Singer Damon Evans returns to star at Prep reunion weekend

April 10, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Full symmetry will prevail Saturday when Damon Evans takes the stage as guest star of the Peabody Preparatory Grand Reunion Weekend.

He'll be back in Baltimore, singing with the choir of Frederick Douglass High School behind him. Even his influential high school music coach, Marian T. Smith, has been invited to be in the audience.

Further, his program will present works from the American musical stage, not the classical opera repertoire for which the Baltimore native has gained prominence, especially in England.

"My entree into music, although I was studying the classics here at the Peabody [1963-1966], was really through the Broadway musical," Mr. Evans said recently in an interview at the Peabody Conservatory. "The first musical I ever did, I think, was when I was a freshman at Douglass High School. I did 'The Fantasticks.' "

At Douglass, before winning a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, he also sang in the American premiere of Michael Tippet's "A Child of Our Time," with the composer conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

His recent recording of the composition won critical raves.

Mr. Evans, 44, recalls being taken to the opera as a teen-ager by Murray Schmoke, father of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a boyhood friend since third grade. The production was "Aida," performed at the Lyric Theatre by what was then called the Baltimore Civic Opera.

"I remember it wasn't out of any great love that either Kurt or I had for music that Kurt's father took us to my first opera," says Mr. Evans. "He was a man who was really just exposing his son and a friend to some of the finer things in life."

Nor did the experience bring any sudden revelation of a career path.

"I remember enjoying it because of the spectacle of the production, but at that time in no way did I dream of pursuing anything" in that realm, he says.

Success came first in other areas: Broadway work ("The Me Nobody Knows") and in television. For three years Mr. Evans portrayed Lionel in the series "The Jeffersons," and was young Alex Haley in "Roots: The Next Generation."

"Before television, . . . one of the things that really made me start to question whether I was going to stay in music theater was that when I auditioned for some things, they said 'You sing too well. Your voice stands out too much,' " he explains with a hearty laugh.

"But I must say I understand that, because with the appearance of the musical 'Hair' on Broadway, the sound in American music theater changed very much. It started to become very contemporary. Forget the days when you really had to train, and you had Rodgers and Hammerstein all over the place. If you didn't have a contemporary sound, then you did stand out and there was very little employment for you."

Mr. Evans' TV roles did not help him, either, in his growing desire to sing serious music.

"The music industry in this country was so condescending and judgmental of my background from a popular part of American culture that they could not erase their own prejudices and preconceived ideas of me to even allow me to come in and audition," he says.

He used his residuals from "The Jeffersons" to attend the Manhattan School of Music and the American Opera Center of the Juilliard School.

In 1989 he moved to England and promptly found steady work. He starred as Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" at Covent Garden -- the production was also taped and aired last year on PBS. He has sung with the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra. He recently was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award, England's equivalent of the Tony, for his recording in the London cast of "Carmen Jones."

"I find it rather ironic that I as an American and as an African-American would go to England and immediately start working," he says.

Although he has been back in the United States since May, he has encountered an old difficulty finding work on stage. He auditioned for "Miss Saigon," for example, but heard through his agent that his voice was too good.

He hopes to return to England when he resolves a visa and work permit problem.

"That's not to say that I don't enjoy being in America or that I'm anti-American," he says. "But at the age of 17, when I first went to Europe, and went to England, I knew that was home."

PEABODY REUNION SCHEDULE

The schedule for the Peabody Prep Grand Reunion Weekend, Saturday and Sunday, April 16-17, is as follows:

SATURDAY

* 9 p.m.-10 p.m.: Gala Night, Friedberg Hall, featuring Damon Evans

* 10 p.m.-midnight: Peabody Plaza, dancing and desserts

Tickets for concert, dancing and desserts are $75 per person and can be ordered by calling (410) 659-2550.

SUNDAY

* Noon-2 p.m.: Grand reunion brunch, with entertainment by the Peabody Children's Chorus.

* 2 p.m.-3 p.m.: Peabody Prep Dance Concert, Friedberg Hall

Tickets are $15 per person for both events; $8 for the dance concert alone, except half-price -- $4 -- for students and seniors.

* 3 p.m.-6 p.m.: Prep Grand Reunion Festival, featuring more than 300 performers

NB Free. Enter at 609 N. Charles St. or 21 E. Mount Vernon Place.

All proceeds from the gala and brunch benefit the Peabody Prep's Outreach Program in the Baltimore City public schools.

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