By Sara G. Stephens
“Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” tells the story of Princess Aurora, who is cursed by an evil fairy, Carabosse, and of the handsome Prince who is on a quest to save his Sleeping Beauty before it’s too late. An updated version of the classic Grimm fairytale, in the style of a traditional British family Panto, the show is a singing and soaring winter adventure that features family-friendly magic, with a comedic twist; dancing (with “So You Think You Can Dance” alumni); a live pony; interaction with the audience and contemporary music from Jessie J’s “Domino” to John Legend’s “All Of Me;” Pharrell Williams “Happy” to Survivor’s “Eye of The Tiger;” and more.
The show, which is presented by Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) and Lythgoe Family Panto, is jam-packed with stars of television, film, and stage, including Broadway and “Seinfeld” star John O’Hurley as “The King of Houston;” star of Disney’s Teen Beach Movie, Garrett Clayton, as “The Prince of River Oaks;” star of Disney’s “Best Friends Whenever,” Lauren Taylor, as “Princess Aurora;” American Idol’s Vonzell Solomon as “The Good Fairy;”from “Henry Danger” on Nickelodeon, Ben Giroux as “Silly Billy,” and from the National Tour of “Happy Days,” Jeff Sumner as “Nanny Tickle.”
The Houston production of “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” also feature local actors from the Humphrey’s School of Musical Theatre, including the unstoppable Sean Graul, whose previous TUTS performances include “Mary Poppins”(Michael Banks) and “Freaky Friday” (Fletcher).
I interviewed Lauren Taylor and Sean Graul so our Houston readers could meet some of the glittering artists behind this unique production, a must-see for any Houston family.
“Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight” is showing at The Hobby Center’s Theatre Under the Stars now through December 24. For tickets, visit http://www.tuts.com.
To the casual observer, it would seem that your acting career took off seemingly overnight. But before you appeared before the American public as an actor, you already had an impressive singing career. At what age did you begin singing and how did you evolve from singing in the shower or for the family to opening for Wilson Phillips at the age of 14?
From what my mom has told me, I’ve been singing all day every day since I was a baby. Music has always been in my head and in my blood, so that made it very easy to focus on. Growing up, I joined anything I could to get closer to music and acting including choir, theatre camps, and singing in restaurants. Eventually, I got scouted by industry professionals and was granted the wonderful opportunity to open for people like Wilson Phillips, Michael Bolton, and Vanessa Williams!
What prompted your move to the world of acting?
I love both acting and singing, so being involved in musical theatre has been an incredible medium to explore both. I also think the further I got in music, the more I craved another creative outlet to put time into.
In 2014 you were cast as Holly, the lead role in the Disney Channel pilot, “Fairest of the Mall.” What did you learn from that experience?
The transition from theatre to film was very interesting for me. The most valuable thing I learned from that project was understanding how my acting process differs from theatre to television and film. Though they’re both acting roles, the rehearsal process and the way I develop my character has been vastly different for me.
The following year, you were cast in the Netflix series, “Richie Rich” as Harper Rich, Richie’s older sister. Did you draw at all from your own sibling relationships to develop this character?
I definitely drew from prior experience with my brothers. I’m the youngest in my family, so the character’s childhood wasn’t parallel to mine, but it was definitely easy to relate to Harper and all of the difficulties, but also all of the love that comes with having siblings.
From 2015-2016, you took the co-lead role of Shelby in “Best Friends Whenever.” In the show, your character and her best friend are given the ability to travel in time. If you could travel in time, to what past and future times would you travel and why?
Well, considering The Beach Boys are my favorite musicians, I would love to travel to the 60s to see them perform in their prime. I’ve seen Brian Wilson a number of times and can only imagine how incredible all of them were together.
Your co-star in “Best Friends Whenever” also worked on the Disney Channel pilot, “Fairest of the Mall.” What’s it like working for Disney, where it seems that many of the various shows’ actors know each other and invariably end of working together in some capacity? Is it a friendly, casual environment? Can it be competitive? Do you befriend your fellow actors?
Some people in the industry can get very competitive, yes, but usually that competitive nature usually stems from a place of passion. I can say that our Sleeping Beauty cast is incredibly wonderful and we are all best friends who really do love each other. Sometimes you get that in your cast and sometimes you don’t, but regardless, there’s always fun to be had.
“Best Friends Whenever” ended in December 2016 after two seasons. To what non-acting experience would you compare the experience of a show’s ending? What types of emotions do you encounter and how do you work through them?
It was kind of like graduating high school. You went in every day, worked your hardest towards your craft, and now you’re released into the world to cultivate and expand on it even more.
Now you will play the role of Princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight.” How does it feel to be playing such a beloved role? Tell us a little about how you came to be cast.
It’s such an honor to be able to play such a beloved role and there have been wonderful adjustments made that empower Aurora and her story more than the original did. What I also love about Panto is that it’s made the story both interactive and modernized with modern songs and dialogue, so it’s relatable for the whole family.
How did you handle the transition from film to stage?
Having switched back and forth between stage and film acting for most of my life, I’ve become pretty accustomed to it, but the first few times it was fairly difficult, as there are a number of differences. In television and film, you have a number of opportunities to get a scene right and you only focus on one scene at a time, whereas theatre takes much more preparation and you rely on a constant flow of energy. Both are wonderful, but it is nice to be able to interact with the viewers and physically see how your work affects each person.
This particular rendition of Sleeping Beauty takes a modern twist on the classic fairy tale. Without giving away too much, can you tell us what makes the show modern?
The show is an interactive experience that incorporates both modern pop songs and modern jokes. The show has also been catered to its location and has many references and jokes pertaining to Houston!
The show is set to a fantastic contemporary score featuring the music of such greats as Blondie, Bruno Mars, John Legend, Katy Perry, and Pharrell Williams. Do you have a favorite song from the production?
My favorite number is Garrett’s performance of “Eye of the Tiger.” Garrett has an astounding voice and the dancers have been incorporated into the number in such a gorgeous way!
Let’s talk a little more about the cast. You share the stage with some amazing talent: John O’Hurley, Debbie Gravitte, Garrett Clayton, to name a few. With which actor(s) did you bond especially well? From whom did you learn the most?
I think I’ve bonded extremely well with each and every one, but, I’ve definitely bonded with Garrett and Ben in a very special way because I think we can relate to each other as young professionals and our personalities click so wonderfully! I’ve learned something new from each person in the cast and I’ve been able to expand on my abilities in such a safe environment.
There is so much history in the entertainment industry of child actors who struggle to maintain themselves emotionally when they find themselves in the limelight at such a young age. You are now 19–how have you managed yourself in this regard?
I think the most important thing is to remember who you are and remember not to pour your whole self into your job. It’s important to maintain a good circle of friends and family, as well as other interests and hobbies. Things will always come and go and come back again, so it’s important to remember what really matters. For instance, I’m still going to college and spending time with the same friends I’ve had for several years.
Your parents and family must be thrilled to see you enjoying such success. How have they supported you in your career?
My friends and my mom especially have been very key in helping me grow both as a person and as a professional. My mom has been such a wonderful support to me in my career by always encouraging me and taking me to countless theatre programs, acting classes, and, eventually, auditions.
What advice do you have for child or young person who wants to pursue a career in acting? Any advice for their parents?
Something I constantly encounter is people who love the idea of being in the industry, but not the art of acting, itself. Therefore, my best advice is to make sure you love the art of acting, as the industry is not nearly as glamorous as it looks and it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make a great show on stage or on television. One thing I was told by Michael Bolton when I had the opportunity of opening for him was “work your hardest and the best will rise to the top.” That has rung true for me throughout my career. Don’t worry about the details and focus on what you love.
Describe the origins of your acting career–how old were you when you “caught the acting bug,” and how/when did you decide to pursue it with training at Humphrey’s School of Musical Theatre?
When I was nine, I saw the production of “The Little Mermaid” and fell in love with it. After that, I dreamt of performing on the stage. I would see every show both my cousin and best friend were in and wanted to be them. Soon I found confidence in myself to go further and convinced my Mom to let me do it so then I signed up for the non-audition classes at TUTS. Right after that, I auditioned for the Academy and then auditioned for my first shows only after being there a few months. I was in three main stage shows in one year and have never had such a fun run.
How does your family feel about your acting pursuits? How do they support you in what must be a very time-consuming and demanding interest?
Having any child an any sport or outside of school activity is rough but a theatre kid is a completely different story. Not only is the child working there tails off day after day at school or in rehearsals or Home Work or memorizing lines, but your parents are doing a ton too. My mom is in her van more than she is at home. I am just so blessed that my family is so supportive about what i do and are always willing to help me succeed.
How does school fit into your HSMT schedule?
So long as my grades stay up, my teachers seem to work with me. My school has been flexible. My directors have been flexible. TUTS demands a lot, but they believe in education. Think of how many bios you read in playbills and the amazing places actors have studied. School is important.
You were cast in two of my absolute favorite TUTS productions. In Mary Poppins, you played Michael Banks, and in FreakyFriday, you played Fletcher. Which of these roles did you enjoy more, and why?
Both shows were exceptional, I loved “Freaky Friday” because it my “first job” at the Alley, but I also liked “Mary Poppins” because I got to work with Linda who directed “Mary Poppins” and now “Sleeping Beauty”. Both shows were completely different, and I’ve gotta say both are my top three favorite shows I’ve done so far. I guess i will say playing Michael Banks, who is one of two who carries the show, was definitely an easier task than being Fletcher.
Now you are working in another huge TUTS production, “Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight.” Tell us about the character you are playing.
I am playing Marlin, which was a name I made up for my character a couple weeks in. I am part of the children’s ensemble, so we aren’t the principles, but instead we are everything from dancing boys wearing white tights and shiny tops to mice and foxes. There is so much to love about what I’m doing in this show.
This production is described as having a modern twist on the classic fairytale. There have been several renditions of the fairy tale (the original Disney animated movie, “Sleeping Beauty;” the more recent “Maleficent,” for example). Which interpretation of the fairy tale do you like best and why?
I love how they added NANNY TICKLE and SILLY BILLY! They are hilarious and a great addition to the show! Their characters carry the story, which makes it VERY different from any other version of Sleeping Beauty.
What’s your favorite musical number in the show?
“Sit Still Look Pretty!” I play a mouse in that one!
Who is your favorite character in the show?
Nanny Tickle! She (He- haha!) is hilarious!
From which actor did you learn the most, and with which actor did you have the most fun?
Our assistant choreographer MiMi has taught me so much about movement, and although she might not be an actor in the show, she still taught me the most on having confidence and power in your movement.
Two of your fellow cast members, Garrett Clayton (“Teen Beach Movie”) and Lauren Taylor (“Best Friends Whenever”), have enjoyed early acting career successes in film and television. Do you see your career taking this turn, or would you like to continue on as a stage actor?
I think every child dreams of being on TV- I know I do! Especially when you have stars like Millie Bobby Brown and such. But I think every kid who dreams should start in the theatre because it teaches you skills that apply to the stage and film. I see myself going to UCLA or a college where film is big but until then i’m sticking to theatre.
Do you plan to continue to act professionally as an adult? What other careers might interest you?
I dream of becoming a director… I have ideas for Broadway. I want to create a musical for the book A Wrinkle In Time! If somebody beats me to it, then I’ll audition for it.
How do you like to spend your time in Houston when you are not on stage or rehearsing for a role?
I am a big fan of downtime on my MacBook, riding bikes all over the place with my school friends, and taking classes at the Academy which i like. My TUTS friends are some of my best friends!!