In the Spotlight: Kendall Johnson, from ‘Secret Garden’ to this weekend’s cabaret

Kendall Johnson. (Photos contributed by Kendall Johnson)

Kendall Johnson has been a Birmingham theater regular for years, but it almost didn’t happen. He filled in for an absent actor in a musical, and he didn’t look back. This weekend, he’s solo, performing as part of Carl People’s Central Alabama Theater’s C.A.T. Cabaret. He’ll take to the stage Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Steeple Arts in Crestline. But first, he’s answering a few questions about his theater career and what to expect from his cabaret show.

 Are you from Birmingham?

I was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina.  I’ve been in Birmingham about 20 years.

What about theater? How did that start for you?

Musical theater came to me.  I was asked to fill in a role, someone had backed out, in Center Stage’s production of “The Secret Garden” in 2003.  After that, I auditioned for and booked “Smokey Joe’s Café,” at RMTC and it’s been on ever since.

What’s your first memory of being on stage?

Well, if the church is to be considered a stage, the church choir is definitely my first memory of being on stage.

What’s your favorite role you’ve played or show you’ve been in?

There are a few but I’ll narrow it to two.  Sportin Life in “Porgy and Bess” and The Leading Player in “Pippin” (would love another crack at that).  I clearly love to play the sinister antagonist.

Who is your favorite composer?

It changes.  Today, I’ll go with Gershwin.

Who is your favorite playwright?

Currently, it’s Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Do you have a favorite show?

Yes, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Do you have a favorite song from a show?

“Somewhere,” from “West Side Story.”

What’s a performance (on stage or screen) that sticks out to you as an audience member?

I clearly am not good with decisions.  LOL.  Too many to name, but Nell Carter was genius in “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”  Go, Alabama!

What is a role you wish you will or could have played?

I would looooooooove to take on Jerry/Daphne in “Some Like It Hot”! Weeeewww.

Any great advice you’ve been given by a director or anyone else about being on stage?

Yes.  When we did “The Wiz” in 2015, the director told us in a few words, if your vocal embellishments don’t tell the character’s story, you’re telling your own story and that’s going to lessen the impact of your performance.  I’ll never forget that.  As a singer, in musical theater, I try to stay true to my character through my vocal choices.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

Sure do, and they are, indeed, rituals.  Drink lots of water, humidify, rest, throat teas, lozenges and, of course, salt and vinegar potato chips (they’re nasty but when I tell you they lubricate the cords; I only eat them when I sing.

Tell me about a time something went wrong on stage.

Bahahaha.  There are so many stories, but the time I was Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” in 2007, and Toto pooped on stage during a critical scene with the four friends; let’s just say it was magical. 

Tell me something people might be surprised to know about you.

I get very nervous right before performances.  But I usually sneak out before every performance to peep at the crowd from behind the curtain, and I say a prayer that someone out there, if not everyone, gets blessed and inspired by what we’re about to offer them. 

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re not performing?

I love the divas.  So give me ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s pop, rock and R&B on any given day.

What’s the last book you read?

Billy Porter’s autobiography, “Unprotected.”

What’s the last TV series you binged?

“Them,” on Netflix.

Tell me about the cabaret – how did that come up? Have you done a concert like that before? 

I came to one last year and after seeing it, I thought maybe I should do that.  That night Carl Peoples suggested that I do it.  I think it’s divine because he asked me before I even let him know I wanted to do it.  This is my first time doing an hour-plus set as a solo person.  It’s been theater all these years.  Exciting!

What can people expect in the show?

I’m calling it “A Night in 1987,” when I was a pre-teen singing to the radio or my cassettes, in my grandma’s den.  I used to put on these imaginary concerts, and I’m going to bring that to life, in front of an audience, through song and stories.

What’s next for you?

Well, in the near future (this summer), I’m in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at RMTC.  After that, my goal is to do more gigging, here and there, as just Kendall Johnson, with some songs.

C.A.T. Cabaret, with Kendall Johnson, May 11, 7:30 p.m., at Steeple Arts, 38 Church St., Mountain Brook.

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