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'Champion of the lovelorn'

When singer Erik Connolly began taking voice lessons in the '80s, his teacher suggested he listen to opera singers Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. At the same time, the voice teacher got a gleam in his eye and proposed listening to some Roy Orbison, as well.

"I was struck by that dichotomy," Connolly says. "Here were opera singers juxtaposed with Orbison. It seemed odd. The next time I heard him sing, I realized what a free and natural technique he had. His singing seemed to come easy, and he had this seamless, quicksilver way of negotiating the lowest baritone sounds to bel canto, or those laser-beam high notes. Not to mention his angelic falsetto. There I was still trying to just stay on pitch.

"Bob Dylan had a great quote about Orbison's voice," Connolly says. "He said Orbison was an opera singer, he just didn't know it. I think that is the most succinct thing to say about his voice."

Connolly will star in a tribute to the American singer and songwriter — also known as the Big O — in Camelot Theatre's production of "Spotlight on Roy Orbison." The show previews Thursday, Jan. 15, opens Friday, Jan. 16, and runs through Sunday, Jan. 25, at Camelot, 101 Talent Ave., Talent.

Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Jan. 15-17 and Jan. 22-24, and 2 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 18 and 25. Preview tickets cost $20. Tickets cost $24 for all other performances and can be purchased online at camelottheatre.org, at the box office or by calling 541-535-5250.

Connolly was familiar with Orbison's early hits — "Oh, Pretty Woman" (mercy!) and "Only the Lonely" — and Orbison's career renaissance around 1988 when he teamed up with Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Dylan and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys. 

While working with scriptwriter Catherine Noah (who is city editor of the Mail Tribune) and director Presila Quinby and reading books — especially John Kruth's "Rhapsody in Black" — Connolly became fascinated with Orbison's life.

"His creativity was groundbreaking," he says. "Before he emerged on the scene, pop music was straightforward and somewhat formulaic. Orbison, this sort of champion of the lovelorn, this loner with no matinee-idol looks, no Elvis Presley swagger, clad in black and wearing dark sunglasses ... and this voice ... introduced a complexity to pop music. He took the predictability out of it. His songs start small and seemingly don't follow much of a pattern as they unfold. They just build, and they finish as though he was simply done pouring his heart out.

"There are a lot of Orbison aficionados out there," Connolly says. "His quality speaks to those who know what heartache feels like. I'm feeling a little pressured, actually. I've sung classical music and done even more musical theater. This is out of left field for me. A great way to describe his music is 'countrypolitan.' It's a new genre for me."

Connolly will be joined by backup singers Kathleen Marrs and Marlena Gray, who will also narrate the show.

"Kathleen and Marlena are crucial to this show," he says. "Orbison employed some pretty advanced harmonies in his music. The backup singing makes his songs effective and authentic."

The singers — with Connolly on rhythm guitar — will be accompanied by bassist Steve Fain, lead guitarist Brent Norton, drummer Steve Sutfin and keyboardist and accordion player Karl Iverson, who wrote the arrangements.

"The band is top-notch, capped off with a top-notch musical director (Iverson), director and scriptwriter," Connolly says. "We're not trying to present an impersonation, just a look at Orbison's life woven with great songs."

Erik Connolly stars as American singer and songwriter Roy Orbison in Camelot's 'Spotlight.' Photo courtesy of Steve Sutfin