The Road Back Home

Allyson Tolbert, Artist

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

When most kids her age were expressing themselves through finger painting and Play-Doh, Allyson Tolbert started taking dance classes. It was something her mother felt all little girls should do, and young Allyson embraced it with a child’s exuberance. You know that little kid that is always dancing in the grocery store aisles and in the parking lot?

That was her.

Though she had already started taking proper classes, Tolbert wanted to take the class where the renowned Paulette Johnson Walker was the dance instructor, but she had to wait until she was at least seven years old. Once she got into Walker’s class, Walker became a mentor for Tolbert from elementary school through college.

“She was the one that said, “You should start singing, you should apply for Broadway theater projects,’” Tolbert recalled with an effortless smile and stage presence that could liven up any room—in this case even a cramped wardrobe trailer.

Now a professional actor and singer living in New York City, the St. Pete native has appeared in a variety of productions and tours, including Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s hilarious play “Comedy of Errors.”

The WizFor the 2014 American Stage in the Park production of “The Wiz,” Tolbert jumped at the chance to leave New York—where winter had not yet released its icy grip—and head back to her balmy hometown. Her decision was so spur-of-the-moment that she didn’t even know she was going to play the role of Addaperle, the good witch of the north, when she flew down. Addaperle is the clumsy, crazy yet likeable sister of Glinda, the graceful good witch of the south.

“When I found out that I was playing her, I realized there’s a lot of Allyson in Addaperle,” Tolbert mused. “There are some moments where she’s just a little confused, but it’s fine, she’s going to figure it out eventually. I’m very organized and get a lot of things done, and I think that’s a product of me living in New York and surviving as a starving artist. But sometimes I slow down and think, wait a minute, am I in the right place I’m supposed to be right now? You know when you walk into a room and you don’t remember why you walked in? Addaperle has those moments.”

If she is comfortable with her command of given roles, Tolbert admits that in outdoor productions things are more up in the air. Citing such variables as 103-degree weather at curtain time, invasions of love bugs and actors being attacked by bees while on stage, Tolbert concedes there are unique challenges that come with outdoor shows like “The Wiz.”

“Nature can do what it wants,” she said. “But as my dance teacher once told me: ‘If a bee lands on your nose, you have to stay still’ It’s one of those things that’s always stuck with me.”

As if Mother Nature being mischievous weren’t enough, sometimes actors must deal with surprises even in the relatively controlled settings of indoor shows, Tolbert explained, like in the number “Doctor’s Orders” during a national tour of “Catch Me If You Can.”

“The girls would get up on these gurneys and sing,” Tolbert remembered, “and there was one point when I sat on the gurney and they pushed it, and I felt the wheel come off! You’re trying to be sexy and sassy while this thing is falling apart underneath you!”

Tolbert admitted that this spontaneity is one of her favorite things about live theater—she feels a euphoric high when something goes wrong but it’s fixed on the spot. Yet when everything gels and comes together perfectly, it can be something special. She has felt that more than once during rehearsals leading up to the opening of “The Wiz.”

“I know this is going to sound artsy, but there were times when people were singing that I literally inhaled the air because art was being created,” she said.  “The cast is phenomenal.”

She added that she is a big fan of the production’s music, which includes catchy rock, gospel and soul songs—the up-tempo classic “Ease On Down the Road” is about as recognizable as any tune in musical theater.

“I consider it an honor not only to be a part of the production but to come home and be a part of the production,” she asserted.

Tolbert has been touring on and off for five years, and when she is not dancing and singing for an audience, even her day job requires a sprinkling of showmanship. Along with partner Sarah Rolleston, she founded Sugartooth Tours—a walking food tour in New York City dedicated to sweets.

“We were both on a national tour of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and we came back to the city and nannying and not really loving it,” she said. “So we decided we wanted to take control of our day jobs.”

The result was Sugartooth Tours, the duo’s sweet revenge on pedestrian professions.

“We take you to our six favorite dessert spots in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan,” Tolbert explained, “and also give you a historical background on the neighborhood. No more than two miles, and you’re eating desserts along the way. In the spring we’ll launch a Cupcake Crawl and in summer we do an ice cream tour.”

When Rolleston and Tolbert are both wrapped up in productions, they hire licensed New York City guides to lead the tours, but always stay connected with their business via internet and phones. Even though the young performer/entrepreneur has been a New Yorker for nearly six years now, Tolbert still very much considers herself a hometown girl.

“The fact that these musicals are here in St. Pete with the talent that you’re getting, it’s phenomenal,” she affirmed. “The shows that they have planned for next year are exciting—I have friends wanting to audition who are from New York, and want to be a part of what we have going on down here.  It makes me really proud to know that my hometown is kind of at the top of the artistic movement.”

For the successful actor, singer and business owner, it’s been quite a journey from those impromptu performances in the grocery store aisles.

“The Wiz” runs through May 4 at Demens Landing Park, on the corner of 1st Avenue South and Bayshore Blvd. S.E. in downtown St. Pete. For performance times, tickets and general info, contact American Stage at 727-823-7529 or visit www.americanstage.org

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com.

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