photo by Jay Adkins - olivia wingate and russell lehman at the Orpheum’s 2013 high school musical awards
On a recent trip to New York City, Russell Lehman dined at Sardi’s, the famous Theatre District restaurant. While there, the 17-year-old actor visited the secret room where agents negotiate contracts for rising stars, a place the ambitious high school senior would one day like to be.
It wouldn’t surprise Lindsay Krosnes. The Orpheum Theatre’s education manager calls Russell a “triple threat,” a kid who can sing, dance, and act. Since 2010, the teen has participated in 31 local productions and won impressive awards. Russell glammed up in bowtie and dress coat to play Billy Crocker in the musical Anything Goes last spring at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. With smooth tap moves and a baritenor voice, he was every bit the urbane gentleman. He even choreographed many of the show’s numbers.
At the time, he was recovering from sinus surgery and a tonsillectomy. He couldn’t dance or sing during the first weeks of rehearsal. “My sinuses were blocked before surgery, so I had to learn to sing again,” he says. “It was like having a new voice.”
He rebounded in style, his performance impressing the judges enough to earn him the nod for Outstanding Actor during the Orpheum’s 2013 High School Musical Theatre Awards. In a dazzling show staged last May, teens from across the city performed and received awards in 25 categories.
Next, Russell headed to the Big Apple for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards. He joined Olivia Wingate, Memphis’ Outstanding Actress, and 60 other talented teens for a week of vocal and acting coaching, study with Broadway choreographer Kiesha Lalama, and a session with a casting agency.
Students rehearsed ensemble numbers for The Jimmy Awards ceremony at Minskoff Theatre, and Russell reprised “Year of the Top” in a group medley. “So I performed my own choreography on the Minskoff stage,” he says, still astonished.
Though he didn’t win the coveted Best Performance award, the experience fueled his desire to become a professional. Russell discovered dance and acting as a kid at summer camp. After flying across the stage in Peter Pan, soccer lost its appeal. His mother, Andi, who is also active in the theatre, asked, “Would you like to do one of those big shows?”
Her question opened doors. Now the homeschooled teen dashes to dance and voice lessons and never refuses a challenge. Last winter, Russell won a role in White Christmas at Panola Theatre in Sardis, Mississippi. When the director/choreographer fell ill, the board asked Russell’s mother, an experienced director, to step in. Next they called Russell: Would he take on the choreography work?
With only six weeks to opening night, Russell dreamed up dance moves and rehearsed his role, winning an Allie Award (given by the Northwest Mississippi Theater Alliance) for Best Dancer and Best Choreography.
This month, Russell acts and helps his mom direct Mel Brooks’ campy musical, Young Frankenstein. His other hats include assistant director, choreographer, lighting designer, and special effects wizard.
“The show is his vision,” says Andi.
At rehearsal, Russell demonstrates tap steps for “Putting on the Ritz.” He steps off stage to watch the dancers. “Did you hear how crisp that was? You’re traveling with it now!” He’s younger than many of the actors, but they’re drawn to his confidence.
The cast departs, leaving Russell to wrestle with an 11-foot tall Frankenstein which he must figure out how to move to the corner of the stage. Then actors will practice throwing it back and forth during one number. “It’s all so much fun,” he says.
Up next, Russell will portray LeFou in Beauty and the Beast.