Ray Shell works in the recording studio at Barton College last week.
Yolanda Raybun sings the role of Mama in the concept album for Ray Shell's "Starboy." The album is being produced at Barton College.
By Lisa Boykin Batts
Times Associate Editor
Musicians have been going in and out of Barton College’s sound studio in recent weeks, recording songs from “Starboy.” Those involved with the project believe the musical has the potential to hit the big time.
Ray Shell of Wilson wrote the gospel- and blues-based musical, and it debuted as a work-in-progress at the college earlier this year.
Last Monday, singer/songwriter Yolanda Raybun was in the studio to sing the role of Mama. Raybun just ended a run of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at the Kennedy Theatre in Raleigh.
“She is amazing,” said Shell, a professional actor who also sings the role of Papa.
Recording was set to wrap up last week, before Shell left for theater commitments abroad.
The recordings will result in a concept album that can be used to pitch the show to producers.
“Starboy” is the story of an African-American gospel-singing family, The James Gospel Singers. The show is set in 1955 in the North Carolina town of Ralston — a loose reference to Wilson.
Papa arranges a big recording deal with a gospel label around the same time his son signs with a major company in New York. A big argument ensues, and Junior leaves for New York to become a big star. But things turn around for Junior, and his white grandma has to construct a plan to save him.
Shell said Barton College has been a huge help to him and co-composer Chris Van Clive.
“It’s incredible to be embraced by Barton,” Shell said.
The college is basically the show’s producer and developer, he added, saying the Barton ensemble has pitched in including Phil Valera, assistant professor of communication and manager of the recording studio.
Adam Twiss, Theater at Barton director, was one of the first people to read the script and encourage Shell. He directed the show in February. He was also the one who suggested Shell and Van Cleave do more with the music.
Shell said Twiss doesn’t mince words and has been very honest with him. He said he needs a director who tells him the truth.
“I need direction,” Shell said, “and Adam has a clear eye.”
He said Twiss is very astute and well-connected in the theater world.
“I feel like we are in very good hands.”
Shell arrived in England last week to work as a vocal trainer with Wayne Hector, a United Kingdom producer/writer who has produced and written for Nicki Minaj, One Direction and Olly Murs. Next month, he will be in Uganda to direct the play “Freedom” that will go on to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in August.
He will also be in New York City in August to rehearse for the reunion concert of the Broadway show “Inner City.” He will be appearing with Tony Award-winner Melba Moore and “Chicago” star Natasha Williams. Then it’s back to London to take “Freedom” to a London theater and then to Edinburgh.
When Shell returns to Wilson at the end of summer, the recording should be ready. The next step could be a concert version of the score. Twiss would like to do a stage production early next year.
“And then we’ll take it from there,” Shell said. “It’s coming together rather quickly.”
‘something worth nurturing’
Twiss said he has seen excitement for the project throughout the community.
“It is Ray’s baby, but everybody has a stake in it, not just the success but ultimately how it develops.”
Twiss said he is asked to read as many as 50 original scripts each year. But there was something that stood out with Shell’s project.
For starters, Shell has a tremendous amount of theater experience. An international actor, writer, singer, producer and director, he spent much of his career performing in London in such productions as “Blues in the Night,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Starlight Express” and “The Crucible.” Earlier this year, he appeared in the world premiere of “Bud, Not Buddy” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Since moving to Wilson, he’s been very active in community theater productions here.
Twiss said Shell’s original script had a maturity to it.
“It’s one thing if it has wonderful music; it has to have a story,” Twiss said, and “Starboy” had that.
“It was distinguished by the book, by the way the language was used and the development of the characters.”
The script also has to be written in a fashion that can work on the stage. And then there’s the bottom line.
“It’s about art and commercial viability combined,” Twiss said.
Twiss said Barton’s collaboration with Shell has brought about a wonderful use of the Sara Lynn Riley Kennedy Recording Studio and is a great opportunity for Barton students and alumni.
“It gives us a little example of how we might be about to do this even more down the road,” he said. “No matter what the future is holding for the show, it’s a great benchmark for what we can do.”
Twiss will be at work cleaning up the script this summer and communicating with Shell. With the script work and the concept album behind them, they will be on their way to a staged piece by February.
Several options are being considered while it is still in the workshop phase, including a joint production at The Imperial in Rocky Mount. Twiss said Broadway actress Lauren Kennedy, who is interested the project as well, could possibly come in as a co-producer and maybe stage it at Theater Raleigh next summer.
From there, it could be snatched up by someone or development could continue.
“This has legs beyond other new material I have seen,” Twiss said. “And I think we all feel this way.
“We know good stuff when we see it. This is something worth nurturing.”