“There’s been a change in me. A kind of moving on. Though what I used to be. I still depend on...”
— Opening lines of “A Change in Me”
The lyrics for “A Change in Me” were written for Belle in the Broadway musical “Beauty and the Beast.”
But they could have been written for Karen Olivo.
Olivo, along with her music director, chose “A Change in Me” to serve as the theme for her sold-out cabaret show this Thursday at the Overture Center. She’ll sing a variety of jazz, show and singer-songwriter tunes — and will talk about the journey that brought a Florida native and Broadway star to Wisconsin, where she is setting down roots.
Olivo downplays the fact that in 2009, her performance in the Broadway revival of “West Side Story” won her a Tony Award for best performance by a featured actress in a musical.
But not the Overture Center, which is happy to tout the new hometown girl’s honors. In 2013, as an Overture promo states, Olivo “settled right here in Madison, increasing the city’s population of Tony Award winners by one.”
“She’s a Tony Award winner. She can live anywhere, really, and continue to do her national work,” said Tim Sauers, vice president of programming and community development for Overture. “And she brings her national perspective to our town. It is a big deal to have someone at her level living in this city.”
Olivo, who also won TV fame playing lawyer Cassie Reynolds on NBC’s “Harry’s Law,” shocked the entertainment world when she blogged in 2013 that she was taking a break from show business.“I knew as I was packing my box of dressing room things that I wasn’t likely to use them again,” she wrote.
In New York she had met Madison native Jim Uphoff — a sound technician for a show she was in. After rehearsals, they would take the same subway home to Brooklyn. Today Uphoff works at Electronic Theater Controls in Middleton.
When Uphoff first invited her to visit Madison, “He was actually very smart,” Olivo said. “He took me to the farmers’ market and to a number of Forward Theater shows. It sort of dawned on me that wow, this is outstanding — you can come to a place and know your neighbors and feel safe and make really great art. That piqued my interest.”
Once she made the move to Madison, Olivo immediately jumped into the local theater scene. She taught a class for the UW-Madison theater department and opened a private studio to coach young performers. She worked backstage on the Four Seasons Theatre production of “Les Miserables” and became a writer and teaching artist for Madison’s Theatre LILA.
She serves as a mentor for the university multicultural arts program known as First Wave, was a recent judge for Overture’s Tommy Awards for high school musicals, and helped with Overture’s Rising Stars talent search this summer.
In April, Olivo launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to finance a CD, which she’ll record next spring and release in late 2015. In September, she and Uphoff got married.
“I kind of have my plate full,” she said, laughing. Life in Madison “is keeping me on my toes, let’s put it that way,” said Olivo, 38.
“I have more irons in the fire than I ever did in New York — predominantly because I’m doing more things: writing, teaching, performing. There’s so many different disciplines I’m exploring now, whereas in New York I’d just go to auditions.”
If the right national project came along she’d consider it, she said — but it would have to be short-term, not the usual six- or 12-month commitment required for a big show.
“I have a life here now,” she said of Madison. “I co-parent two kids. I can’t really afford to be away that long. I don’t really want to be away that long.”
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Not long after Olivo arrived in Madison, Jennifer Uphoff Gray — artistic director of Forward Theater Company and now Olivo’s sister-in-law — urged her to meet Theatre LILA co-founder Jessica Lanius. Lanius recently had moved to Madison herself after a theater career on both coasts.
“We had coffee at my house one day. It ended up being about four hours,” Lanius recalled. “We ended up becoming really good friends.”
Olivo worked on Theatre LILA’s production of “No Child…” and wrote three vignettes for the original LILA show “The Suitcase Dreams.” She is assistant director, and Lanius is director, for the Four Seasons production of “Assassins,” a Stephen Sondheim musical opening Dec. 5.
“We keep joking that we got married, too,” Lanius said about the amount of time she and Olivo spend together.
As ex-New Yorkers, both women might be a little nostalgic for the big city, but mostly they are in awe of what Madison offers, she said.
“I think we are so happy living here,” Lanius said. “If anything, we’re (saying), ‘Wow, can you believe these parks? Can you believe how much life you get here?’”
Olivo agreed to headline one of Overture’s three cabaret dinner shows this year, she said, because she wanted to give back to the local arts center. But while most of these shows have featured just a singer and piano, Olivo is bringing in a different kind of show — with young talent in the spotlight.
She’s recruited outstanding singers from UW-Madison to join her on stage. Nicholas Connors, a senior who took Olivo’s acting class and wrote a song for her, impressed her so much that she made him her music director.
“I wanted to include a lot of the local artists that I’ve come in contact with here in Madison,” Olivo said. “It kind of explains why a New Yorker, someone who’s worked on both coasts, can come here and feel pretty much at home. There’s a lot of talented people here in Madison, so I wanted to highlight that.”
Connors, 21, put together a four-piece jazz ensemble for “A Change in Me” and is writing all the musical arrangements for Olivo’s show.
“It’s kind of surreal to be jamming on the keyboard when you have such a great talent sitting next to you,” said Connors, who after college plans to pursue a Broadway career.
“There are a lot of people who can sing the notes, but Karen’s a real artist, in the true sense of the word,” he said. “She’s very concerned with being true to the art and actually living the experience. That’s something that I will definitely take away from working with Karen.”
“She is so grounded on stage, and really as a person,” she said.
“But what I admire as a director, looking at her work, is this mentality of, ‘This is who I am.’ And the voice just soars from this grounded place. It’s just stunning to watch.”