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‘It’s possible:’ Mainer shines in Cinderella

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Just a few years ago, Belfast native Grant Richards was living the life of a regular teen, albeit not quite a typical one: he ran track, worked summers as a lifeguard at the city pool and delighted audiences with his lead performances in community musical theater productions.

Richards, 22, is still singing, acting and dancing, but he’s now doing so in front of much bigger crowds. While still in college, he performed as a backup singer for Josh Groban. Last summer he performed in an off-Broadway musical, and for the last several months he has been busy as an ensemble member of the National Broadway Tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.

The show is coming to Bangor on Thursday, Feb. 1 and to Portland on Friday, Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 3. Richards is very much looking forward to seeing friends and family in the audience as he leaps, sings and dances on the stage, and sharing Cinderella with them.

“Hey, Maine, look what happened. Look what people can do,” he said in a phone interview from San Antonio, Texas, where the company had just performed. “This is what you can do if you do what you love. This is what you can do if you support the arts.”

His own journey in the arts began when he was very small, thanks in large measure to the support of his parents, Butch and Elyzabeth Richards. Butch, a teacher and longtime football coach at Belfast Area High School, loved playing music, and his mom, Elyzabeth, was a dancer.

“Growing up, my parents always thought the arts were incredibly important, which I’m so grateful for,” Richards said. “We were encouraged to run around and sing and act, and I would direct my own movies. The arts were always part of my life.”

Still, he wasn’t sure he wanted to focus on them as a career until a formative event happened during his high school years. His mom got sick and spent time in the hospital’s intensive care unit, and asked him to bring his portable piano and play for her.

“She told me it made her feel better,” Richards recalled. “At that moment, I had a huge epiphany — the arts could help people.”

So he honed his performance skills, and was a private acting student of Belfast director Aynne Ames.

“Nobody works harder,” she said this week. “And he’s nice to work with. If you have to work with somebody six weeks in a row on a show, you want them to be nice. He’s nice, he’s thoughtful, he’s generous.”

But it’s his work ethic — and talent — that set him apart, she said. Richards is a talented dancer, singer and actor, who she expects will not stop with off-Broadway shows and the Cinderella National Tour.

“He’s got his eye on the prize, and he doesn’t expect anybody to do it for him,” Ames said. “He does the work. He’s so incredibly focused, and he intends to win. Not in some unhealthy way. Not to beat someone else. He wants to be the best he can be, and he’s about finding out how to do that.”

After graduating from Belfast Area High School in 2013, Richards attended Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, and earned a BFA in musical theater and a minor in dance. In his last semester, he did a special program where he went to New York City and focused on musical theater.

“We had dance training and master classes,” Richards said, adding that New York City remains the epicenter of theater in America. “Broadway and off-Broadway shows are really where the true beauty of live theater and dance are. It’s really a beautiful city to be in.”

He arrived at a lively moment in the world of theater, with new works being produced alongside beloved favorites and seldom-seen works in revival. Right after he graduated last year, Richards was cast in a revival of a show called “Amerike — The Golden Land,” which tells the story of New York’s Jewish immigrant population. It is in Yiddish, so Richards worked with dialect and language coaches to help him play his roles.

After Amerike closed at the end of the summer, he was cast in Cinderella. The classic musical was originally broadcast on television starring Julie Andrews (a later version starred Lesley Ann Warren in the title role), and in 2013, a stage version debuted on Broadway. The stage show, now touring nationally, is jam-packed with music, dancing, elaborate costumes, and its share of magic, Richards said.

“This is my first theatrical tour, and we’ve played in some beautiful venues,” he said. “It’s wonderful sharing the story, which is about kindness, which is relevant right now. When we go city to city, we talk about kindness. And one of our hashtags is ‘it’s possible.’ It’s a beautiful and fulfilling message to go on stage and share.”

Richards is in the ensemble, which means that he does a lot of dancing but doesn’t have a specific, named role. However, that could change with little notice. He is an understudy for the part of Lord Pinkleton, one of the prince’s friends who sings a lot in an operatic tenor. Richards recently made his debut as Pinkleton in St. Louis, Missouri.

“You have to be ready,” he said. “I had practiced. I was off-book. I had my tracking [the music] and my blocking. But I had never interacted with the energy of the audience, had put on the costume or had done it with the orchestra.”

That weekend, he played Lord Pinkleton in front of nearly 10,000 people, and was a success.

“Of course, I shed a tear at the end,” he said.

That hasn’t been Richards’ only highlight of the tour, of course. He has performed in more than 70 shows, in cities all over the country, and gotten close to the large cast and crew who have become his “Cinderella family.”

“When Cinderella comes to town, everyone jokes that we take over the city,” he said. “We do become a family. We see so many beautiful things in the world and share so many adventures.”

They also work hard. There’s a lot of muscle that goes into the beauty and excitement the audience should see on the stage, he said.

“It’s a very dance-heavy show. Some numbers are marathons and some are sprints,” he said. “Everyone is in such incredible shape. You have to be. People underestimate the amount of work that goes into getting that ‘wow’ factor. It’s such hard work.”

But it’s worth it, he said. At times, audiences have given the performers standing ovations mid-show, especially after particularly magical dress changes. Other times, there will be a moment of hushed silence when Cinderella walks on stage.

“You can feel the energy,” he said.

Richards can see the joy and surprise on the faces of people watching the performers, and it moves him. In this era of people who are glued to their phones, live theater can play a powerful role, he believes.

“If I can go on stage and affect someone in the audience in a way that they can experience an emotional release, or they laugh, or they’ve changed, I feel I’ve showed someone how to be a human again,” he said.

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