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“I didn’t grow up in a place where there was a lot of exposure to contemporary theater,” says Issac Powell of his upbringing in Greensboro, North Carolina. “So when I heard Wicked for the first time, I latched on to it, because I’d never heard a sound like that coming from a Broadway recording.
“Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel on that original cast recording are just so iconic,” he continues. “They have such a singular sound. And the story just hooks you. A lot of kids know what it feels like to grow up an outsider — specifically me, growing up a queer, theater-loving kid in the South. I was immediately drawn to the character of Elphaba and felt a kinship to her.”
The soundtrack of Wicked helped to inspire the strikingly handsome, golden-voiced Powell to embark on a career in musical theater, one that has quickly (and rightfully) soared. He currently holds two major Broadway credits to his name — Daniel in the dazzling 2017 revival of Once On This Island, and Tony in Ivo van Hove’s groundbreaking and athletic reimagining of West Side Story, which, regrettably, closed a month after opening in February 2020 due to the pandemic.
“I had never been a part of something that required so much of my mind and my body and my voice eight times a week,” Powell says of the brief but memorable experience. “We were working with a lot of elements that made it more challenging than your average production of West Side Story. It was set on a bare stage. There was really extreme fight choreography. There were torrential downpours of rain on the stage. We did the show without an intermission, so once it started, it didn’t stop until we got to the end.
“It felt like a sprint. And that was Ivo’s whole idea — presenting it as fast and as extreme as possible. I learned a lot. I grew a lot. I gained a ton of stamina.”
Some of that stamina is on display during his robust, ebullient performance in Wicked in Concert: A Musical Celebration of the Iconic Broadway Score, airing this Sunday, August 29, at 9 p.m. on PBS. Powell is among a dozen featured artists joining the American Pops Orchestra in a joint production between PBS and D.C.’s Nouveau Productions.
The evening features all-new orchestrations (with Stephen Schwartz’s blessing) by Luke Frazier, who serves as the show’s musical director and APO conductor. The stunning, hour-long tribute, briskly directly by Baayork Lee and hosted by Chenoweth and Menzel (who close the show with the iconic duet, “For Good”), features showstopping turns by Amber Riley, Mario Cantone, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, Alex Newell, Gavin Creel, Jennifer Nettles, Stephanie Hsu, and Cynthia Erivo. Powell takes on “Dancing Through Life” with a velvet-smooth baritone and buoyant, magnetic demeanor.
“The thing I love about Isaac is that Isaac is pure joy,” says Frazier. “And when he goes on to perform, that joy comes through.” The maestro doesn’t hold back when it comes to assessing Powell’s performance of “Dancing through Life.”
“He knocked the shit out of it!” he exclaims. “I reimagined that song with a forties supper club dance band kind of sound. Isaac is exactly the kind of entertainer they would have had back then, just that solid charisma and great voice. You can imagine him in a tuxedo, in a throwback kind of way. Which is so funny, because he’s so young — you wouldn’t think of him as a throwback performer.”
“I don’t do concerts,” says Powell of his involvement in the production, which was shot primarily at D.C.’s Warner Theatre. “I’m way too nervous in concert situations. And yet when I got the email about this one, I knew that it wasn’t something I could turn down. It was too exciting of an opportunity to get to sing from a score that I love, and to do a show that has been on my bucket list but never made sense for me to actually join the cast of, in any iteration. Getting to join in on the fun of Wicked in this context, with this group of people was really exciting for me.”
“It’s fascinating to me that this is the first orchestral reimagining of Wicked,” adds Frazier. “I’m delighted that we get to be the first to do it. I find that most people just like to replicate. To actually take a risk and put yourself out there and say ‘I’m going to do something different’ is not something many groups like to do. But that’s where I like to live.
“I don’t I don’t find much use for a group to just keep replicating, replicating, replicating, replicating. Unless you’re making it your own, then there’s no real reason to do it. We’re giving the audience something they’ve never heard before.”
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