No place like home

Prior to this year, Annapolis native Justin Brill had only seen one play at the Kennedy Center, and that was when he was a teenager and his family took his mom to see "Beauty and the Beast" onMother's Day.

For his second time around at the internationally known theater, Brill has one of the best views in the house as he performs nightly in the popular production of "Wicked," which opened at the Kennedy Center on June 16 and runs through Aug. 21.

"It was awe inspiring and a little intimidating to be in the Kennedy Center from the stage," the 32-year-old Brill said after the opening. "I've had roles in plays at the Palace Theatre and Metropolitan Opera in New York, but the Kennedy Center has a larger-than-life feel to it. It's aesthetically beautiful, it's in the nation's capital and the aura of its history is special. It's fantastic to be performing here, and the first time I've performed this close to home. "

Brill plays the role of the Munchkin character Boq in the musical, which provides the back story to the 1939 classic film "The Wizard of Oz." Winnie Holzman did the book, adapted from the 1995 best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire, "Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West." The show debuted on Broadway in 2003 and won three Tonys and a Grammy.

Since "Wicked" began it's national tour in 2005 while still being performed on Broadway, it has broken box-office records by selling out in record time in every city where it has been performed, including its first staging at the Kennedy Center that year, and for the first week of the show this time around as well. On Broadway, it currently grosses nearly $2 million each week.

"The popularity of 'Wicked' makes it more than a theater piece, but a phenomenon with some people following the show from city to city. The writing, the music and the technical aspects of the play are amazing," Brill said. "The response of the audience is always astounding, and it's fascinating to see how audiences nationwide react to the show and which jokes play in which cities."

The show explores the early lives of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch of the North). The twists, turns, lies, treachery and numerous surprises in the show, put a new spin on Oz's familiar.

"To the extent it can, 'Wicked' explores the power of propaganda, the (corrupt) politics of Oz, and the fascinating relationship of two women," Brill said. "The show also tells us you can't judge things at first take because that's not always how they turn out to be, and also that in relationships there's always something to be learned from someone and enjoyed."

After being a part of ensemble and the understudy for the innocent, gullible and lovable Boq for six months, Brill took over the role and has played it for the past 18 months. In preparing for the role, he compared his own character traits to those of Boq.

"Boq is extremely helpful and loving, and I have that in common with him," said Brill of his character, who turns out to be a major character in "The Wizard of Oz."

"His love for Glinda dictated his actions, and he's extremely focused on his goal (getting Glinda). And although I am a focused person, I have lots of things going on at once and am not focused on one thing. I have lots of hobbies. I play golf, fantasy baseball and fantasy football, and when I'm on the computer I'm all over the place."

The Kennedy Center production stars Amanda Jane Cooper, as the ambitious Glinda, and Dee Roscioli, as the misunderstood and victimized Elphaba. Each has starred in a long list of productions in New York theaters and other venues, and Roscioli has played Elphaba in Chicago and San Francisco and on Broadway. Brill said he's enjoying working with both stars.

"Dee and Amanda are a lot of fun when I see them backstage and are wonderfully intense performers on stage. Amanda has great comedic timing and fun energy, which is infectious. Dee is so comfortable and at ease on stage in this enormous role she's playing. It's wonderful working with both of them," he said.

Brill is also enjoying working with his wife, Shanna VanDerwerker, the show's dance captain and a swing ensemble member. He said the show also provides him with a fun role that's given his career a big boost.

Prior to landing the role in the touring company, Brill starred as Patsy in the Las Vegas production of "Spamalot" and as Pepper in "Mamma Mia." On Broadway, he landed roles in "Rent," "All Shook Up" and "High Fidelity." He starred in "A Christmas Carol," at Madison Square Garden and as Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Metropolitan Opera, which he describes as his first big break.

After graduating in 2000 from Carnegie Mellon University 's School of Drama, he moved to New York.

"I did temp work in offices, handed out fliers on the street, I worked in catering and sang songs at private parties and bar mitzvahs to karaoke tracks," he recalled, laughing. "But even after I performed in three Broadway shows, and in Las Vegas, I was unemployed later for a year, so it's a roller coaster career of ups and downs. You just have to manage the highs and lows and keep yourself sharp when you're not performing. I would do free readings, I'd teach workshops and other outreach to stay sharp."

That commitment to his craft and determination to succeed were traits Brill said he developed while growing up in a musical family in the Pedigree Point community in Annapolis. He spent a lot of time there watching movie musicals on television, including "The Wizard of Oz" and his favorite, "Singin' in the Rain."

Brill attended the UCLA theater camp each summer and played the role of the cowardly lion in a "Wizard of Oz" production at the school.

In Annapolis, Brill landed lead roles repeatedly with the Children's Theatre of Annapolis and the Talent Machine Company, founded by one of his drama teachers, the late Bobbi Smith, who worked with Brill throughout his early years and helped shape his career.

It was while he was in junior high, working with Smith and other drama teachers that Brill decided he wasn't just doing school plays and other theater productions for fun, but wanted to make a career of it.

Jane Daugherty, a high school teacher of Brill's, said she immediately recognized that Brill was a gifted student and knew he was destined for success.

"I've seen many kids with talent, but it's the drive and focus he demonstrated at an early age and his passion that put him a cut above the average," Daugherty said. "I also saw growth in him when he was a student because he never took his talent for granted and continued to polish his skill. He's never stopped."

Brill has done benefits to raise money for various causes in Annapolis over the years, and is scheduled to host a cabaret benefit at the Children's Theatre of Annapolis on June 27 to raise money for a breast cancer foundation and the New York-based Infinity Theatre Company, which brings its New York shows to the Children's Theatre of Annapolis.

As for 'Wicked,' Brill is hoping his contract is renewed when it expires in October, so he can continue working with his wife in a show he loves.

"It's a fantastic show that keeps people coming back," Brill said. "I'm glad to be a part of it."

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