailor-made for the mixed-age Berkeley Playhouse, which cultivates young actors in its Conservatory for Theatre Arts. Still, with 21 adults, 26 kids (half of whom perform in any given show), and a six-piece band, “The Wiz” is the Playhouse’s most ambitious production yet.
“We needed the five years behind us before we did this,” says McKoy, who founded the company in 2007 after running the Imagination Players out of her home for several years. “We knew we could do our own version of ‘The Wiz’, bringing in actors from all kinds of different backgrounds.”
In many ways, Bush was the essential element in tackling “The Wiz.” He grew up singing in the First Baptist Church in Queens, where his father was a minister. By 15 he was leading the youth choir. Determined to pursue acting, he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from SUNY Purchase, and spent several years working Off Broadway.
Bush had an early brush with fame when he co-stared in Whitney Houston’s first video (for her early hit “You Give Good Love” from her star-making eponymous 1985 debut). But it was a very different diva who really schooled him in the ways of the music business. A friendship with Nancy Wilson’s son brought him into the orbit of the legendary jazz chanteuse after Bush moved to Los Angeles, and he ended up performing and recording with her singing backup.
“She gave me a lot of advice about the business and about singing, how to make a song your own,” Bush says. “You live with a song. I do that with my own songs, especially when I’m arranging. I listen to it for a while, let it saturate my mind, and when I sing it it’s really mine.”
Bush moved up to the Bay Area in 1996 and started working around town with his own jazz combo. By the end of the 1990s he had joined the Glide Ensemble, and over the years has become an increasingly prominent member of the powerful choir, a standout soloist beloved for his sweet sound, embracing charisma and 1000-watt smile.
He found an ideal outlet for his improvisational flights in SoVoSo, the jazz-steeped a cappella group that spun off of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra. Bush also continues to write and arrange his own music, and he’s working on an album of traditional hymns. As a teacher he can be found working everywhere from Esalen to KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, where he leads annual singing workshops at the Tree of Life Arts Camp. Given his love of unleashing sleeping musical potential, he feels playing the Wiz isn’t much of a stretch.
“Getting people to notice that you already have what you’re looking for is a lot of what I do,” Bush says. “I’m not fooling anybody. I shine a light on what you have. It’s powerful. This role is so perfect for me. This is what I do in real life.”
Ellie Shapiro, the driving force behind the Jewish Music Festival, is being sent off in grand style on Saturday at the JCC East Bay. An all-star cast performs a night of Ashkenazi dance music as a festival fundraiser to celebrate her departure for a year-long sojourn to Poland as a Fulbright Fellow (the event also welcomes Andy Muchin as acting JMF director). Dubbed the Ark Ensemble for a festival-commissioned project in 2008, the band includes Veretski Pass bassist Stuart Brotman, Charming Hostess vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg, New Orleans Klezmer All Stars accordionist Glenn Hartman, Real Vocal String Quartet cellist Jessica Ivry, and Berkeley guitar explorer John Schott.
Some of Havana’s premiere rockers make a rare appearance in Berkeley on Sunday at Cloud Nine, when guitarist Osamu performs with his band featuring vocalist Yori Gomez (who’s also a highly sought after Cuban actress), drummer Raul Gonzalez, bassist Raul Suarez, and Hector Telles Jr. on guitar and vocals. While Osamu was born and raised in Havana, he has deep East Bay roots. He’s the grandson of jazz, blues and folk great Barbara Dane, and the son of Havana-based guitarist Pablo Menendez, who played Yoshi’s last week with his band Mezcla. View ticket information.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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