Zoe reprises Whoopi’s Oscar role on Canada stage
Fresh out of university Zoe O’Connor took on a lead role in Ghost: The Musical.
It was her first professional performance and she knew that expectations would be high.
Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when she took on the role of Oda Mae Brown in the movie the musical is based on.
In 1990 Ghost was the highest-grossing film of the year.
Zoe performed twice daily at the Avalon Theatre, a 1,500-seat venue in Niagara Falls where the show ran for ten days in July.
Although she suspected that many people in the audience were familiar with Goldberg’s performance, she wasn’t fazed.
“I wasn't worried because the musical is its own entity,” she said. “There were lines that were verbatim from the movie, but it was important that I did not remember how she said them.
“It’s a very fine line between where I am and where Whoopi is, the character she originated.
“I've only seen the movie once; I didn't want to see it more times than that. But the words that I remember that we both shared, it was really easy for me to mesh them and create my own character.”
Like the film, Ghost: The Musical is about Sam, a man who dies and becomes caught between the living world and the next.
Making matters worse is that Molly, the love of his life, is in danger and he cannot help her. Zoe plays the medium, Oda Mae Brown, who helps Sam to get in touch with Molly to warn her.
Zoe was offered the role in March. The following month, she earned a bachelor’s degree in music theatre from Sheridan College in Ontario.
“I think it's the only degree programme in Canada that is specifically for musical theatre,” she said. “I know there's a lot in America and maybe a few in England as well, but this is the only degree in Canada and singing, acting, dancing, that was my spread in school.”
She got her start in church where, from the age of about four, she “would always sing, act and dance”.
“As soon as I could, I auditioned. I think around 10 or 11 is when I started doing pantos in Bermuda.
“But since I was really little I always wanted to do school plays and I just kept going for musicals, for anything theatre-related – whether it was in school or just around the island.”
Her last performances here were in the Gilbert and Sullivan production of The Wizard of Oz in 2017 and in the Bermuda High School production of Shrek the following year.
They all put her in good stead when it came time for her honours degree at Sheridan.
“What's really awesome about going to school for music theatre specifically, is that you meet a lot of people who are in the industry.
“There was a final showcase of everyone who was graduating and that's how a lot of directors and agencies in Canada saw us. I'm doing three shows for the summer/fall and Ghost was my first one.”
The production was cast and ready to run two years ago but delayed by the pandemic.
“Because there were scheduling conflicts, half of the cast was from two years ago, and half the cast was new,” Zoe said. “They had to do another audition process to replace people who were no longer available.
“In March I received an e-mail notifying me that someone had recommended me. I did a quick audition process and I was cast within two weeks.”
Having a matinee and an evening performance was “really fun but also very, very taxing”, she added.
“It was my first professional show in Canada, and in general. It was really such a blessing and an honour to be able to be a principal cast member, a lead, in my first professional show.”
Putting on a live show with Covid-19 in play demanded a lot of extra care, which distracted Zoe from any jitters she might otherwise have had.
“We were so stressed about making sure the protocols were in place that I almost forgot to be nervous. I was just so thankful to be on stage really.
“[The whole experience was] really, really positive. I mean, I got to play Whoopi Goldberg and she's just such a legend.
“And the character [Oda Mae] is so funny and fun that I just always would go on stage with as much energy as I could give and just make the audience laugh. I got such a wonderful reception every single day.”
Once the run was finished, Zoe got to work on Mamma Mia at the Bancroft Village Playhouse.
Next month she returns to the stage in Jersey Boys at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque.
“I definitely want to just keep establishing myself within Canada and if opportunities come for me to go other places I would love to. I'd love to go to England.
“I would love to travel – cruise ships and other places would be amazing. And you know if Broadway says hello I will say hello back.”
Canada, however, was an easy start.
“My mom is Canadian. I have a lot of family here and so I just always knew that this would be a wonderful place for me to be.”
Follow Zoe O’Connor on Instagram: @zoe.o.connor.