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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Have It All, Lose It All, Part V

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Click for Part I.

Click for Part II.

Click for Part III.

Click for Part IV.

The show "Maestro" was finally put to rest. No more Victorian hat to fall off my wig during "Ragtime", or broken jewelry to snag on my fishnets in "Moulin Rouge". In its place embarked a multi-million dollar light sled, and an entire team of production staff piecing together the two new shows. All but the head honcho Bryce, who was still shoreside finishing up the tracks for one of the new shows, "5-6-7-8".

The Elton John impersonator for the other new show finally joined us while we were docked in Myanmar -- after having lost half his luggage. Despite jet lag, and time spent on the phone to track down his suitcase of costumes, he joined us at rehearsal in good spirits. I sat alone while waiting for everyone to arrive, and Mark, our guest entertainer Elton impersonator, warmed up on the piano. Then he began jamming on Disney tunes. I knew instantly he was a member of my tribe.

Where his travel-weary voice faded out on the high notes, I decided to jump in with an assist. Then I continued singing, and we kept jamming, getting more giddy and nerdy as we called more and more childish songs. Finally I'd found my crowd on this ship! We turned on our vocal mics and really started getting down --

-- I turned around and saw the entire entertainment department glaring at us with unimpressed scowls. That was the first time in my life that no one in music theatre wanted to join a Disney sing-a-long. They instead seemed offended by it.

We finished our jam on "Part of Your World" and I contritely sat back down. Hushed murmurs could be heard in the theater until Allie, the choreographer, announced we were ready to get started.

"OK everyone -- let's welcome Mark Kimble--" applause ensued -- "He'll be playing our Elton John for the first month or so of this run. So now we're going to begin at the top..."

Mark began "Tiny Dancer". Our blonde Ukrainian ballerina joined him with her choreography, and soon began panting, turning red in the face.

"Uh, hold please!" the choreographer interjected. "The tempo's too fast, isn't it?"

Our dancer nodded.

"Would you mind slowing down a few beats per minute, Mark?"

"Certainly," he agreed. "From the top?"

Allie nodded. Dancer and musician began again.

"Hold please!" interrupted Allie. All stopped once more. "Even slower, please."

"How's this?" Mark played a sample intro.

"Yes, that's much more like it," she smiled.

They began again. Our ballerina was still not cleanly getting through her choreo.

"I'm sorry," said Allie, gesturing to stop. "Let me play a bit of the recording we've been rehearsing to, so you'll know."

Allie had choreographed to a performance recording of another Elton impersonator -- the one Mark was temporarily replacing for the month, while his vocal nodes healed. Our Elton show, "Rocket Man", was based off the other guest entertainer's show, and how he interpreted the music. Evidently no one told Mark anything other than the set list -- maybe they'd assumed all Eltons did it the same way? But Mark had his own Elton show, and he impersonated his younger, glam-rock years, with more upbeat tempos and high energy interpretations. The original Elton in our show tended to lean towards Mr. John's older years, and probably because he was having trouble taking care of his voice.

Finally, with the slower tempo established, we got through the opening number. Mark had sung softly but played full out.

"I'm sorry Mark -- but is there a reason you're singing quietly?" Allie inquired.

"Well, I did just arrive in Myanmar from Atlanta, and haven't yet had a full night's sleep," he responded.

"OK. We do need you to sing full out," she replied.

"I can for a little, but I need to protect my voice, since we open tomorrow," he stated cordially, but nonnegotiably. "I have to budget wisely."

He did just that, and that's exactly what he should've done. Singing while sleep deprived is one of the worst things you can do to your voice, and only the next day, he'd have to vocally carry two 60-minute shows on his own. Yet during every note he marked, the cast snickered and bitched behind his back.

Clearly they've never had to sing an entire show on their own, I thought. But I knew from cold hard experience. I refused to join in the slander, and explained my viewpoint diplomatically when asked.

"But we need to hear how it goes!" exclaimed David, the Male Vocalist.

"You can! He's singing, just quietly. He's doing just enough to give everyone a sense of the timing, and that's all we need."

"No, we need to hear him," he pressed.

"Why? Why would they hire him if he couldn't do it?"

David shrugged. "His vowels are the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"He already tours with his own Elton show," I continued. "Do you honestly doubt he can do it?"

"I dunno," he shook his head. "He just sounds like a fool."

Rehearsal continued, and we got to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". The band came in and there was a terrible clash. The song was restarted, and the same atonal chaos happened again.

"Hey," Mark shouted over his shoulder towards the band behind the curtain. "What key do you guys have this one in?"

"E flat!" the bandleader shouted back.

"That explains it!" Mark replied. "That's a whole step lower..." he mumbled to himself while he picked out the new chord changes. "OK, got it!" he called, and the drummer counted the song off again.

Throughout rehearsal, despite multiple tempo adjustments and a few key changes, Mark remained pleasant, light hearted, and professional. We wrapped up with some notes and Allie dismissed us.

A few people lingered afterwards, hoping to chew the fat, as one does after a rehearsal. I wearily put away my costume shoes, and overheard Mark ask the group if they'd like to go out in Singapore when we overnighted there at the end of the week. Unbeknownst to Mark, he wasn't in the "in crowd" and their insincere body language communicated they had no interest in spending any time in his company any more than they had to. Well, he was clearly my kinda person, and no one was showing much interest in hanging out with me either. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but as I walked past, I said, "I would! That'd be fun!"

"Oh great! What should we do?" he turned towards me. The other production crew seemed happy to be relieved of his attention, and perhaps that earned me cool points. We made our plans to head to Clarke Quay and get into any trouble that appealed to us.

At last, performance tracks for "5-6-7-8" were completed and emailed to the sound engineer. We vocalists were given copies, and in reviewing them, I discovered my main feature song, "It's a Man's World" -- a belty, rocky, pop-star money-making number -- had been lowered a minor third. The version they told me to learn was packed with wailing high notes, which were no longer high because they'd been lowered considerably. All the work I'd done on making sure my voicings were fierce was now for naught. My muscle memory and phrasing could no longer be applied.

Allie hated it too -- and despised the sloppy studio vocalist who sang in the demo track. I plugged the file into a program that raised the key back to where we both preferred it, and offered to rewrite the band's charts myself. Try as Allie might, she couldn't get the key correction approved.

They did it to Mark with some of his usual repertoire, they did it to me after I'd prepared a song they requested of me, and they did it in more than half of the songs performed in the other shows too. One of the fastest ways to destroy a voice is to require loud singing in the lowest register -- and that's where this company insisted on placing every single song. Combined with being required to sing full-out at all times, during every rehearsal, it made for some very dangerous working conditions. We had to fight to protect our voices -- I guess that's what happens when you work for a company that showcases dancers above all else. They viewed vocalists as slackers who got paid higher rates for inexplicable reasons.

We began to rehearse, and heard at the start of our jive number, Christina Aguilera's "Candy Man", that a long intro had been created. It was a drum track, starting off at a slow tempo, with rhythmic, feminine whispers of "candy man, candy man". It was awful. Cheesy, tasteless, unintelligent, not genre appropriate, not a rhythm suited to jive -- it was a laughably bad idea, executed with no artistic merit. It was something Seth MacFarlane would use for the sake of comedy. Allie despised it, and hadn't been told it was coming. I despised it even more when she decided that I'd be the one choreographed to fill the dead space it created.

On a spur of the moment, Allie instructed me to strut around the perimeter of the stage, while David strutted around in the opposite direction. Then she had me hit on him cutely as we met downstage center.

Few things irritate me more than being forced to act cute for no intelligent reason. It strips me of everything that makes me attractive. And on a scale of stage chemistry from one to ten, David and I were a negative two. I wanted so badly for him to like me, but everything about him suggested he was remaining diplomatically neutral; and nothing about him suggested that he was willing to try to have good chemistry. So as I bounced around the stage like a retard and hit on him, all I got was a nonverbal, energy-level rejection. It was disheartening.

"Jess, you need to own it more. Try walking like a runway model," Allie attempted to help.

"That's literally my nightmare," I replied honestly, with defeat.

That's not the first time someone had tried to tell me how to be sexy. (As if I'm not.) It usually comes from people who fail to notice the assets I bring to the table. I'm a big-boned, curvy woman with a chiseled jawline. I don't do 'bouncy' because I have booty and bosoms that don't need any help jiggling, so instead I try to walk sinuously, with calculated tension -- if I need to modify anything at all. Everyone can agree that a Pomeranian bouncing around is cute, but a Great Dane doing the same would be overwhelming, almost frightening. Great Danes are at their most beautiful when they lounge majestically, lifting their head to gaze off into the distance. I'm the Great Dane. Dancers are usually the Pomeranian.

I attempted the choreo once more, and Allie added more cutesy mannerisms to my blocking. At this point, nothing I was doing resembled the stylings of jive or Lindy Hop. The partner dancer in me was deeply offended by the monstrosity we were dumping on this art form. The authentic thing to do would be to walk with swing dancing stylings -- leading with your heels, arms relaxed and swinging to where they would be counterbalances, knees never fully straightened, legs never fully extended, posture solidly grounded, bent slightly forward. But no -- authenticity would be sacrificed so this cruise line could maintain their monotonous brand of sexy.

We moved on to do the rest of the song, which was easy for me -- all I did was stand on a block on stage right, in front of the main house speakers. But this was the first time we were running it with the performance track. The backup vocals, singing Andrews Sisters-esque harmonies, were atrociously loud, causing the speakers to clip and my microphone to feed back. It was deafening and horrible.

It was requested of me to stay after rehearsal so the levels could be adjusted. Never mind that I'd just belted for over an hour of rehearsal (no marking allowed!), and forget that we had two performances of the Broadway show later that night, requiring a two and a half octave range -- I had to stand there and belt Christina Aguilera at full volume for 20 minutes while the sound men learned how to mix. It took them forever to set the levels (which they forgot to SAVE), before I was dismissed. My throat was a swollen mess of inflamed tonsils (read about that illness here) as I climbed down to my cabin to prep for the shows.

The next night we had no show, as it was an overnight in port, and most guests are expected to be out and about instead of wandering around a ship looking for something to do. Mark and I dressed a little snazzy to be out on the town, and bar hopped around Clarke Quay. He even indulged me by going into the Cuban restaurant, where we discovered a salsa dance. That was my natural habitat. And right there, without being dressed properly or prepared, I walked in and dominated the scene. See? All this talk about how I don't know how to dance, don't possess sensuality or sexiness -- how about you see me doing something that actually is sexy in its authentic form, and watch me outdo everyone else doing it.

Even Mark, who had spent decades in entertainment, who'd been everywhere and seen everything, who was one of the voices layered into Aladdin's during "A Whole New World" and was the male voice on the original demo for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", felt compelled to document the occasion on social media. And apparently my company was enjoyable enough for him, a person who actually had a real career in the mainstream entertainment world.

I had a blessed free afternoon later that voyage, and I met up with Michelle on the sun deck to work on a tan. She was the jazz vocalist in the lounge upstairs, and was remarkably cool. Rarely do I get along with other vocalists, and even more rarely do I get along with women, so her friendship was a special treat. She was also tall and curvy, like me, and understood the discrimination I was detecting from the flawless-bodied dancers. She tackled conflict with a healthy sense of humor and unshakable self-confidence.

We were lounging under the rays, laughing at the craziness of ship life in our bikinis, when we were startled out of our wits by a deafening CRACK, followed by the gut-wrenching wail of a person watching his life flash before his eyes. It interrupted the serene rolling of the ship on the Pacific's waves, and echoed relentlessly in the minds of everyone who heard it.

"That's Mark," I exclaimed. I recognized his voice in the cry that kept reverberating in my memory.

We had seen him walking around the perimeter of the sun deck, doing his laps for exercise, so we got up to search for him.

Just around the funnels, behind the golf hitting nets, we found him crumpled on the AstroTurf, clutching his arm, moaning and hyperventilating. He didn't respond to questions, wouldn't make eye contact, and didn't want to be touched. Michelle made sure the doctor was called, and we waited beside him for moral support.

An older gentleman with a beer belly and a visor approached us, clutching his golf club anxiously.

"I don't know how the ball got through the nets," he kept saying, bewildered. "He just happened to be right there at the end of the range, right when I took my swing, and the nets happened to rip at that moment..."

He searched the net for any opening that could tell how the ball got out.

Mark lifted his good hand off the welt to survey the damage. Right in the thick of his forearm, where the tendons and ligaments connect the fingers to the bone near the elbow, he already had a bright purple, perfectly circular bump.

I gasped -- of course he would survive, but would his ability to play piano survive? As an instrumentalist, I appreciate finger dexterity and how hard we work to maximize it. He was shot at point blank range by a golf ball, right where he earned all his income. And he had two shows to perform tonight -- would he be able to do it? How soon could he be back at work, if ever?

The medical team arrived, bustling about the scene, tending to the victim and documenting the incident.

"Sir, can you wiggle your fingers?"

"Aaaarrrrrggggghhhh!" was Mark's response.

"He may be in shock," one medic mumbled to another.

Mark remained on the floor, panting while they fetched the nearest available wheelchair. By now, a crowd had gathered and watched while three officers lifted Mark into the wheelchair and pushed him into the elevator.

Michelle and I exchanged glances once the action subsided, and returned to our sunning chairs.

News of Mark's accident buzzed through the crew, and by the time we reported backstage to perform the Elton show (which was surprisingly not cancelled), Mark's wails of pain were being exaggerated and mocked throughout the corridors. Everyone was snickering and gossiping.

"What a drama queen."

"This the first time you've ever been hurt?"

"Cry baby."

"A wheelchair? Seriously?"


How could they be so insensitive? They were dancers. If they broke their toe on some furniture, they'd be signed off duty for several days, if not medically disembarked. Could they not see the parallel in this situation? The biggest difference was that Mark's performance was a fine motor skill, and a small injury to a critical spot could cost him his career. And tonight he'd be performing on painkillers, which is always dangerous. Why be unkind? How could they not understand? Where was their empathy and support?

I gently corrected them every time I could. If they addressed me directly, I'd set them straight. I was still heavily involved with my beloved concert pianist (read about him here), and I shuddered to think of anything damaging his priceless hands. I sympathized with Mark, and slowly my cast passively made it clear I'd chosen the wrong side.

I stopped Mark while he passed me backstage on his way to the piano for the top of the show. "Break a leg, friend," I smiled.

He stooped to kiss me on the right, then the left cheek, and stood up, shaking his head with a smirk. He sighed.

"Who cares if I'm late, they can't start the show without me," he breathed wearily. We exchanged a knowing glace, the realization that the only friend either of us had in this production company was each other. I gave him another kiss on the cheek for good luck, and he turned to leave, walking more slowly this time.

Like a true professional, Mark made it through both performances that night. He did the smart thing and simplified some of his playing where his dexterity was compromised, sang like a rock star, and had the audience eating out of his hands. It was time for the production team to lay off him, trust his process, and let him do the job. And while to his face it appeared they did just that, behind his back, their passive aggressive distaste became increasingly amplified.

You ready for more yet? Click for Part VI. #thankyouLinManuelMiranda

Click for Part VII.

Click for Part VIII.

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