Street Corner
Symphony
"Dreams do come true," Walton said. "If you want it bad enough, and you work hard enough, it can happen."

From Bay View High

to Broadway
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
by DAMIEN JAQUES
Three looks for Debra Walton in Broadway debut:
The song is the same, but the lyrics have changed.

Growing up in her family's Milwaukee home on 24th and Chambers, Debra Walton had a favorite singer Tina Turner. "I would stand on a table with my mom's wig on backwards, doing my Tina Turner, singing `Proud Mary,'" she recalled.

Her mother, Dorothy Walton Beamon, has another memory. "When Debra was little, she didn't know the correct lyrics to `Proud Mary.' She would sing, `Cranberry, keep on turning.' " Now the wig is her own, it is no longer being worn backwards, and Debra Walton knows the correct lyrics. She is singing them eight times a week on Broadway. The 30-year-old Milwaukeean is one of the principals in "Street Corner Symphony," a new rhythm and blues revue that opened two weeks ago. The show is Walton's Broadway debut.

Sitting in her small backstage dressing room two days before the opening, the pint-sized singer-dancer-actress giggled in her usual animated fashion. Although she had cooled down from a matinee performance, she bubbled warmth and energy. "Dreams do come true," Walton said. "If you want it bad enough, and you work hard enough, it can happen." The dream began when Debra was 3 and informed her mom that she wanted to be a belly dancer. "Oh, no, you are not," replied her mother, a deeply religious woman. Tina Turner's hip-grinding routine was darn close to belly dancing, and little Debbie "entertained guests in our house even when they didn't want to be entertained," she now recalls with a grin.

At Bay View High School, "Debbie was a sponge," remembered Charmaine DeNoyer, who taught performing arts courses at the school for 17 years. "She lapped up everything I could give her." Walton's high school performing career began with playing one of the Hot Box dolls in a production of "Guys and Dolls" at age 14, and culminated with her starring in "Sweet Charity" when she was a senior. "She was a dynamite dancer; she came so far in high school," DeNoyer said. The relationships she made with DeNoyer and some of her other teachers at Bay View, along with her close ties to her family, are the foundation on which Walton has built her career. She refers to DeNoyer as her "musical mother" and continues to seek her advice. DeNoyer, who was a professional performer before turning to teaching, whetted Walton's appetite for Broadway when she took her to New York as part of a Bay View High School choir tour. The group attended several Broadway shows. "When I got to Bay View, I didn't know what Broadway was," Walton said. "I knew Lola Falana, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. One of my teachers, Eileen Lust, told me what the Tonys were. I started writing a Tony acceptance speech in the 11th grade. "The high school trip to New York was in my senior year, and when we got back to Milwaukee, I thought, `I gotta go back. I want to live there.' " "She had a focus," DeNoyer said. "She was determined after we went to New York. That was where she wanted to go."

Show business dues must be paid by almost every performer who gets to Broadway, and Walton began paying them by attending the University of Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music. Admission to the school required an audition, and when Debbie didn't have all of the money for a bus ticket to Cincinnati, Lust, her English teacher, made up the difference. Walton's professional career began with the respected Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which took her to Russia and Germany on performance tours. She played 16 different characters in the straight drama "From the Mississippi Delta" at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and with companies in Florida and Ohio. She has been in the chorus of a major production of "Dreamgirls," performed in the national touring company production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and played the narrator in a Wichita staging of "Joseph." "It has been a tough road for her," DeNoyer said. "Debbie has been willing to do any role, go any place, to get ahead. She has this positive attitude. Nothing is impossible."

above left: as Tina Turner (from M. J. Sentinel)
above: as young Debbie during performance
right: as Debbie, and Broadway Star
Many people have talent, but only a few make it to the top. Walton gives much of the credit for her success to her parents. Her father, Alfred J. Walton, who died in April, shared his love of music with Debbie. "My parents were disciplinarians," she said. "Paying attention, doing what you are told, trusting what your teachers and parents are talking about, it all pays off. "I have been given a lot of inspiration. My teachers and my family, all of my life, said, `Do it, trust it, try it,' and it worked."

Doing it and trusting it has not always been easy with "Street Corner Symphony." The revue consists of 33 pop and soul hits from the 1960s and '70s assembled into a package by Marion J. Caffey, a theater artist from Gainesville. Walton plays a character Caffey named Debbie. "I thought, `Ooooooh, he named a character after me.' Then I learned he had a previous girlfriend named Debbie, and I went, `Oh.' But I am grateful to that Debbie for giving this Debbie a character to play on Broadway." A production of "Street Corner Symphony" in West Palm Beach earlier this year attracted the interest of several Broadway producers, and the process of transforming the show into a highly scrutinized commercial venture began.

Making a Broadway show is not unlike making sausage. It isn't pretty. During rehearsals, changes and revisions came fast and furious at Walton and the seven other cast members. A week before opening, the revue was pared from 2 hours and 20 minutes to 90 minutes; the intermission was dropped. As always, Walton's mother was her confidant and morale booster. "We talk every day," Debra said. "My phone bill is going to be unbelievable." "It has been painful, exciting and exhausting, day in and day out. You go home crying, because everything is changing and your brain is on overload. For so long, I have been saying, `I want to do Broadway, I want to do Broadway.' Right now Broadway is doing me. "With every little glitch that happens, I say, `Mom, it isn't going to work this way.' She talks to me and she says a prayer with me over the phone.'"

Walton is the primary female dancer in the cast, and she also shows a flair for comedy. Her big number is impersonating Tina Turner in "Proud Mary," a frenetic turn she performed on the NBC telecast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. She also does a considerable amount of backup singing. As is true in all of her work, Walton brings a high-voltage energy to "Street Corner Symphony." She is solid in her technical skills and possesses an appealing presence that mirrors her offstage warmth. Friendly and curious about everything that goes into a Broadway production, she is a favorite of the show's backstage crew. While Walton obviously hopes "Street Corner Symphony" will be a long-running hit, she will be a winner even if the show isn't. The exposure she is getting to casting agents and other influential theater people will be valuable for getting roles in future Broadway and national touring productions.

She moved to New York two years ago and hopes to establish a career there in non-musical as well as musical pieces. Debbie's mother, younger brother and sister, aunt, godmother and 4-year-old nephew flew from Milwaukee to New York for opening night. They were all giggling and hugging backstage in her dressing room after the show. "It means so much to have my family here," Walton said before getting out of her makeup and costume to attend a lavish opening-night party in a Manhattan film and video studio. "They know what the dream was, and to have them here means everything to me. "I have been given what I asked for in life. I couldn't ask for a better life. It is such a gift to do this and to say thank you to all the people who helped me get here. I'm filled up inside with joy."

Sometimes tears come with joy. Walton shed them in a subway car on the way to the theater while reading a letter DeNoyer sent her after her former teacher saw "Street Corner Symphony." "I told her that after all of the years of teaching, to see her name in lights on that Broadway theater made my life worthwhile," DeNoyer said. "It made me feel better about what I had done with my life. "I'm very proud of her, and Milwaukee should be proud of her."

Debra Walton in Street Corner Symphony with original Broadway Cast
CAST: Carol Dennis, Jose Llana, Debra Walton, Eugene Fleming,
Catherine Morin, Victor Trent Cook, Stacy Francis & C. E. Smith
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