Faculty reunites with former student, star

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By Mary Nicholas, Staff Reporter

“Oh Doctor Jesus,” pleads 2007 IWU alumna Bryonha Parnam as she cradles the head of four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in the current Broadway production of Porgy and Bess.

The first IWU School of Theatre Arts (SoTA) alum to grace the Great White Way in 2012, Parnam is living the eight-shows-a-week Broadway dream in her starring role as Serena, neighbor and friend of Porgy and Bess on Catfish Row.

“I am so gratified to see her receive such a large platform on which to display her gifts,” said Scott Susong, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Music Theatre Degree Liaison for SoTA.

Susong joined SoTA dance coordinator associate professor Jean Kerr and dance instructors Sheri Marley and Rebecca Waltrip in attending Parnam’s performance at the Richard Rogers theatre last Friday night.

Though starring as Serena in Porgy and Bess is only her second time on Broadway, Parnam’s success inspires little surprise amongst the SoTA faculty. “I think everyone knew she was going to have a fast rise in the industry,” Susong said. “Sometimes you can just tell.”

Porgy and Bess, until this production, has typically been categorized as an opera. Though the original four-hour show never achieved critical success, this adaptation has streamlined the plot and score to compete with commercial Broadway.

“I love talent, and Parnam’s is a big one,” Susong said. “It is incredible to see a young woman create such a captivating performance and go toe to toe with Broadway’s greats.”

Junior BFA music theatre major Josh Levinson visited New York in December and also had the opportunity to see the SoTA alum in action. During the show, Parnam delivers two showstopping arias from the revised score: the plaintive “Oh Doctor Jesus” and mournful “My Man’s Gone Now.”

“She received standing ovations after each song,” Levinson said.

But Levinson admires more than just Parnam’s voice. “She’s an amazing performer, but I could tell she was getting work because she was kind and talented and full of insane energy,” he said. “That’s what IWU’s program is all about. Our future offers so much promise.”

Though seeing Parnam perform on her 27th birthday was, according to Susong, “the highlight of the trip,” the faculty was able to mix business with pleasure by attending the Music Theatre Educators Association (mtEA) Conference at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Music.

The theme of the conference was “Shall We Dance?”, which incorporated the education behind how to retain historical music theatre choreography without making it untouchable in the future “as art is kept in a museum,” Susong said.

New York always offers “the cream of the crop as speakers and guest artists,” Susong said. “For us faculty, it is a great way to see if we are meeting the best practices and to make goals for improving the program at IWU.”

The words of Liza Gennaro, celebrated Broadway choreographer of the late 20th century and daughter of West Side Story co-choreographer Peter Gennaro, particularly resonated with this taste for progress: “Teach the history, but always try to innovate, because art must move forward or it will die.”

As the elected director of the mtEA in the midwest, Susong will design next year’s conference and possibly provide opportunities for IWU music theatre students to participate in master classes, an excellent resume credit for the future of professional performers like Parnam.

Though five months away, speculation about the Tony Awards for Broadway’s best is already swirling. “One can only hope,” Susong said. “Parnam’s portrayal of Serena is certainly a Tony-worthy performance.”