by Len Lear
It is literally a true-life Cinderella story. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, 26, who grew up in East Mt. Airy as a kid who loved to sing and dreamed that one day she would actually be a professional singer and entertainer (like millions of kids who watch “American Idol”), has seen her dreams come true.
Da’Vine has a starring role as Oda Mae Brown in the smash hit, “Ghost: The Musical,” which opened on April 23 of this year at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th St. on Broadway. That’s right. Da’Vine, who was working as a nanny in New York when she was hired for “Ghost,” is a certified Broadway star now playing the role that Whoopi Goldberg originated in the 1990 hit movie, “Ghost.”
For her performance Goldberg won a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award, thus becoming only the second African American woman to ever win a “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar. (The first was Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for her “Gone with the Wind” performance. Since Whoopi’s win, there have been three more — Jennifer Hudson in 1996, Mo’Nique in 2009 and Octavia Spencer in 2011.)
“Ghost: The Musical,” which tells the same story as the movie but with music composed for the show by a group of former Tony and Grammy winners, has garnered unanimous rave reviews. For example, Newsday said it was “unlike anything seen on stage before;” The Associated Press said it was “eye-poppingly brilliant,” and Variety said it “has a limitless array of dazzling effects.” Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who told us last week that she “has not heard from Whoopi Goldberg,” has also attracted great reviews, even capturing a Tony nomination for her performance.
Da’Vine lived in Philly until the seventh grade and then moved to Hershey because her parents, Michael and Joyce, took jobs as houseparents at the Milton Hershey School. Michael Randolph has since been promoted to head of administration for the high school division.
“When I think of my home, though, it’s still Philly,” Da’Vine insists. As a young child, Da’Vine attended Philmont Christian Academy in Flourtown and then Open Door Christian Academy in Upper Darby. No one else in her family was in show business. Her mom taught kindergarten at A.B. Day School on Crittenden Street in Germantown. A younger sister, Brittney, Da’Vine’s only sibling, is currently a pre-med student in upstate New York.
After high school, Randolph came back to Philly and earned a degree in classical vocal performance from Temple University. In the summer of 2011 she graduated with a Master’s degree from the prestigious Yale School of Drama, whose most famous alumna is Meryl Streep. She then lived and worked in Harlem while trying to find work in the theater.
In her high school years, Da’Vine had an ambition to become an R&B artist until she found a voice teacher named Gwendolyn Lentz of Palmyra, whose specialty was classical music. “She saw in me the potential of being a true performer or an opera singer,” said Randolph, who remains a close friend of Lentz. “I slowly developed a love for classical music.”
After Da’Vine tried out for the Whoopi Goldberg role (Oda Mae Brown, a phony but very funny storefront “psychic”) in New York, Sharon D. Clarke, the actress who was playing Oda Mae Brown in the London/West End staging of “Ghost: The Musical,” became sick, and producers wanted Randolph to take her place.
Da’Vine was contacted on a Friday late last November and told she had to be on an overnight flight to England that Sunday and learn the role in just a few days. (“London was magical, and the cast there was so supportive,” Da’Vine said.) She turned out to be so good that when the show moved to Broadway this April, nothing could keep the Mt. Airy native from reprieving the role.
Last Friday this reporter interviewed the Tony Award nominee and asked her the following questions:
•How did you happen to pursue the much-coveted role of Oda Mae Brown?
My roommate in Harlem told me about the audition. I didn’t feel like I fit the role to a ‘T’. They wanted someone who was older and had star power, and that was definitely not me. I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about it, though, so I got up at 3 a.m. and emailed my agent. I said I know this sounds crazy, but I have to go for it. I auditioned a couple times for the “Ghost” role, and I watched the movie with Whoopi Goldberg over and over and over again, but after the auditions, I did not think I had made it.
•Did you always want to be in show business?
I’ve always had a creative spirit; I started singing in church as a child, and I’ve always known that this is what I would do. Growing up there were so many avenues for culture — the Art Museum, camps, good schools. My parents were both educators, but they supported me because they knew that this (music and performing) was my dream.
•Where exactly did you grow up in Mt. Airy?
I grew up at 8605 Fayette St. I used to ride my bike all the time in the Pathmark parking lot (on Ivy Hill Road) and do tricks. I am grateful that I grew up in Philly. It prepared me for New York. I always had that city mentality. I still feel like the girl from Philly who was kickin’ it on the stoop. Your life can be a 360 (degrees). It’s amazing.
•Why do people like “Ghost” so much?
This story (“Ghost”) has stood the test of time. It sounds like it might be mushy and romantic, but then there is also so much comedy, drama, action and mystery. And amazing special effects. It has everything you could want in a Broadway show.
•After you got a Master’s degree in drama, did you go to a lot of auditions?
I went to a handful of auditions in New York and L.A., not a ton. I did audition for “The Cotton Club” on Broadway and “The Good Life.” I thought that at L.A. auditions, maybe I could get a guest spot on a TV show, and I did get to meet with producers and casting directors.
•How much do you sing in “Ghost The Musical?”
I sing three numbers, all with other people. In London we did not have much time to rehearse, which I think helped me to keep it fresh. We are allowed to do a great deal of improv, so it does not get stale. The improv calls for a lot of trust with other cast members.
•Is the audience reaction different from night to night?
The audience reaction is always different. Some things always get laughs, but then there are things that get laughs when we do not expect them. The beauty of live theater is that the audience is a huge factor. They are my theme partner. Sometimes they are very quiet, and I think, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ But then they may explode with applause at the end. So being quiet doesn’t mean they don’t like it. We are always tweaking it. It is never really finished because we are constantly working to make it better.
•Do people recognize you on the streets of New York?
It happens a lot now that people stop me on the street who recognize me. It’s a real honor. You never get used to it. They are courageous and honest enough to approach me on the street, and it blows my mind. It’s surreal. I think, ‘Who am I?’ It is very humbling, and it is a motivator for me. It makes me want to get better. I feel like I am a politician of art to provoke change. I always want to be proud of everything I do.
Ed. note: Tickets to “Ghost: The Musical” may be purchased via www.Ticketmaster.com or by calling 877-250-2929. Ticket prices range from $57 to $137. More information at www.ghostonbroadway.com