It’s a long way from Texas to Broadway, but Jessica Wagner has made the journey — in person and in song.
The actress and singer is one of a handful of performers for the Broadway Gold revue opening this week at the Bristol Riverside Theatre. The show tune-themed production arrives in between two shows at the Riverside, one in 2015 and another this fall, where Wagner plays the classic country singer Patsy Cline.
Growing up in Texas, Wagner became a fan of the country singer long before she started acting and singing professionally. Now based out of New York City, Wagner’s back in Bucks to explore songs that chart the evolution of musicals over the past 90 years.
“We’re focusing on the best composers: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, up through (Stephen) Sondheim and (Stephen) Schwartz,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how much musicals have grown.”
With Broadway Gold, the audience gets to hear songs from Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls next to selections from Wicked and Rent. There are some significant differences in the styles, Wagner says, but if done right the audience may not even notice.
“Everything is based on that traditional sound, but the music itself is written in a more complex way,” she explained, pointing especially to songs written by Sondheim for shows like Sweeney Todd or Sunday in the Park with George. “The meter and the melody lines are trickier, but when the singer and the band nail it, it sounds seamless.”
And with the Bristol Riverside Theatre concert band in tow, the performers and instrumentalists make the show come together in more ways than usual.
Most times, Wagner pointed out, the band and performers are separate, with the musicians playing in the orchestra pit, or otherwise offstage. At the Riverside, not only does everyone share the same rehearsal space and backstage areas, adding to a sense of camaraderie, they all perform onstage together.
It may sound like a minor distinction, but it leads to unique instances that put them all in the spotlight. Wagner recalls a stint in last summer’s ‘70s-themed musical revue, for instance, when a violinist came downstage for her solo during an Abba song.
“She became the dancing queen for a moment,” she laughed.
At this summer’s show, that sort of move will take place during the song “Slap that Bass” from Gershwin’s Crazy For You, when the band’s standup player will join the singer in the spotlight.
Moments like these, said Wagner, give the production more of a concert setting and atmosphere.
“There’s more interaction on stage,” she explained. “You get to listen and watch. It’s a fabulous experience.”
Broadway Gold will be performed at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol, from Aug. 11-21. For information, visit http://www.brtstage.org.