As a part of the touring company of Disney’s The Lion King, serving as Mufasa’s understudy and singing in the bass ensemble, Russell Joel Brown visits many cities, but something about his hometown stands out among many of them.
“Augusta is a hotbed for the arts. I visit a different city every 30 days, and I don’t see the activity in the arts in cities the size of Augusta that I see here, and I am looking in cities the size of Augusta,” said Brown, who is taking a day out of his tour in Charlotte, N.C., to be featured in Broadway and Beyond, a fundraiser for the Jessye Norman School of the Arts on Sunday, Aug. 18.
The show begins at 5 p.m. at Georgia Regents University Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre. Tickets are $40 for adults and $20 for students ages 25 and younger and active-duty military with ID. For details, visit jessyenormanschool.org or call (706) 826-4713.
Brown mentioned the multiple arts organizations and the many chances for children of all socio-economic backgrounds to receive arts instruction in the Augusta area, but it wasn’t always that way.
Opportunities for arts instruction and performance, especially for children, were limited when Brown was a child, he said. The 1982 graduate of Aquinas High School said he was fortunate to be the youngest of seven children because his older siblings opened doors for him.
While at Aquinas, his siblings took part in the musicals under the direction of Father John Fitzpatrick, and when extra children were needed to fill out a scene, Brown was tapped to fill roles.
“Father Fitz was so great at producing Broadway-style musicals. I started in musicals in grade school. I was in The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof,” said Brown, who also took part in a few productions with The Augusta Players.
That early exposure to the arts shaped Brown for the career he has, and he’s grateful to Fitzpatrick, who died in 2007, for producing quality shows year after year.
“It takes a lot to do a musical and train kids in music and choreography,” he said.
Brown toured with Smokey Joe’s Café and The Scarlet Pimpernel before moving back to Augusta around 2001. He spent about four years in his hometown investing in its arts community, teaching classes, performing in shows and serving on the committee that started the Jessye Norman School. In addition, he produced several shows and brought in younger talent to participate. He joined The Lion King tour in 2005.
Brown’s Broadway and Beyond performance in Augusta will feature a wide variety of selections from Broadway musicals to spirituals. He will be showcased in several solos, and he will be joined by LaShonda Reese, a New York artist, who performed with Brown in The Lion King.
In addition, the event will feature some younger performers including two dancers: Christopher Wilson, a recent John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School graduate, and Justin Reeves, a 2013 Laney High School graduate, who recently signed a contract to dance with the Nashville Ballet.
Brown said Broadway and Beyond showcases a span of talent from the emerging young performers to Jessye Norman, who has reached the top of her career field. She will serve as the emcee for the fundraiser. In previous years, she’s performed for the gala.
“I’m thrilled to be able to be back home and do a concert in connection with the center,” said Brown, who hasn’t performed in Augusta since he joined The Lion King.
In addition to the concert, there will be an art auction. Several artists have painted portraits of Brown that will be available for bids. And leading up to the performance, online bidders have a chance to dance with Brown on stage to If I Only Had a Brain or to win backstage passes to meet Brown and other artists.