From left: Ian Coulter-Buford, Jamari Johnson Williams, Andre Jordan, Schyler Conaway in Riverside Theatre’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE. Photo by Garett Schiefer
By PAM HARBAUGH
The stars have aligned well for Jamari Williams.
The talented young man who grew up in the Vero Beach area had been a fixture with the Gifford Youth Orchestra, took the stage in starring roles in high school at St. Edwards and started booking gigs almost immediately after graduating from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy near Lincoln Center.
Now, at the tender age of 24, he’s returned to Vero Beach to star in “Smokey Joe’s Café,” which opens the new season at Riverside Theatre.
“This is completely incredible,” said Williams.
Thrilled to be back in his home town, Williams said this means more of his family can come see him perform.. That includes aunts, uncles, cousins, a great grandmother and his two beloved grandmothers – “Grandma Willie and Grandma Theresa.” His parents have moved to Georgia, but they could make it as well.
Although family wants him to stay with them while he’s in town, he’s staying with the rest of the cast in a hotel room close to the theater. It makes it easier to get to rehearsal.
“I love my family, but I’m here to do the shows,” he said. “I’ve been in and out of rehearsal but try to see them as much as I can.”
And then there are the friends who never got the chance to see him in the national tour of “Memphis,” or the shows he originated at Bush Gardens in Williamsburg, VA.
An old high school friend, Callie Schnur, local sales manager for Treasure and Space Coast Radio, shrieked when she saw he walking in for a radio interview.
The two of them did musicals together, including “Beauty and the Beast.” She was the Tea Pot, he was the Beast.
“He is extremely talented,” she said. “He has been since he was so young. I know from the community everyone is excited to see him back in town performing and we can see how far he’s come.”
Riverside’s show, “Smokey Joe’s,” is musical revue featuring the works of famed song writing duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were responsible for an array of iconic rock ‘n roll songs, including “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog” and “Spanish Harlem.”
Williams, who appears throughout the show, said the favorites he sings are “Poison Ivy,” “Stand By Me” and “On Broadway.”
He was cast in the show in New York City after doing multiple auditions for it. The auditioners had worked with Williams before in a Motown tour.
“Smokey Joe’s” director, DJ Salisbury, who directed last season’s hit show “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” was at those auditions and said Williams wowed them.
“Jamari was incredibly impressive in our New York City auditions,” Salisbury said. “We brought him in to audition for the role that featured dance specialty, but when we heard his low vocal range, we asked to look at the role that sings bass…
“Additionally and more importantly, Jamari has an electric, natural charisma which I believe to be what each of the nine performers in ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ must possess. I had no idea he was from the area until the first day of rehearsal.”
None of this would have happened, though, if it were not for the early childhood exposure to the arts.
When he was nine years old, Williams joined the Gifford Youth Orchestra and stayed with them for 11 years. That experience was crucial in discovering his musical talent. He started out learning to play violin then quickly picked up the viola and cello. He discovered Wagner and learned to thrill with the bowing.
Later, he picked up the tuba, trombone, piano and eventually voice.
“The Gifford Youth Orchestra brought music into my life and my love for music,” he said. “It skyrocketed my growth. And my singing got me into theater and where I am today. It’s a domino effect.”
Then, another door opened – St. Edwards School. Williams was awarded an academic scholarship through the generosity of philanthropists Bill and Marilyn Scully, who are also patron producers at Riverside Theatre. The couple have been offering academic scholarships to St. Edwards for “quite a while,” he said.
“We’re very pleased he’s had this career path,” said Bill Scully. “(The scholarship) gives kids a great opportunity. It opens their lives to be able to do different things.”
Just as the Gifford Youth Orchestra exposed him to music, St. Edward’s exposed him to more.
“If I had not gone to St. Edward’s I would not have discovered theater,” he said. “My family did not go to many plays as much as they do nowadays. When I went to St. Edward’s, I started an improvisation class. That involved so much craft and artwork that it made me fall in love with acting. Jennifer Patty, the theater director, saw something in me.”
Williams got in the school’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He was the comic, demanding voice of the plant, Audry II, who has a big Motown voice and sings out “Feed me, Seymour!” In addition to musicals, Williams has also done straight plays, including taking on the big role of Petruchio in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“He has the brightest aura when he walks into a room,” Schnur said. “I only expect he will become more of a star.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ runs through Nov. 11 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets start at $35. Call 772-231-6990 visit RiversideTheatre.com or click on their ad.
This is an edited version of a story running in VeroNews.com