SCHENECTADY — “[I] really wish Anthony Festa could sing,” Amanda Jane Cooper mused on her Twitter account last January. No one suspected any ill intentions from the “Wicked” actress. She followed her statement with “JK OH MY GOSH AMAZING SOUND CHECK.”
She is, after all, Glinda, the “good witch.”
Cooper attached a brief video featuring Festa alone on stage, belting out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Belivin’.” The song was a cinch for the now 28-year old Ballston Spa native to sing. Prior to making the cast of the touring production of “Wicked,” he was doing his own Steve Perry for audiences in “Rock of Ages” every night. But, the song couldn’t be more apropos for him today.
When “Wicked” returns to Proctors Theatre for a 16-show engagement starting Wednesday, March 1, Festa will make his hometown debut on its storied stage.
“It’s really cool,” said Festa, a 2006 graduate of Ballston Spa High School. “My dad used to take me to shows when I was younger. The first show I saw was “Annie” when I was like seven or eight. “Annie” made local headlines in 1999, as it featured another Ballston Spa talent in the featured role — Brittny Kissinger. “That was my first show, and I’ve seen countless of shows after that. It’s what I do.”
Festa’s parents introduced him to theatre, taking him to shows at
Proctors, which in turn spilled over into performing with the Schuylerville Community Theater when he was 12 years old. In a production of “Oliver,” Festa said he was bit by the acting bug.
“I realized when I could move the audience, and transport them, send a message out there… people would listen,” said Festa. “You can change people’s viewpoints and that’s when I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is cool. This is what I want to do.’”
Over the past eight years, Festa has appeared in a handful of shows. His cast credits include the aforementioned “Rock of Ages,” and an off-Broadway production of Jon Hartman’s and Damon Intrabartolo’s Bare: A Pop Opera.”
Festa said he’ll never forget performing before 2,500 people in his London debut as Tony in the Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein musical, “West Side Story.” The actor described the “empowering” feeling of professing his love to the audience as he sung his solo of “Maria.” To share a story, persuade the audience to think, to conjure a feeling, Festa said are intoxicating powers.
“It’s a drug I’ve been addicted to now since I was 12 years old, and professionally, the past eight years,” said Festa. “The power to hone everybody in and have them listen to you. To tell a story that means something, a story that can move somebody and make them feel something they never felt before. That’s why I do what I do.”
“Since 2009, Winnie Holzman’s and Stephen Schwartz’s “Wicked” has told an alternative fact version of the “Wizard of Oz.” The story guides audiences through the life of Elphaba, known in the original MGM Studios’ 1939 film as the “Wicked Witch of the West.” Audiences re-learn the the familar story through a different perspective, and in the process, is taught a lesson.
“It’s a positive, complex relationship between these two women. It’s rarely depicted in entertainment,” said Festa. “And, it’s about not judging someone on first impressions. I think it examines a lot about what it means to do good. And, my God, if that is not poignant right now, with what’s going on in the world today, then I don’t know who you are.”
Festa said “Wicked” Director Joe Montello expressed his desire to keep the musical relevant to current events. “Wicked” was written shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and Festa said he believes those events had an impact on the storyline, especially towards people who look differently than others. In 2017, the challenge of race relations continues to occupy headlines. But, Festa said there’s also the need to question those in power.
“‘Wicked’ is a world of fantasy, but the situations that come from out of that world is real,” said Festa. “The importance of questioning authority and not taking what readers tell us at face value.”
This week, Festa returns home to play the same stage Kissinger performed on as that little red-headed girl; his first taste of the theatre.
“I get butterflies in my stomach. Of course, I do,” said Festa, when asked if he was anxious about his return. “I mean, if I don’t, I don’t know if I should be doing what I’m doing. Does that make any sense?” He explained how the anxious feeling serves as a “pleasant” reminder of his lot in life. “Every time I [perform at] any venue. I’ve performed at some pretty amazing venues that are just truly inspiring. But, yeah. I get butterflies in my stomach, all the time. All the time. And, definitely for Proctors. Proctors holds a very special place in my heart.”
Festa prepared for his return by blasting the news through a Facebook announcement to his high school friends. Best friends, and friends he hasn’t heard from in years, shared their words of excited anticipation, including his music and chorus teacher, Valerie Lord. “She’s always been a big advocate [of mine],” he said.
The actor’s homecoming will be topped off in the best way an “Italian boy” knows how. He comes back home to family, where his sister recently made him an uncle. And, Festa exclaimed, “I get mama’s meatballs!” But, his return unfortunately has a touch of the bittersweet. His father died from cancer in 2015. He’s still present in Festa’s thoughts.
“[My father,] if he was around right now, he would be running around that town, telling everyone, ‘My son’s gonna be at Proctors,’” he said.
Festa will appear as part of the cast ensemble on this tour. The young actor has a Zen like approach to a career full of potential.
“I’m always learning, and always will be — always growing,” said Festa. It’s going to have its ups and downs. Everybody’s career is going to be a different career. And, everyone in this business is at a different point. Everyone is at a different part of their journey. And, you have to remember that and not compare, and not to get jealous. You’re doing this for yourself, your reasons. You want to connect to people. You want your message to be heard, and you have your own, unique ability. Define that unique ability. Hone into that.”
“The guy on the subway can sing. Everybody can sing. Everybody can sing. It’s not about that. It’s about what makes you you. Why is that interesting and why does everybody need to see and hear that. That’s what’s cool about what we do. And how much more we can continue to learn and dive more into our psyche and into becoming an individual that is so interesting to watch.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.