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Mar 15, 2015
May 24, 2004|By MIKE HOLTZCLAW Daily Press

Many singers and dancers who got their start at Busch Gardens have ended up in NYC shows

Deana DeHart made one of her regular trips to New York earlier this year, and for the first time she realized that it wasn't going to be sufficient. DeHart heads up to Broadway every year to see the singers and dancers who used to perform in her shows at Busch Gardens. She's been entertainment manager at the Williamsburg theme park for the past 20 years, and these days Busch Gardens alumni are more visible than ever on Broadway.

In January, DeHart went to see Krystal Washington, who had just taken over the lead role of Mimi in "Rent." While she was there, she also wanted to take in "Wicked," which featured Derrick Washington and movie star Taye Diggs, both of whom used to perform at Busch. The problem was, she didn't know how she would be able to squeeze in a performance of "Aida," featuring Grasan Kingsberry. Just then she learned that Allison Patterson had been picked to replace a performer who was temporarily unavailable for "42nd Street."

"There were just too many tough choices," DeHart says, not sounding at all disappointed by the dilemma. "So now I have to take another trip up there soon just to see the ones I missed in January."

With no new rides to promote this year, Busch Gardens is focusing its advertising campaign on its live shows. That makes DeHart happy. Over the years, she says, the park's stage shows have developed a devoted fan base -- regulars who come to Busch Gardens for the shows as much as for the rides, people who know the performers by name.

But this season, the shows -- such as the rollicking "Jukebox 2004" revue -- will be receiving even more attention. And DeHart has a word of advice to folks who are only now discovering them: Pay attention. Because these anonymous performers, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, are on their way to bigger things.

"I've have always said that we hire some of the most talented people in the entire country," DeHart says. "Over the years, our reputation has grown to the point that when performers audition for us, they understand what a challenge it will be and what a stepping stone it could turn into."

Before Taye Diggs helped Stella get her groove back, before Blair Underwood hung out his shingle on "L.A. Law," they performed on stage at Busch Gardens. But the movie and TV stars are anomalies. Mostly, it's singers, dancers and live stage performers who have used Busch Gardens as a springboard to the big time -- using their days off to carpool to New York and hit as many auditions as possible.

When Krystal Washington came to Busch Gardens in 1999, she was a fashion merchandising major at Ball State University looking for a fun summer job. A friend had worked there the previous summer and said it was a blast. Washington auditioned, got hired, and performed in Busch shows until late summer 2001, when she was offered the lead role in the top touring production of the hit stage show "Rent." That eventually led to her playing the role on Broadway.

"The funny thing is," Washington says, "in the summer of 1998 one of my professors had asked the class to write about what we would be doing in five years. I knew everyone else would be writing about the clothes they would be designing and marketing and buying and selling. And I wanted to be different. So just for fun, I wrote: I'll be the lead female in a Broadway play."

The prophecy never would have come true without DeHart and Busch Gardens.

"I cannot even begin to tell you how much she taught me," Washington says. "Little things, like holding my center and lots of little dance techniques that I had no idea about before she showed me. And major things, too, like how to take notes and how to keep learning from every situation. She challenged me to do things I never thought I could do. I still don't consider myself a dancer, but every time she hears me say that she tells me, 'But you left here a more confident nondancer than you were when you got here.' "

Derrick Williams, who starred in "Aida" before moving into his current Broadway role in "Wicked," also talks about everything he learned from DeHart. Like Washington, he cites countless bits of performance technique. But more than anything else, he says, DeHart taught him the importance of professionalism.

He came to Busch Gardens fresh out of Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk. Every day, he would head through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. It was a long commute, interminable when traffic was backed up, and sometimes he would arrive late and blame it on the I-64 construction work. Finally DeHart let him know that wasn't acceptable.

"And that was a good thing, because that's what I needed to hear," Williams says. "She told me, 'You can't be late anymore,' and I wasn't late for the next three years, even if it meant leaving home two hours early. And to this day, whether I'm on Broadway or working in a commercial or whatever, I can see that lateness is not tolerated."

Deon Ridley echoes that sentiment, and he says his three years at Busch Gardens taught him many lessons that he still uses today as dance captain in Celine Dion's hit Las Vegas show "A New Day."

"I was still in high school when I started at Busch, and it really taught me how to carry myself," Ridley says. "Working in theater, there's a certain professional attitude that you have to have. Things like being properly warmed up before a show. At Busch Gardens, we didn't have understudies; if you were in the show, you were in the show, and it was up to you to be ready. I also learned how to deal with people and deal with egos, because there were so many talented people at Busch Gardens whose respect you had to earn."

So many of the stories come back to "Rockin' the Boat," the original production that DeHart and her cast put together in 1997. Over the revue's four-year run, the cast included perhaps a dozen performers who eventually graduated to Broadway. DeHart calls it her favorite time period of her 20 years at Busch Gardens -- the joy of setting impossibly lofty goals for the production, and then watching a hungry and talented young cast make it happen.

"They just tried their hearts out, and we were willing to try anything," DeHart says. "At one point, someone had the crazy idea of popping balloons rhythmically during the tap number. When it worked, the audience just went nuts. But the first two days the show opened, it only worked twice, so we had to get rid of it. But it was amazing to watch them try to make it work -- and then to watch them figure out how to replace it with something that was still great but that would work every time."

Williams will never forget what it was like to develop "Rockin' the Boat," and he says he still draws on that experience with each professional role.

"That show was almost like a Broadway workshop for us," he says. "We tried something, and if it didn't work we tried something else. We would decide to switch the song -- from 'Let's Hold on to What We've Got' to 'New York, New York' -- and then figure out how to make it work in the show. It was the whole creative process, from start to finish, and that was the first time I'd ever worked putting a show together like that."

DeHart, 48, came to Busch Gardens as a performer and dance supervisor under Linda Cuddihy, the park's entertainment manager. DeHart moved on to dance professionally in New York, but on a trip home to her family's farm in Roanoke, she was kicked in the knee by a horse. The ligament damage ended her dance career.

Around that time, she went back to visit her friends at Busch Gardens and learned that Cuddihy was being promoted to vice president of entertainment. DeHart was hired to fill Cuddihy's old job. She has never gotten tired of working with the young performers.

"If there's one thing I try to stress to them, it's that they need to love the process of the craft," she says. "It's not about how many turns a dancer can do, or how many high notes a singer can hit. It's about the process. If you love the process of creating a show, if you treat that preparation as an adventure, then you're going to love the finished product."

And speaking of finished products, DeHart still stays busy trying to keep up with her former pupils. There was the time she went to see "Rent," opened the program and saw the name Todd Pettiford. Afterward, she chastised him for not letting her know that he'd landed on Broadway. Or the time she went to see "Aida" and realized that Derrick Williams had left the cast to join another production -- but that he had been replaced by another Busch graduate, Grasan Kingsberry.

"I sit in the crowd and watch them, and I almost feel like their mother," she says. "Just nothing but bursting with pride. It's a wonderful feeling." *


HOURS: Open daily at 10 a.m. Closes between 7 and 10 p.m., depending on the day.

DAILY ADMISSION: $46.95 for adults, $39.95 for children ages 3-6.

PARKING: $8 per vehicle

THE SHOWS: The park is emphasizing its shows and live performances this season, particularly the "Jukebox 2004" song-and-dance revue. The "Irish Thunder" dance show is up and running, and "Imaginique" begins on June 19. Other shows include the European-themed "The Secret of Castle O'Sullivan" and "This is Oktoberfest," and musical performances such as "Starlight Orchestra" and "Holiday in Roma." The newest show is "Pet Shenanigans," an animal show featuring dogs and other performing pets. The interactive movies, "R.L. Stine's Haunted Lighthouse" and "Corkscrew Hill" are also popular.

SEASON PASSES: $99.95 for a Silver Pass (admission to Busch Gardens throughout the season, includes parking and discounts on food and merchandise inside the park), $139.95 for a Gold Pass (also includes admission to Water Country USA). Both silver and gold passes can be purchased in a "Four-Pack" -- buy three, get the fourth for free. The park offers group rates and various multi-day packages as well.

INFORMATION: Call (800) 343-7946 or go online to *
Oct 7, 2011








Nessie is lonely.
Silver Donor
Sep 28, 2013
Virginia Beach
I have talked about this before.  When I was in the Conservatory at Shenandoah University, every year a couple dozen of us would drive down for the "cattle call," and every year a few would get picked up.  My friend Brian McCurdy played various wood wind instruments and worked at BGW for 3 summers during school; He went on to become a musician in the Air Force Band.

He plays with them to this day.  (his father, at one time ran a learning radio station in Virginia Beach that played classical music)

When BGW decided University and local talent were not flashy (or apparently, expensive) enough it was a real hit to the theater and music programs in the Commonwealth.  I spoke with one of my old professors at length about it 2 years ago, he was lamenting how it was getting harder and harder for the kids to get additional practical experience.  It has been made worse, of course, with funding for the arts cuts.  Summer stocks are much smaller and fewer and farther between.  Worse still kids are now often choosing to skip an advanced degree because these opportunities that the universities so often fed, are closing up.

In the end it means that the talent pools in the major theater towns are less well trained and often harder hit.  Without degrees when there dreams do not come true, (and they usually don't, ever) they don't have anything to fall back on.
Sep 28, 2015
Interesting. Does anyone know how many of the actors and musicians this year were local talent vs NYC?
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