That’s how Toronto Film School’s Jeremy Vandenhelm describes his latest starring role in A Nightingale Sang – Penny & Pound Theatre Production’s original musical about a Roma Gypsy singer who finds himself on the wrong side of Poland’s Nazi invasion.
“I’ve been involved in the process of developing this character for over a year now, and it’s been an extremely humbling and fantastic experience,” the 23-year-old Cambridge native, who’s currently enrolled in his third term of the Acting for Film, TV & the Theatre Diploma program at TFS, said of being cast in Nightingale’s leading role of Gaelleon Pfeiffer.
“If I were to describe the show in one word, it would be bittersweet. Yes, there’s a whole lot of heavy, dramatic stuff, but along with that, there’s also some light-hearted fun moments, some comedy, and some great musical numbers. There’s a little bit of everything for everybody.”
While Vandenhelm said Nightingale’s upcoming five-show run at Cambridge Arts Theatre Oct. 24-27 is somewhat nerve-wracking, it’s far from his first time performing in front of a live audience – nor is he a novice to the Penny & Pound stage.
A lifelong singer and performer, Vandenhelm first met Piper J. Distel – the woman behind Nightingale’s book and concept – at Preston High School in Cambridge, where both were members of the concert choir.
“A friend introduced us and when she found out I like to act and sing, she reached out over Facebook and asked if I wanted to be part of (Penny & Pound’s) Halloween show that year,” he said, noting that his role in the theatre company’s October 2016 production of The Canterville Ghost marked the beginning of what has gone on to become a long and fruitful partnership.
In fact, Vandenhelm’s starring role in Nightingale comes on the heels of his landing a long line of leads in Penny & Pound productions over the past three years – from Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and Van Helsing in Dracula, to Dom Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Such roles, he said, have given him the chance to merge his deep-rooted passion for singing with his emerging talent for acting – the latter a skill he’s hoping Toronto Film School will help him parlay into TV and film roles in the future.
“I love to sing. It might sound kinda cheesy, but I believe singing is one of the truest forms of soul expression…but I also love acting,” said the self-described baritone tessitura, who moonlights as the fourth member of the Heading Home gospel quartet.
“With Penny & Pound, I’ve been getting a good amount of exposure to stage shows and some great leading roles. But from there, I wanted to expand my horizons and pursue my passion for movies and acting for film. That’s what lead me to TFS…and, so far, it’s been amazing.”
In fact, Vandenhelm said some of the acting techniques he’s learned during his time at TFS have likewise come in handy as he’s prepared to immerse himself in the “harsh” world of Nightingale.
“There’s a lot of details and performance nuances I have to keep in check while carrying the weight of Gael and what he’s brought from his past life through this story – all while keeping in mind other specific stage performance techniques,” he said.
“It’s nerve wracking, but I’m really excited to see it all come together and take shape, and to see how it will affect people and resonate with them – seeing the whole life of Gaelleon Pfeiffer unfold for them on stage.”
That said, Vandenhelm cautions that A Nightingale Sang – which features some characters who display racist and prejudiced behavior – might be “triggering” for some.
“It’s tough to watch for those sensitive to the subject matter and dark undertones of the show,” he said, advising viewer discretion.
“But underneath all that, I think there’s a lot of important lessons to be learned from it – that we need to put those differences aside and come together.”
Directed by Lori Robinson Distel, A Nightingale Sang takes the stage at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, 47 Water St. S., on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. (preview); Friday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 27 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20 adults or $15 students (under 18)/seniors (65+) and can be purchased online here.