By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
Photos and video Meredith Winner | Mer-Made Photography
ATLANTIC CITY – It’s Monday night and while most people in South Jersey (and around the country) muddled through the first day of the work week, Lawrence Neals and the Neptunes Band had the Lobby Bar at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino jumping.
Neals and female lead Dionne Carole belted out a variety of old school tune with the kind of flair and intensity that made passers-by stop in their tracks. Those visitors were soon taking a seat and ordering drinks. Before you knew it, the Neptunes Band was performing to a standing-room-only crowd with Cara Jaye on sax and other band members.
Neals, though, has become accustomed to the Atlantic City scene as one of the lead singers that made the Motor City Live! Shows and Disco Live! Shows at Hard Rock’s Sound Waves Theater at hit in 2018 and this past spring. Disco Live returns to Hard Rock on July 28.
“I’ve always been about the live experience as a performer,” said the New York City resident who makes weekly trips down to perform with the band. “My background is predominantly in stage performing as opposed to film or studio. There’s something about doing the craft in real-time and hearing the audience reactions that cannot be matched by other art forms. You immediately know if it’s working or not.”
The entertainer at one point picked Kellie Jones out of the audience who was visiting Hard Rock from Philadelphia and convinced her into an impromptu dance during a rendition of Mark Ranson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” to the delight of the crowd. (See video here.)
“You send out your energy to the audience and if you’re lucky you get all that energy back and more,” Neals told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “I put a lot of who I am personally into what I do onstage and I’d like to think that comes across in my performances. What you’re seeing is not a ‘fake persona’ that’s just for the show.
“I love making eye contact with individuals in the audience and finding ways to personally connect, letting them know that, at least to me, they are not just a faceless mass in front of me while I collect a paycheck,” he added.
Neals, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, is a graduate of the iconic Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which became known around the world because of the 1980 Academy Award-winning movie “Fame.” He started performing in church at age 7 and has entertained in front of crowds since 9.
His stage credits included the lead in the Julie Taymor musical, “Juan Darien;” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Rent,” and most recently “Freedom’s Song: A New Musical.” He has been a vocalist for the New York Shakespeare Company, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, along with being a soloist at NYC’s famous Duplex & Bound for Broadway Cabarets.
He was an entertainer for Carnival Entertainment as a lead vocalist for five inaugural ships and 11 original productions and was one of the original eight entertainers for Playlist Productions. He also led in the show “Nightshift: A Legacy of Rock and Soul” featuring classic and modern takes on funk, soul, R&B, and rock music from the last 40 years.
“I’ve sung at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic before embracing musical theatre which led me to work with people like Julie Taymor and Martha Clarke,” said Neals, whose wife also works in the entertainment business in NYC. “I attended the School of Performing Arts nd that led to more great professional experiences than I can remember that I’m still blessed to enjoy today.
“And there’s always something new on the horizon. Every experience leads to another and to another. The only break in all this was a short stint of service in the U.S. Navy. It’s all made me very aware of the blessing of getting to do something I’ve always loved, share it in real time with people, and hopefully make a little bit of a difference in their lives,” he added.
Neals talked with Front Runner New Jersey.com about his year-plus experience performing in Atlantic City and Hard Rock, what he hope his audiences, particular African-Americans, get from the show and what the future holds for him. He stressed that his views or his personally and are not in any way connected with the views and opinions of Hard Rock.
FRNJ: How did you get connected with the Motor City Review show last year?
Neals: So last year, around March or April I think, I saw a casting notice for a Motown review show in Backstage (a weekly entertainment publication for performing artists). As it turned out, I missed both of the calls that they had in NYC because of scheduling conflicts. However, after the second notice I decided to write in directly to the production company with my demo video and interest. As it turns out, they hadn’t been able to find what they wanted from the initial batch of auditions for male vocalists. I received an invitation to come down to Atlantic City the first week of May to audition in person. The auditions were held in the old Bourbon Club at The Showboat Hotel.
FRNJ: What was it like performing in Atlantic City at that time?
Neals: I had performed in Atlantic City over 15 years ago on tour and it was a completely different place back then. I remember arriving in Atlantic City for the audition (and to start rehearsals once I joined the cast) and thinking how unfortunately things seemed to be in the area since I’d last been here. Keep in mind, everything past Resorts was a construction zone from Hard Rock to Ocean’s (Casino Resort) and it was before the summer had started.
However, I’ve spent years working new ships and new shows for a major cruise line and have seen first-hand how a venue that was bare wires and sheet rock on Monday can be a magnificent working performance venue on Friday. It was amazing watching the last two weeks as they finished the casino spaces, boardwalk, and theater while we rehearsed. There was a palpable energy to the new hotel and the revival that everyone hoped it would bring to this side of AC. I definitely felt that energy in our Motor City Live audiences as they grew from week to week. I loved every minute of it! And it’s all magnificent now!
FRNJ: How did you feel about returning to the Hard Rock to do the new Disco Live Show at the Hard Rock this spring?
Neals: I’m very excited to be a part of Disco Live! Motor City Live, and some of the satellite experiences that have come from it, have been very rewarding experiences in the last year and it’s nice to continue working with the team that put it all together. Also, it’s always great to be part of project from the beginning. You get to set the bar for everyone who comes after. If you’re very lucky you get to add your own personal creativity to the development process which, in a way, makes it a little bit your own and helps you to be personally invested in every moment that happens on the stage.
FRNJ: It seems that you enjoy interacting with the crowd. Is that one of your favorite parts of the show?
Neals: My two favorite moments in the show are the a Capella section where we get to make a special moment for a couple in the audience and watching the audience members eyes and knowing that they are reliving specifics memories as they sing along and dance in the aisles.
FRNJ: What is your favorite part working with the singers and dancers with the Disco Live Show?
Neals: Everyone in the show comes from so many different backgrounds and experiences. Every. Single. One…is so INSANELY talented! Bringing all that diversity together to create this is such a learning experience. I’ve been performing professionally for over 35 years, yet I still LOVE when I can see someone do or interpret something onstage that would never occur to me. Even from show to show and week to week. One of the best parts of a LIVE show is that it’s a living, breathing thing, and if you’re very lucky, an ever evolving experience as a performer.
FRNJ: As an African-American performer, what do you hope to bring to the show that black audiences can relate to?
Neals: As with Motor City Live, I try to bring a sense of authenticity and legacy to the music I get to perform. Music from ‘back-in-tha-day’ had a very clear message and energy and sound that remains distinctive all these decades later. With only a few notes, you knew who was singing or what band was playing.
You could get your dance on with Parliament Funkadelic or embolden your souls with Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ and the legacy of it was made to last and cross generations and cultures. I hope when I’m performing that I’m bringing my own experiences to the music, but also respecting all that came before and taking people back to the best days and memories of their lives. And hopefully reminding them that those days don’t need to be behind us. We can take that energy and move it positively forward to the next generation.
FRNJ: What acting credits are you most proud of and do you prefer acting to singing?
Neals: As time has gone on, I’ve found myself singing more than acting, musical theatre notwithstanding. I enjoy both, but if I’m being honest, singing has always come more naturally to me. But music for me is not abstract at all. It’s a very real, physical thing that I get to play with and share. And being an actor has influenced that as well. I think about every lyric of a song that I sing. I think about what it meant to the songwriter and what it means to me as a vocalist. I feel being able to interpret what I’m singing gives it a sense of personalism that keeps it from being just another form of ‘disposable entertainment.’
Some of my favorite songwriters, Billy Joel, Prince, Stevie Wonder, are the ones who told stories with their songs. Each one was a mini-play in itself. That being said, as an actor I’m probably most proud of doing Julie Taymor’s Juan Darien because it led to years of experiences and it’s what got my stage career started. I’m also very proud of a play I did called The Toilet by black playwright Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones) It was the first time that I completely allowed myself to exit my comfort zone for a role (the play tackles very dark and dividing issues) and changed how I would approach everything I’ve ever done since.
FRNJ: What’s next for you after the Disco Live Show?
Neals: Well, I’m hoping Disco Live continues to entertain for a good long while, but I’m also writing and producing myself. I’m a giant, unashamed Geek. I’m into the comic-con/pop culture circuit and I do a lot of entertainment aimed at that fan base. I’m currently doing work with several conventions in the coming months and I produce the NY Cosplay Cabaret which performs bi-monthly in Manhattan and helps to raise funds for various charities via my company GeekLifeRules & GeekLifeCares. I’ve also been working on my first solo EP for about a year now and hope to be ready to share it with the public by year’s end and I’m working on writing/producing two live music productions that I hope to get backing for and up in front of audiences in the next year. I guess I’ll sleep when I’m gone. Until then, #everydayImhustlin.
FRNJ: Do you see yourself producing someday, or is entertaining too much in your blood?
Neals: I guess I got ahead of this question with my last answer to the last one. I most definitely see myself producing. I started doing it by accident and it honestly wasn’t something that I initially aspired to. But I’ve learned that I enjoy it and that I don’t completely suck at it! Again, there’s an amazing sense of satisfaction that comes with taking an idea on paper and realizing it in the real world and getting to share it. It’s even more rewarding as I get to find like-minded creatives to join me and add their ideas to my own for something that’s even better and more diverse and entertaining than what I might do all on my own.
And producer’s prerogative, I can always add a part for myself in these projects! I’m a lifelong entertainer. It defines a very large part of me and that’s not going to change whether I’m in front of or behind the curtain. I don’t see any reason why I can’t do both successfully. I get to share my ideas both as an artist and writer and producer. And to quote Mel Brooks as a producer, when you’re in charge: ‘It’s good to be the King!’
FRNJ: What do you hope people will get the most out of the Disco Live Show?
Neals: I hope they get surprised at just how much FUN the show is. I hope they come in expecting to sit down and watch a show and then get pleasantly surprised that along with the great music and dancing and performances they find that they’re up on their feet dancing and singing WITH us the entire time and it’s a far more interactive experience than they may have expected to have when they first came in. Flooded with music and memories that will stay with them for a good long while.
Copyright July 29, 2019