Award-winning musical actor and singer Natasha Drena plays the legendary Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow,” starting Jan. 8 at the Kavinoky Theatre. Drena, 40, lives in Savannah, Ga., where she’s the artistic director at the Lucas Theater’s cabaret series. She’s starred in shows such as “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and as Fantine in “Les Miserables.”
Throughout her career, starting at age 8 when she sang “Over the Rainbow” for an audition, her interest in portraying Garland has grown. This is her third time playing the role in a stage production (Buffalo’s Lisa Ludwig directs her for the second time); Drena also has a cabaret act, “You Made Me Love You,” in which she chronicles her affinity for the singer.
Question: How have you grown into this role?
Answer: My first teacher assumed that I loved Judy Garland, so she taught me many songs that Garland made famous. In college, one of our accompanists had actually worked with Garland for years. He said that if I worked at it, I could really sound like her. For the next four years, I received a half hour per day of free private coaching from him. To have that was incredible. He knew her personal history, plus he had done arrangements for her … he knew why there were different versions of songs. He helped expand the octave range of how I can sound like her.
Q: What attracts you to the outsized characters, both fictional and non-fictional, that you’ve played?
A: From the first time I saw “Les Miserables,” I loved Fantine – usually everyone loves Cosette or Eponine. There is more to dig into with complex characters. The happy and sweet stories are not real; life is grittier than that.
As an actor you don’t always know that you have the ability to do it; I’ve worked with artistic directors who’ve said, “I think you should play this part, you can bring something to it.”
I’m “all in” with theater — I make big choices all the time. I would rather do that, and have the director say “No,” than wait for someone to tell me what do to. That’s my advice to those starting out, as well: make your choices, don’t just be a puppet.
Q. Is there pressure in playing real-life characters?
A: The writing in “End of the Rainbow” is so good. As the main character, I’m in all ten scenes — I’m on the roller coaster and there’s no getting off. Judy is constantly fighting for what she wants. It’s pretty easy for me — she wanted her voice to be heard. She was a tiny human, under 5 feet yet she captivated audiences of over 2,500 people.
In portraying a troubled icon, I use the basics of Acting 101: be immersed in truth and honesty. The dialogue in the show talks about how her drug addiction started, why she started drinking again; humans can understand these things.
Q: How do you prepare for, and relate to, the character?
A: I constantly listen to her speak and sing; study her mannerisms. I watch zillions of YouTube videos, paying attention to her own words — she made many audio recordings; she wanted to tell her own story. I connect with her strength and her vulnerability — one of my professors said that I have that quality, of being okay with others seeing those insecurities and flaws. I really related when, after the show got good reviews in Atlanta, I started to panic, thinking, now I have to do that every day. She felt that pressure, to transcend expectations and pressures. I don’t want to let audiences down.
Q: What do you hope the audience gets from it?
A: I hope they take away that everyone is human. People have vices and make mistakes, but there is an “over the rainbow.” Yes, she overdosed … it was ruled as an accident. I believe that she was happy in the end; she found love — felt like she was in love. That’s what I’d like people to remember.
What: “End of the Rainbow”
When: Jan. 8-31
Where: Kavinoky Theatre at D’Youville College, 320 Porter Ave.
Tickets: $38 to $42
Info: 829-7668 or kavinokytheatre.com