Turning blues into prosperity

Singer: Cynthia Hardy found success with help from Phylicia Rashad.

Theater

January 17, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

On stage, Cynthia Hardy sings the blues. But off stage, this 25-year-old Morgan State University senior feels anything but.

"It's like you're in a dream and you don't want it to end," Hardy says of her sudden stage success.

Two years ago she was pursuing her studies at Morgan - a piano major who had been a soloist in the university's acclaimed choir since freshman year - when actress Phylicia Rashad picked her out of the choir and launched her theatrical career.

Currently starring as one of three blues divas in the revue Blues in the Night at Arena Stage in Washington, Hardy first played her role of "The Girl with a Date" at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta two seasons ago and will continue in the role at the Dallas Theater Center next month.

Rashad heard Hardy sing with the Morgan choir on several occasions, but the event that changed Hardy's life came in March 2000, when Rashad was invited to speak at the university's annual women's convocation. At midnight the night before the event, Hardy got a call from the choir's artistic director and conductor, Nathan Carter, asking her to sing Patti LaBelle's song "You Are My Friend" the next day.

Hardy, who was interviewed at the Woodlawn home she shares with her sister and brother-in-law, said she didn't know the song, so she called a friend and borrowed a CD at 12:30 a.m. When she sang it for Rashad at the convocation, "I felt like the spirit of Patti LaBelle might have stepped out on stage with me," she recalls.

Later that day, Rashad told Carter that she wouldn't forget Hardy. Within a week, she called and said, "Lightning strikes quick, Nathan." Blues in the Night was in rehearsals in Atlanta and the director, Kenny Leon, a friend of Rashad's, still was looking for a young blues singer.

The Morgan choir was on tour in Texas at the time. "They flew me [to Atlanta] on a Monday," Hardy says. At the audition she sang "Willow Weep For Me," which became one of her solos in the show, and the hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." "I felt I was going to melt right there," she says.

Carter, who describes Hardy as "among the top five" student singers in his 30 years at Morgan, supported Hardy's decision to go to Atlanta. "It meant she would have to drop out of school, but if something of significance comes through we always want to encourage it," he says.

The youngest of 10 children, Hardy has been singing in public since age 5, when she joined the church choir in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala. Though she came to Morgan in 1993 on a piano scholarship, she quickly became a soloist in the choir. "Baltimoreans know me from being first row center," she says.

Carter says that Hardy "can do it all. ... She's small in stature, but she commands a lot of respect on the stage and off the stage."

Occasionally taking time off from school to work, Hardy played piano for the Calvary Baptist Church until recently, and also has assisted the choirs at the New Psalmist Baptist and New Shiloh Baptist churches.

But appearing in a stage show truly is a dream come true. When the Atlanta run of Blues in the Night ended in May 2000, Hardy had no idea she'd get a chance to be in the show again. "The very last show, I cried through the entire play," she says. "I couldn't believe it was actually ending. I thought there couldn't be anything better." Then she got a call in December to do the show at Arena and in Dallas. "I was just, like, yes, yes, yes!" she says.

Hardy has completed her course work at Morgan, though she still has to give a piano recital to get her diploma. Her mother keeps calling and saying, "Cynthia, I want you to graduate." Meanwhile, her friends ask, "Isn't it time to get married?"

All in good time. Right now, Hardy is exactly where she wants to be. "I'm having a ball," she says, "Nobody can handle me now."

Show times at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington, are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 3. Tickets cost $37-$54. Call 202-488-3300.

A sea change

And God Created Whales - a musical theater piece about a composer battling memory loss as he attempts to finish an opera based on Moby-Dick - will be the final show in Center Stage's season, artistic director Irene Lewis has announced.

Written, composed and performed by Rinde Eckert, the 2001 Obie Award-winning piece is "original, moving and highly theatrical," according to Lewis, who saw the production in New York shortly after Thanksgiving.

"Rinde is a very unusual artist and not necessarily mainstream in the conventional sense of the word and our audience isn't that either. We can take them on other journeys," she said. "It's following Blithe Spirit, and I wanted something very, very different."

At the same time, Lewis described the operatically trained Eckert - who appears in Whales with Broadway actress Nora Cole - as "very accessible. He's sort of endearing on the stage."

Scheduled to be performed in the Head Theater May 10-June 16, And God Created Whales is directed by former Baltimorean David Schweizer and produced by the Foundry Theatre, an off-Broadway theater Lewis characterized as "very supportive of daring artists' visions."

Although this will be the first time in recent memory that Center Stage has imported a show on which it does not share co-producing credit, Lewis said the production will be redesigned and restaged for the Head Theater's thrust stage. The Foundry production concluded its second off-Broadway run on Sunday.

Tickets to Whales cost $24-$40. For information, call 410-332-0033.

`Graduate' update

The Broadway tryout of The Graduate, now at the Mechanic Theatre, began its run with a week of previews intended to fine-tune the production before officially opening tonight. The Sun will review that first official performance in Saturday's Today section.

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