Austene Van, a brilliant performer, has long been outshone by fellow stars Jevetta Steele and Regina Marie Williams. But not because she’s, per se, a lesser talent. However, Steele saw her profile incredibly heightened by a stint in her autobiographical hit Two Queens, One Castle at Mixed Blood Theatre and Williams saw hers receive a tremendous boost when she performed in Dinah Was…at Penumbra Theatre Company.
I’ve written on more than one occasion that Austene Van, —while for years enjoying the enviable success of not needing a day job and being able to make a rock solid living at theatre — sings beautifully, acts her hips off and can trip the proverbial light fantastic hadn’t come across just the right vehicle to distinguish her as a leading lady. Well, she found one in the form of Aida, which had a recent run this past January in downtown Minneapolis at the Hennepin Theater Trust’s Pantages Theatre.
It’s fairly understandable why Austene Van — to those for whom the name doesn’t ring quite the same bell as does Steele or Williams — has been a harder fit for the Cinderella slipper, despite the fact that she’s a Penumbra company member and mainstay on the venue’s stage. It was clear many seasons ago, when I first saw her as the fetching young wench “Ruby” in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars that she had pretty good acting chops.
When she was cast at Pillsbury House Theatre in a staged reading of my play, Shelter, I don’t mind saying, I was plenty proud, in fact, overjoyed.
This last season, when she played the saucy hypocrite Sister Moore in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, it was evident she’d only grown stronger over the years. She was also part of that powerhouse singing ensemble for Two Queens, One Castle as producer Jack Reuler put together a cast stacked with ringers: Steele, Williams and Van on one stage at the same time is nothing less than Twin Cities theatre history.
The thing is, Austene Van is a marvelous vocalist, but not quite the same caliber as the other two, both of whom are known for belting a tune right through a brick wall. And, though blessed with fascinating charisma, she’s a slim, tiny little thing and doesn’t possess the same commanding physical presence.
However, as Aida, she enjoyed a successful, month-long run, pulling off the title role with a world of grace. Van reflects, “I was allowed the opportunity to stretch in so many different creative ways that I’m not often afforded. Peter Rothstein, Michael Ferrell and Jason Hansen created a safe, supportive and nurturing environment. Our rehearsals were rich with risks, creativity and permission to fail.”
Fail she did not, airing those magnificent singing chops for all she’s worth, drawing on a rich palette to subtly shade her notes and, yes, showing considerable power. It was a delightful surprise.
Ladies of the stage, as a matter of course, nail the high notes, which Van does admirably. This material, though, she expanded to explore her lower range and hits at such depths that left the audience sitting there, doing a slack-jawed double take. She delivered a killer performance.
If you don’t know the story, it’s one of those formulaic Broadway staples about star-crossed love between an old-world Nubian slave and Egyptian warrior: no one, of course, expects a rich narrative or any other sort of profundity from a musical, not even one put together by Elton John and Tim Rice.
The point is, Austene Van has finally found a vehicle that puts her front and center. And theatre-goers were all the better off for it.
Next up, begining March 14, Van will perform in Zora Neale Hurston’s rich mixture of storytelling, dance and the blues, Spunk at Penumbra Theatre Company. The play features a stellar ensemble that includes Jevetta Steele, Dennis W. Spears and T. Mychael Rambo. She’s pleased to be in the production and can’t say enough good about director, Patdro Harris, extolling, “I’ve worked with Patdro on three projects, Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Penumbra and The San Diego Rep and Crowns at The Guthrie. [He] works hard and demands excellence.”
Hard work and excellence have never been a problem for Van. This should be a strong show, and splendid follow-up for the freshly risen star Austene Van.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.