TAKING CENTER STAGE


By Milan Paurich

If the Oakland Center for the Arts was a professional baseball team, Robert Dennick Joki would be its MVP.

Best-known as the director of crowd-pleasing Oakland musicals (“Reefer Madness,” “Bat Boy: The Musical,” “The Full Monty,” et al), and writer-director-star of their annual holiday fundraiser, “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” Joki even pinch-hits as the theater’s resident costume and set designer, booking agent and even chauffeur.

Additionally, Joki serves as the artistic director for Magic Carpet Theater, the Oakland’s youth theater outreach program. Under Joki’s tutelage, Magic Carpet performs an average of 150 live shows each year to nearly 40,000 students at schools in Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

A gifted performer in his own right, Joki will be taking the Oakland stage this weekend in “I’m Not That Girl,” a one-man musical revue that he wrote, directed and stars in. During a recent interview, Joki discussed his creative inspiration for the show.

Q. Tell us a little about the structure of “I’m Not That Girl.” Is it strictly a musical revue, or will there be scripted material between songs?

A. Originally, I planned on doing some monologues between songs, but what I really want to do is sing. So I cut the scene work and decided to focus on the music. There are some other actors in the show, but everything they do is behind a shadow curtain — you’ll only see their silhouettes. I interact with them during a few scenes, and they help set the mood. I didn’t want the performance to feel like a concert, though, so I won’t be talking much between songs. I’d rather let the music speak for itself.

Q. Where did you come up with the concept for the show?

A. My grandmother introduced me to musical theater when I was very young. She’d play music from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me In St. Louis” and “A Star is Born.” I was a fan of Judy Garland long before I knew she was a gay icon, or even what gay was. In grade school, I began listening to the soundtracks of Broadway musicals: “Phantom of the Opera,” “Jekyll and Hyde” and especially “Les Miserables.” I was obsessed with the role of Eponine and the song “On My Own.” I remember coming to the realization that, no matter how much I loved the song — and no matter how well I could sing it — I would never get to play Eponine (laughs). I can certainly relate to her character and the lyrics of the song, but I just don’t fit the part. And this show is truly about singing songs that I normally wouldn’t get to sing. I’ve done a lot of theater in the past decade, but most of it has been behind the scenes. And I really missed performing. I’ve always wanted to do a show like this, and now I think I’m finally ready. I’m at a great place in my life.

Q. The press release was very specific about “Girl” not including any “drag, costumes and frills.” Are you afraid that the stripped-down approach might disappoint some of your fans?

A. I enjoy staging the drag shows, and we’ll continue doing them as long as people want to see them. I originally started doing drag because I wanted to perform these beautiful musical theater pieces that are traditionally sung by women. This is kind of an experiment. I don’t know how people are going to react to me singing these songs as myself. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’m just hoping that the passion of the music will shine through, and that the audience will forget they’re listening to a 300-pound bald guy.

Q. What are some of the songs you’ll be performing?

A. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ve chosen a wide range of music. Different styles, and with a wide range of emotions. I’m doing a Judy Garland medley, also some new stuff like “The Dark I Know Well” from “Spring Awakening.” I’ll be singing “On My Own” — the song that started it all — and end the show with “Defying Gravity” (“Wicked”), and “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (“Dreamgirls”) which, in my opinion, are two of the hardest songs ever performed on Broadway. This show is NOT about playing it safe.

Q. The Oakland will be dark until “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” opens Aug. 7. What will you do to keep busy until then?

A. I’m going to spend most of the summer writing and designing. I’m currently work-shopping a new children’s show, “The Day Miranda Met the Mermaid,” which will tour for nine months starting in September. It’s an interactive piece about protecting our natural resources, especially the oceans. I’m also getting ready for the upcoming Oakland productions of “The Rocky Horror Show” and the fourth year of “How The Drag Queen Stole Christmas.” In my spare time, I hope to work on some new scripts that I’ve been kicking around. I spend a lot of time directing other people’s work, and I’d really like to do more of my own. I’d love to have a new full-length play ready to produce at the Oakland next spring or summer.

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