Like seas of aspiring artists, Bree Branker discovered her talent for dance and her passion for the stage in the small ponds of Raleigh’s local musical theater
Now she’s dancing in deeper waters in the ensemble cast of Broadway debuting Big Fish.
Rehearsals start next week, following a five-week world premiere in Chicago that ended in May.
The Broadway show begins with preview performances next month at Neil Simon Theatre. It opens Oct. 6.
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Big Fish is a new musical based on the highly acclaimed 1998 novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, penned by Chapel Hill author and UNC English professor Daniel Wallace. Wallace’s novel also is the basis for Tim Burton’s Columbia Pictures film, Big Fish. Credits for the Broadway production book go to John August, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. It’s directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.
“This is probably the most genuine and traditional musical I’ve been a part of,” said Bree, 26, noting her 5-foot, 10-inch height typically attracts dance-heavy or showgirl-type shows. “It’s the most high-profile, for me, and the truest to the form of musical theater.”
The production is an open-ended run. Bree applauds Stroman’s direction and choreography and the leading cast of Tony-nominated actors. “There’s a really strong group of people behind it, so hopefully it will do well.”
For Bree, who’s been dancing since she was 2, it’s where years of hard work pay off.
“She said, ‘I want to dance,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Aw, OK, Baby … that’s cute,’ ” recalls Bree’s mom, Cheryl Royster-Branker. “The next day and the next day it was the same.”
By 10, still dancing, Bree asked for piano lessons. Then came gymnastics, cheerleading, modeling, voice lessons – and requests for antique albums featuring tunes from “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music.”
“All of that brought her right back to dance, but it was all beneficial and important,” Royster-Branker said. “Our children, more often than not, tell us what they’re interested in, and I don’t know if we’re always listening in a goal-oriented way.
“It makes sense to listen.”
Bree attended Enloe High School at first, but she transferred to Fuquay-Varina High School her junior year. Already working professionally with the N.C. Theatre in productions such as “Pippin,” Bree said that Fuquay administrators, “understood … I just wanted to dance and get good grades … which is probably why I needed to go to boarding school; I wasn’t fitting in the traditional mold.”
Bree graduated from the N.C. School of the Arts in 2005.
During senior-year spring break, she went to New York City for a Rockettes audition. The audition canceled, but she auditioned for Will Rogers Follies – and got the job, interrupting plans to attend Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
“It led to more jobs – jobs I never dreamed of, and I’ve ended up having a pretty nice career,” she said.
In 2006, there was an international tour of West Side Story, followed by three months as a Rockette at the Grand Olde Opry, and work in regional theater productions and workshops. In 2007, there was the White Christmas musical, followed by the first national tour of “Spamalot” in 2008 and the first national tour of “Memphis” in 2011.
“I’m very appreciative of the people who became mentors in her life when she was very young and encouraged her to keep going,” Bree’s mom said. “We should all have those kinds of adults in our lives when we’re young.”
One of them came along for Bree at 14: Kirstie Spadie, the artistic director at the N.C. Dance Institute.
“I would definitely not be here without her,” Bree said. “I had potential, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I had taken dance for 12 years, but I wasn’t focused. I wasn’t serious.”
Spadie pointed Bree and her parents toward the arts high school and toward roles outside Raleigh. And it was Spadie who nursed Bree through the baby steps of rehabilitation from recent hip surgery.
Now, Spadie is celebrating, too.
“It’s her Broadway debut,” she said of Bree. “She’s fought for this. There are plenty of dancers out there, considering her hip injury and the hard life of a dancer, who would have given up.
“But the tenacity and the drive behind Bree has pushed her forward to exactly this opportunity,” Spadie said. “I am so proud of her for pushing through just a little bit more and coming to the other side of great success.”
Bree remembers Spadie’s nudge into bigger waters, too.
“She definitely changed the game for me,” Bree said. “She told me, ‘If you want this, you can have it. You just have to work hard; work hard, make a plan and stick to it.’
“She was 100 percent right.”