When musical theater performer Brianna-Marie Bell was growing up in Stow, she didn't see many black leading ladies performing on stage. Not at the shows she went to at Playhouse Square or in New York.
Bell, 25, a 2012 graduate of Stow-Munroe Falls High School, was active with ETC show choir in Akron, where she also took dance and voice lessons. She experienced a turning point when she landed the title role in "Cinderella" at Weathervane Playhouse in Akron, the summer before her senior year.
"Me being a lead was like crazy to me. That was like a huge deal. And being Cinderella? I was basically Brandi in the Whitney Houston 'Cinderella,' " she said of this dream come true. "At that moment, I was like, 'I can do this, and why can't I?' "
The actress, speaking by phone from Boston last week from the North American tour of "A Bronx Tale,'' now plays female romantic lead Jane in the doo-wop musical, set on the stoops of the Bronx in the 1960s.
"A Bronx Tale," based on Chazz Palminteri's one-man show about his own life, tells the tale of young Calogero, who's torn between allegiance to his father, Lorenzo, and neighborhood mob boss Sonny, who becomes a father figure.
The show will open at Playhouse Square's Connor Palace on Tuesday and run through May 12.
The story also is about forbidden love, as Italian Calogero falls for black schoolmate Jane during a time where interracial dating is considered taboo.
That part of the story is especially important to Bell, who grew up in a nearly all-white community with parents who are an interracial couple. She remembers her parents, Erika Brown-Wilkes and Timothy Wilkes, telling her about times they'd go out together and people would ask her mother, who is black, why she was with her father, who is white.
Bell also can relate to this musical's story, even though it's set 50 years ago: She too is in an interracial relationship, and has seen the looks and heard the inappropriate comments people have made to her and her boyfriend, in New York and other cities.
"I kind of put myself in her [Jane's] place and it's easy to do that because I'm going through it now,'' she said.
"It's difficult but you know, love is love and I just pray for people's minds to be more open and understanding. That's why the show is so great and so important."
Now, she said, it warms her heart when little girls of color talk to her after "A Bronx Tale" and say how great it is to see someone who looks like them on stage.
Akron master class
Bell is looking forward to teaching a master class at Weathervane Playhouse in Akron on May 6 for students ages 10 to 17.
"I'm really excited to go back there where it all began and teach and learn from these students that want to do what I wanted to do, and help them succeed in that,'' said Bell, who will be giving students critiques and feedback in an audition-like setting.
What's some of her best advice she'd share with aspiring triple threats?
"You never stop working on your craft. When you see people who are very successful, they're still working on themselves and working on their craft and still going to dance classes, still going to vocal lessons. I mean, there's no stopping," she said.
Bell, who graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York in 2014, has worked quite steadily, including on a cruise ship, on tour in "Flashdance" and "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical'' and on Broadway, where she played Jane's friend Denise and also understudied the role of Jane. But she, like most actors, has had her down time between jobs.
"I've had months of being on a hiatus" auditioning for shows, she said. "You get more no's than yeses," she said.
"When you audition for something, you have to be your authentic, 100 percent self,'' Bell said. "You don't want to go into an audition acting like someone else or trying to be someone else."
The tour begins
Bell kicked off the "Bronx Tale" tour in October. The cast includes nine other actors who came straight from the Broadway show, which closed in August.
She went on about 10 times for Jane while she was on Broadway. But as an understudy, Bell's job was to mirror the lead actress who had set the character.
"For me, out on tour, I got the chance to make it my own, which is really fun," Bell said of Jane. "I definitely think about her differently now because I get to put my own spin on it."
At first, Bell was reluctant about the thought of auditioning for and going on the road in another tour. But Palminteri insisted that she try out for the role of Jane, she said. The actress became close to the actor, writer and director when he played gangster Sonny for the last six months of "A Bronx Tale's" Broadway run.
Palminteri also co-starred as Sonny with Robert De Niro as Lorenzo in the 1993 screen adaptation, which was De Niro's film directing debut. (Bell saw both Palminteri and De Niro, whom she described as "super sweet" and "soft spoken,'' when they came to Boston to see the tour together on April 10.)
Palminteri, Bell said, is "very cool. ... He is probably one of the most iconic storytellers ever."
"He's like a godfather that I never thought I would have — a godfather of the Bronx," she said, laughing.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj