From singing with a brown paper bag over her head to belting out ballads on Broadway, Stephanie Umoh’s acting career has been quite the journey.
Lately, the Dallas, Texas native has been playing Angelica Schuyler Church in the “Angelica Tour” of “Hamilton: An American Musical,” which heads to Proctors on Tuesday.
Angelica is one of the central characters, who, in real life, had strong ties to the Capital Region. The musical mixes fact and fiction, using classic Broadway show-tune-style songs and hip-hop and rap.
Angelica has several scenes just on her own, which years ago would have been terrifying.
“I started out my freshman year of high school having to take a required elective and that happened to be theater. I was so shy and I remember having to sing in front of the class.
The intention from the teacher was to just get people out of their shell. I stood up in front of the class and I put a bag over my head and I refused to sing without the bag over my head. I was that shy,” Umoh said.
About a year later, she felt drawn to the theater and tried out for the school’s production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in which she was cast as a minor character. Even then, she felt too shy to sing in front of fellow students during the first few rehearsals. But she worked through it over time.
“I think there was just a gradual feeling of getting over that fear of people not liking you, of people not accepting you. That’s why theater becomes a refuge for a lot of us, especially [those who] don’t belong in the majority. When the students started to accept me, whatever I sounded like, I started to feel safe in those rehearsals,” Umoh said.
Thus, she was bitten by the acting bug and started doing theater after school.
“I had planned on going to school for pre-med. [But] by the time I got to my senior year of high school, my grades were suffering because I was learning monologues. So I knew that I needed to do this,” Umoh said.
Instead of studying to be a doctor, she headed off to Boston Conservatory at Berklee to study performing arts. After graduating, Umoh moved to New York City and has been working as a professional actress ever since, performing in the Broadway revival of “Ragtime,” and the Fiasco Theater Company’s production of “Into the Woods,” and for the last few months, the touring production of “Hamilton.”
The first time she saw the musical, which was on Broadway back in 2016, she was stunned, but not in the way that many are.
“It went really fast for me. I was just like ‘Whoa, what happened?’” Umoh said.
The music and lighting stuck out—there aren’t traditional scene changes in the production so it relies on lighting to give the illusion of different scenes, according to Umoh.
Then, while on tour with “Into the Woods,” she got to see the “Angelica Tour,” of the show; the first national touring production. This time, she was able to sit back and pay more attention to the characters and the relationships. She immediately felt drawn to Angelica, one of the three Schuyler sisters, who falls for Hamilton.
“I think I was really drawn to her loyalty and her protectiveness over her sisters. She had these strong traits that I can definitely relate to. She doesn’t hold anything back and [is] respected in the high society that she belonged in. I was also attracted to Angelica’s songs,” Umoh said.
“Satisfied,” is one of Angelica’s most powerful and perhaps most challenging songs.
“It’s going back and forth between rapping and singing and then high belting all the while she’s telling this story of watching “Hamilton,” the man she falls in love with in that moment and then having to let him go because her sister is also madly in love with him,” Umoh said.
Of course, in reality, the story didn’t go quite like that. Angelica was close with Hamilton, but not necessarily in love. Born in Albany to Catherine van Rensselaer and Philip Schuyler (who was a founder of Union College), she was an incredibly influential person both in America and in Paris and London, where she lived for over a decade, getting to know people like Benjamin Franklin and Marquis de Lafayette. Her husband, who she married three years before Eliza married Hamilton, was John Baker Church, a businessman who served in the British House of Commons. She often communicated with Hamilton, sending letters of introduction to him for scientists and other intellectuals hoping to come to America.
The musical version packs a bit more of a punch though, telling a storied version of one of America’s founding fathers through a mash-up of rapping and singing. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Into the Heights”) wrote the book, music and lyrics and originated the lead role. It first debuted in 2015 and has since won seemingly countless awards, from Grammys to Tonys.
“I’m coming up on a year [of being in the show] and every night it’s exciting. It’s exhilarating to feel the energy of the audience really ready to go through this experience,” Umoh said.
Songs like “It’s Quiet Uptown,” where Hamilton, Eliza and Angelica are dealing with loss and“Take a Break,” are both highlights of the show for Umoh.
“It’s just Angelica, Eliza and Hamilton and it feels like the most traditional music theater scene. Although we do sing the whole thing, it feels the most traditional and I love that, that’s my bread and butter,” Umoh said.
While joining the cast has been the opportunity of a lifetime, it’s also come with its fair share of challenges.
“There’s always something to work toward in this show. It challenges you artistically, musically, there’s always something new to discover or something to work on. Sometimes you get too comfortable and you start to make little mistakes and you call a rehearsal and you have to fix it,” Umoh said.
Whenever anyone on tour makes a mistake during a performance, they have to figuratively go to “Burr’s Corner,” according to Umoh. Performers will take to Instagram and Twitter to share their funny flubs of lines or lyrics gone wrong or choreography they unintentionally changed. Sometimes fans find the posts just as entertaining as the production itself.
The fanbase of “Hamilton: An American Musical” is quite strong and diverse in terms of interests and backgrounds. It has grabbed the attention of Broadway fans and theater lovers, along with history buffs and more over the years and it seems like everyone is still scrambling to see it, whether for the first time or the third.
“It is a three-hour musical but it does not feel like three hours,” Umoh said, adding, “It’s also just an incredible story that we can all relate to. These historical figures that we’ve learned about in our history books are also just people with relationships and fears and loss.”
“Hamilton: An American Musical”
WHEN: Tue.-Sun. Aug. 25
TICKETS: $135-$459 (as of Wednesday)
MORE INFO: proctors.org