As any Broadway performer will tell you, the swings — those folks who have to memorize the entire show and then jump off the sidelines at a moment’s notice to play a role — are the real MVPs of musical theatre. Still, nothing could prepare Atlanta native Teshomech Olenja for being a swing in the current national tour of “Beautiful The Carole King Musical,” returning to Atlanta’s Fox Theatre this Friday through Sunday for five performances.
Olenja has been in the Tony Award winning musical since last fall and along with the rest of the cast has skillfully navigated doing a tour during a global pandemic with multiple surges in infections and/or positive COVID tests that sidelined performers and audiences alike.
I have to commit five different roles to memory,” recalled Olenja while resting up in Atlanta during a tour break. “At any time, I could get thrown on. The one performance I’ll never forget was back in December at the height of the [Delta] variant. We were playing the Kennedy Center and I had to go on for three different roles [Little Eva, Janelle Woods and a member of The Shirelles] in one performance. That was the day I proved to myself that I can do anything in this world!”
As a kid growing up in Albany, Georgia, Olenja says she was mesmerized watching her older brother’s glee club perform songs from the Broadway musical “Smokey Joe’s Café” and knew she wanted to join the glee club as soon as she got to high school.
Enrolled at Atlanta’s Carver School of the Arts [now a part of Carver Early College], Olenja’s very first musical was also a 60’s-themed show “with a girl group vibe”: “Little Shop of Horrors.” “Are you starting to see a theme here?” she asked laughing. “I knew nothing about musicals but I knew I loved to sing and I knew I loved to dance and I wanted to get into acting. After that, I got the bug.”
Still, being a swing in a national touring production as COVID slowly recedes can be a bit nerve-rattling. Explained Olenja: “Not all superheroes wear capes and as I say that, I’m going to brush my shoulder a little bit [laughs]. During the rehearsal process, as a swing, we have to learn all of the parts at one time, off to the side. Usually, swings will have a rehearsal where you get to do [the role] on the stage in real time with your changes. But my first time in the show, I got called in at the last minute — 23 minutes until places were called. That was really, really scary. The first few months, I had so much anxiety. I’ve done more shows than most of my castmates so I don’t think they believed me when I said that usually the swings are just sitting backstage most of the time. On this tour, I’m still waiting for the time when I can just sit backstage. Maybe one day soon!”
But even with all of the uncertainty of life as a swing, Olenja says it feels great to be bringing this jukebox musical of Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil/Barry Mann and King’s solo iconic American songs to audiences right now. “This music is timeless. It feels so good and it gets stuck in your head all day. After all this time, I still love the songs, even doing eight shows a week. You can’t get tired of it. We have a lot of magical moments in this show. Our performances [last month] in Hawaii really reminded me of that. They clapped in moments I had never heard people clap. Each city is different. I especially love the quick changes in this show. The audience goes crazy. I also love the moment in the show when Carole King is getting ready to move to California to pursue her solo career and Carole, Barry and Cynthia gather around the piano to sing “You’ve Got a Friend.” I sit on the side of the stage and watch it. It’s just so beautiful.”
With five performances over three days this weekend at the Fox, Olenja says she’s anticipating being tired, especially with 25 first cousins planning to come in from Albany to see her. “When times get rough in this industry, what keeps me going is wanting my family to see that if you dream something, you can do it,” she says. “This moment right here, doing this show in Atlanta is so special to me. My family will get to see me do this show at the fabulous Fox Theatre. And most of them have never seen a musical. Like me, they’re from the country. Most of them have never even been on a plane. I want them to know that even though you come from this place where you don’t have a lot of opportunities, the world is open to you. You can do anything.”
No matter what city she’s performing in, Teshomech Olenja says the lessons learned at Carver School of the Arts remain with her: “At Carver, I not only learned the tools I needed to do this but I also discovered a sense of community and to keep the fun in what you’re doing. If it becomes a job, you end up making a living. But what I gained at Carver is to remember to have fun.”
“Beautiful The Carole King Musical” plays at the Fox Theatre Friday, May 20 to Sunday, May 22. For more information on tickets and performance times, go to the Fox Theatre website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.