Friday, August 17, 2012

Raissa Katona Bennett: Anything’s Possible!

Raissa always knew that she wanted to entertain. In her upcoming show at Feinstein’s (info below), she actually talks about that leading into the song, It’s Possible
She remembers sitting in Mrs. Ivenson’s ninth grade chemistry class in high school one day doing what was expected of her. She thought, “I really don’t want to be doing this. What do I really desire to be doing?” She wanted to entertain. She went down to talk to her music teachers and asked how she could make it happen. They set her on the right path. She knew this was what she was destined to do. It was an epiphany. She knew at that moment that this was it. 
She listened to her gut.
Raissa’s parents felt she should be a baby nurse. She was not interested in that one bit, but what did she really want to do? 
She wanted to sing. 
What do you do to make that happen? 
Go talk to Mr. Vitalli and Mr. Crupp, her band and choral teachers at the time. 
She went downstairs to the band room and told Mr. Vatalli that she wanted to entertain and be a singer for a living. 

Mr. Vatalli set her up with a good voice teacher and from that moment, she was on her way. She applied to music schools and completely set her course in a different direction. That was a defining moment. Raissa remembers being sixteen. She remembers asking herself why she should do what her parents thought she should do. 
Her parents loved her. They knew she was talented but they had a fear base. “Don’t try because you could fail and you don’t have anything to fall back on.”
That didn’t deter Raissa. She went to the Hartford School of Music in West Hartford with a major in Music Education and Voice and a minor in psychology. That way, she appeased her parents by letting them know she had a teaching degree if the entertaining didn’t work out. She did teach for a little while and while she was in her first year of teaching, she met a guy who was an actor and he got her to audition for a semi-professional summer theater company of Most Happy Fella and she got in. 
From that moment on, she never looked back. He asked her to go drive him up for summer stock auditions at a theater conference, which she did. While there, she was able to audition and they both were offered roles in the same show. They took them and she started doing summer stock, her first summer of summer stock was at the Booth Bay Harbor Dinner Theater, they did six shows within eight weeks. They learned them for a total of an eight week season. 
An interesting happened before she got there. She got a phone call telling her that there was good news and bad news. The bad news is that someone had torched the theater. The good news was that they were going to try and still have a summer season if they still wanted to come. After Raissa and her friend said yes, they were asked to bring anything that could be used for that season as far as costumes were concerned. They were doing A Chorus Line, Evita, Pippin, and Side By Side By Sondheim.   

They brought whatever they could. They rehearsed during the day, and although they were not asked to, they rebuilt the theater at night. 
That was a very important time in Raissa’s life. It taught her total commitment.   
Later on, when Raissa conducted seminars and workshops, she would instruct those that were present not to be afraid of tech work and respect for how everything is done. Four from that group decided to give it a go in New York. They got a large Studio on Forty Second Street between Tenth and Eleventh at the Armory. At the time, it wasn’t the period building it is now. It was kind of scary. Raissa had gone from living literally in a log house in the woods of Connecticut to living in mid town Manhattan! 
It was a big adjustment. She started auditioning for non-Equity theater. After getting enough roles on her resume, she focused only on Equity theaters. She concentrated on getting her Equity card. She got her Equity card and started auditioning for Equity jobs. She got her first Equity job when she did the first national tour of Cats. She played  Jellylorum, the opera cat and Jennyanydots,the old Gumbie cat. Cats landed her within a core group of people who kept getting called. She was doing Cats in Washington DC when Les Miserables was being cast. 
A group of people came into New York for the auditions, Raissa did not. When she got back to New York, however, after Cats, she wanted to be seen for Cosette. She was told she was not right for Cosette. By that point, they had pegged her as a funny diva. She went to an open call. By the way, she has never gotten any of her jobs through an agent’s submission. All of her big jobs, she has gotten by going to open calls. “They” did not want to see her for Cosette. 
She did not have an agent at the time. She couldn’t get an appointment, even though they loved her. She went to an open chorus call. At the chorus call, she knew that someone from the production had to be there. At that time, at most EPAs, only the casting director, in some instances were at cattle calls. She went in acting like Cosette, not dressed like her, but shy and quiet and not funny. Suddenly, she was perfect for it! She was told the same thing later when she wanted to audition for Christine in Phantom, that she wasn’t right for it. When she finally got the call to come in and audition for Christine, they asked her if she knew the music. She told them no, that years before they told her she was not right for it and therefore did not learn it. 
She was not going to invest her time working on a part she was never going to get. Anyway, she started getting callbacks for Cosette. She got down to the very end for the first national for Cosette. She did not get it. Around the same time, she started getting called in for Christine. She had a series of auditions. David Caddick, a tall, blonde, man with a British accent, conductor, pianist, and producer and Raissa loved working with him. 
She had a series of work sessions with him to prepare her for the role of Christine. Eventually, she was called in to sing for Hal Prince and got the job. She did that for five years. After that, she took a break, and then took a job as a headliner on a cruise ship. During that time, she married, divorced, and wanted to get away. She went to Hawaii, singing on a cruise ship and that’s where she met Garrett, her husband. He was a second engineer on the ship, an officer. He was saving his money to go to medical school. He knew that he always wanted to be a doctor. Everyone in his family, the most successful men, had all shipped; he came from a sailing family. He went to sea for ten years, saw the world, saved money, and then he had already started medical school by the time Raissa started dating him. 
Garrett and Raissa and family © Victoria Matlock 2011
They came back to New York together. He went to Medical school up in Rochester. Raissa stayed up there with him. During that time, she focused on cementing their relationship. They both knew it was something special. During that time, she recorded her first CD, she produced her first cabaret show, and set some very specific goals at that time. She learned sign language, she learned the computer, and she planned their wedding. Those were her five goals! She remembers thinking very specifically that she was not going to waste her time in Rochester, New York. 
She would come back and forth to New York City. She had maintained an apartment here and would still do shows here. That, also, was a defining moment. When she returned from Hawaii, she called the producers of Phantom to let them know she was back. She actually ended up filling in up in Rochester while Garrett was in medical school. It was great that Garrett could see what Raissa’s life was like. There was a girl in the company at the time whose husband died suddenly. 
She was a Christine alternate. Raissa remembers having a conversation with her about how you can never be sure of life and how important it is to follow your heart. Shortly after that, Raissa found herself back in the city doing a workshop of a show she really liked. She was here alone, Garrett was up in Rochester. She remembers thinking life is short and Garrett was seven hours away. New York will always be here and she decided to go up and stay with him for his last years of medical school and help him through that time. It’s a rough time for medical students. They are just exhausted. She never regretted it. It was a really important time for them. After they were done with that, she said, “OK, now you have to get residency in New York City.” It sounds kind of cut and dry. You can’t plan where you’re going to match. 
Matching is a very difficult thing. You rank where you want to go. He made NYU his first choice. Luckily for Raissa, Garret is really smart and scored really high and got to go to his first choice! They got back to NYC. They weren’t back very long when Raissa went to an open call for Parade. She only went because she had a new sixteen bar phrase that she wanted to try out. She knew that the show was already cast because it had already been done at Lincoln Center and most of that cast would be continuing on. 
She went just to get her “chops back up.” She went in to do her sixteen bars. It was so packed that everyone was cut down to eight bars. Raissa thought, “Damn it! I can’t even do my sixteen bars! What the hell? I’m here. I’ll do what they want.” 
She went in, did her eight bars, and she felt very awkward. They were very nice to her. She came home and said to Garrett,” I freakinly wasted my time today. Blah Blah Blah”. They made plans to go on their honeymoon which they had not done yet because they were too poor when they got married, eloped, actually. They bought non-refundable one hundred and eighty dollar tickets to go to France. She remembers that because that was a tremendous amount of money for them. It was in April that they were going to go. About four days before their departure, Raissa gets a call from Hal Prince’s office that he wants to see her for Parade. She said, “Fantastic! When?” They said Thursday! She told them that she was scheduled to leave for her honeymoon on Thursday with non-refundable tickets. They told her that it was down to her and three other women, that it was pretty serious. 
She called Garrett to tell him that Hal Prince wanted to see her for Parade. She had to explain to Garrett who Hal Prince is. He told her she had to go. Without even thinking, he said, “We’ll cancel the trip.” They canceled the trip. Obviously, they had saved this time to go on a trip. She asked him to go with her to the audition to see what it is like, what she goes through because it’s not easy. He went. It was down at the Chelsea Studios. 
A gaggle of cabaret entertainers!
He is sitting outside the door observing everything. She, Jamie Johnson, and a few others, Jason Robert Brown, Hal Prince, Alfred Uhry, Pat Birch, everybody. She went in and did her numbers and then Jason vocalized her all over the place. She was told to hang out. She was there between two and a half to three hours. 
One of her favorite memories of that was that Jamie Johnson, a beautiful redhead and a good friend of Raissa’s, came out questioning how she did. Garrett starts comforting her! He said, “Listen! You never know what they’re looking for. I heard you through the door. You sounded great. Now, it’s up to them. You’ve done your job.” 
Peter Napolitano, Mark Janas, Raissa, Sue Matsuki
Raissa is listening to him and thinking, “What the hell is he doing?” He is dispensing advice like he is a theater guru. Of course he was right, but it was tremendously funny at the same time. 
They left and went home. Raissa said to Garrett,” We don’t know if I’m going to get this job or not, and we’re not in France. Why don’t we go visit your parents in New Hampshire.” They loved visiting them, so they went up there. That night, she got a call from Mark Simon, casting director. He said he knew she gave up her honeymoon for this callback. He told her he didn’t know what track she had, but she had the job. It was like a fairy story for the weekend for them.
Raissa did the first national of Parade. When she got back from that, she got a call from a cruise ship that she had worked for asking if she would open for the headlining acts. She did that for a little while.  When they were in port in Manhattan, she would do her own act. It was great money and it was fun. However, she wanted to spend more time with Garrett and not travel as much. She did one or two gigs when the ship came into Manhattan, then she was out to sea for six to eight weeks. 
It docked twice in Manhattan. Then 9/11 happened and that took care of everything. She remembers the morning after. Garrett and Raissa were sitting out by a fountain on Second Avenue at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. 
They, like everyone else, were shell-shocked. Garrett had been working all night at the hospital and Raissa had also been working the night before at the Red Cross. They were having coffee and Raissa said maybe she should go back. 
Garrett grabbed her hand and asked what could be more important than being there having coffee and being with him at that moment. She thought, “Not a damn thing” and she sat back down. 

He told her that she was going to stop traveling so much. She agreed. It was another defining moment. What means the world to you? It was shortly thereafter within the week that they started planning to adopt, Randy, their first dog. They were going to settle down and she was going to start accepting jobs that kept her closer to home. That is a large part of why she decided that she was going to start doing cabaret. She knew she liked and she also knew she could create her own hours. She had enough of a resume that she thought people would come in and see her. That helped. When Garrett was working on his fellow ship in facial plastic surgery, they moved down to Birmingham for one year. She did a lot of concert work that year. She taught aerobics, Pilates, body pump to make ends meet while he was doing his residency. He told her he could make more money one night on call what it would take her ten classes to earn. He felt that she had sacrificed enough and that it was time for her to focus on her career again. He made sure that he would take one night on call each week so that she didn’t have to teach her ass off. She stopped. Within a week of being back in New York, she got cast in Saving Amy, the Kathie Lee Gifford/David Friedman/ David Pomeranz workshop. That was performed at the White Plains Performing Arts Center. It is now about to open on Broadway under the new title, Scandalous. Raissa, sadly, is not in it. But working on that project brought her all of those contacts. Really from then on, she has been focusing more on doing the concert and cabaret career because it allows her the flexibility to be at home with her family, Garrett, and their two dogs, Phoebe and Odie. That has also led her to produce the Bistro Award winning Tudor City Greens Concert Series. Being involved in the cabaret community with an amazing array of talent, we are always preaching to the choir. Raissa wanted an opportunity to market to people who don’t know about these amazing artists. Cabaret had a heyday that was respectable and then it has fallen out of fashion. Doing these concerts, primarily in Tudor City, Raissa’s apartment complex alone has eight hundred apartments in it. 
People that are attending these free concerts outside are falling in love with the art form AND the entertainers. Every single person who has been a part of this concert series, all volunteers, by the way, not one person has paid, have told Raissa that they’ve had people attend their shows who tell them they first saw them in Tudor City. 
This has created a new fan base for many. These concerts have been a major focus for Raissa for the past five years!  
Raissa loves structure. She vocalizes every day. She works on music every day. 
She’s always learning new music. She’s opening a new show at Feinstein’s Tuesday night with the culmination of the last five years of work, with her new CD, Another Kind of Light. There are fifteen songs mostly by new songwriters. There’s a lot of work there every day. Then there’s all the work that goes with that. There is also her Jerome Kern CD that will be coming out next year which is based on her live show, which I saw and loved, by the way. All of that production work going into that CD takes hours every day.
The advice that Raissa would give to anyone wanting a CAREER in this business is to be organized. You have to work at it every day. 
You have to get up, get dressed, and start working. Raissa’s first roommate in New York sent her a telegram when she opened in Phantom on Broadway. He said, “I was so jealous when I saw you in this. I thought, ’Why not me? Why not me? And I realized ‘why not me?’ It’s because you got up every day and you worked at the craft of theater.”

When I did this interview with Raissa, it was ten in the morning. She had not vocalized yet. But prior to our conversation, she had already printed out two hundred labels for her Feinstein’s postcards. She had printed out the music that she was singing at Broadway Ballyhoo, also at Feinstein’s. (That was last night).
She had emailed her band to see how they wanted their charts prepared. While Raissa and I were talking, her personal assistant Tonya Moberly showed up and was already attaching all of this. She tends to do business end details in the morning. That is when she is cognitively more “clear”.
She was already putting together another eblast reminder regarding the upcoming shows.
The afternoon is when she focuses on the singing.
The day before our interview, twenty-four hours to be exact, she had already had an hour rehearsal by that time. The morning after our interview, she had another rehearsal scheduled.
The work that Raissa is most proud of is playing Christina in Phantom.                      
I asked Raissa if she dances like no one’s watching when she’s alone. She says she does that when she’s with people! She does morning interpretive theater dancing for her husband, Garrett. No, that is not a euphemism. He’ll be having his coffee, all sleepy, and Raissa will hear some music and start her interpretive dance, something very bad and dramatic.
Who does Raissa pray to when she is in trouble? (This question comes via Linda Purl) Raissa says she does not pray TO anyone. She goes within. She does that when she’s not in trouble, also. She is in constant communication with GOD. In her belief system now, God stands for Good Orderly Direction. She doesn’t believe God is this great being in the sky. She believes there is universal loving energy.
The one change that Raissa would like to see in this business is a return to the old fashioned way of working your way up the ladder with entertainers. Get rid of shows like American Idol. Raissa does not care for the mean spirit-ness of it, when they are showing the early auditions. They are clearly laughing at people. It’s unkind, so she doesn’t care for it. She would like to see a return to trating people with more respect. If someone feels strongly enough that they want to sing, even if they shouldn’t be doing it for a living, it would be nice to support them as a hobby and be kind about it.
There’s no need to make fun of anybody. We should not be treating the weakness of performers as a joke and entertainment. Raissa is not a fan of reality shows in general.
She doesn’t watch them, on principle. Reality shows got started because of the Screen Actors strike years ago. The ONLY reality show that Raissa watches is the Dog Whisperer because it helps animals.    
We all know that we are now living in an option full world. What is Raissa doing to reach out to and attract her audiences? The Concerts at The Tudor City Greens. It is attracting a nontraditional cabaret audience. These are people who don’t go to see cabaret on a regular basis and now they are starting to. Jenna Esposito has taught Raissa a great deal about email marketing. Jenna is a master at it. Raissa is getting pretty good at it. The way to reach people is through the internet: emails, Facebook pages, blogs, twitter (not about what she had for breakfast!)…but, rather about a show she has just seen, for example, or something she has coming up. This blog will be tweeted by Raissa.
Broadway Ballyhoo Photo credit: Russ Weatherford
There was a paradigm that was very popular several years ago. It was based on the book, The One Minute Millionaire. It was about multiple streams of marketing. Rich Dad, Poor Dad is the same principle. It is about maximizing what you do to increase the end result. “I tell you. You tell two people. They tell two people, and so forth…”
When I write my blog, Raissa tweets my blog, Stu Hamstra from Cabaret Hotline will re tweet Raissa’s tweet to all of his followers.

Eventually, more and more people will find out about it.
Raissa also brings an audience in through both her personal and spiritual lives. She is a chaplain and a platform assistant at Unity in Norwalk, Connecticut.
A lot of the stuff that she talks about goes back to Raissa’s personal philosophy, anything is possible. That goes back to positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale made that very popular. That’s the belief system Unity has adopted. Raissa actually gets a lot of a fan base from those areas, as well. It’s reaching beyond the typical cabaret and theater communities.
For my singer friends, Raissa recommends Singer’s Saving Grace if you’re having throat issues, also vocal rest, be quiet. Drink lots of water…the usual typical things. If you are sick, you shut up, you rest. She also happens to be married to an ears, nose, and throat AND sinus surgeon! If she absolutely has to sing when she is ill, he can take care of her. One thing to remember as a singer is that your body is your instrument. Alcohol and coffee dehydrate your voice and body. You need to stay with putting good fuel into your body.
When working on a project, Raissa is aware of other avenues of inspiration: watching a program, reading. She is not really a museum person. She is inspired by other people, nature, animals. She is very active with her metaphysical and spiritual studies.
That’s a big inspiration for her, also.
Raissa is pretty linear when it comes to putting a show together. She is pretty organized in her thoughts when she begins to work on a show. She feels that music is the soundtrack of her life. When she has feelings of something she would like to share again, she sits down and starts writing.
Another Kind of Light is about to be released through LML Music any minute now. The release of this CD will be celebrated at Raissa’s Feinstein’s Show starting Tuesday night. It is a weeklong run. At that show, Raissa will be singing the songs from this CD. Everybody who attends will be getting a CD.
Remember to use code "GREEN" upon checkout or over the phone and Feinstein's will donate their 8/22 & 8/23 service fee to THE CONCERTS FOR CITY GREENS!


CD Release Engagement
One Week - Tuesday through Saturday
AUGUST 21st through 25th all shows 8 pm 
at Feinstein's, the Nightclub of NY, 
540 Park Ave. at 61st Street, NYC

Co-hosting in association with Artistic Director/Producer, Ron Abel, LML Music Producer, Lee Lessack, and Executive Producer, Dr. Garrett Bennett, is the incredible musical team that created magic in the studio will re-create it onstage -  Musical Director/Arranger David Caldwell, Sean Harkness on guitar, Ritt Henn on bass, and Ray Marchica on percussion.  Special opening night guest appearances by Ron Abel and Robin Batteau! 

Click here to reserve tickets or call:
$30 Cover, $50 Premium Seating, $25  Minimum*
$30 High Top Seating with no minimum available*
All covers include 1 CD
(*fees and taxes apply)
Use code "GREEN" upon checkout or over the phone 
Feinstein's will donate their 8/22  8/23 service fee to THE CONCERTS FOR CITY GREENS!

 This is your last chance to catch Raissa at Feinstein's at the Regency - this legendary nightclub closes it's doors Dec. 31st, when the Regency undergoes renovations.  

In her third Feinstein's engagement, Broadway veteran ("Christine" in Phantom), MAC & Bistro Award winner, Raissa Katona Bennett celebrates the release of her latest CD, which features never-before-recorded songs by prominent songwriters, including two songs written for her by Michael John LaChiusa.  Directed by Eric Michael Gillett, Raissa performs a mix of jazz, pop and theatre songs, and puts a contemporary spin on well-known standards - songs that intelligently explore the human condition.  Click to listen to samples and the commercial.
A few words from the critics and artists:

"Raissa Katona Bennett not only has a sweet yet sturdy voice -- even piercing and fierce when she wants -- but she puts a generous helping of intelligence behind what she does. She doesn't indicate she'd shy from anything, and that includes allowing her vulnerability to show!" David Finkle - Backstage, Village Voice
 "...a superb vocalist with an impeccable ear for timing and nuance. Lovely doesn't get much lovelier than that." - David Spencer -

"Her voice is lovely and her presence is magical...very pure, very unafffected, as natural as can be---my favorite kind of voice, the kind that you forget is 'singing'." - Michael John LaChiusa - Tony Award, Drama Desk nominated composer/lyricist/librettist.
"Wow, what a singer! Raissa not only totally personalizes and acts the songs, but at the same time, showcases the writers' intentions and reveals deeper meanings in the material." - David Friedman  -  Today Show Contributor, multiplatinum selling Broadway, TV and Film composer/conductor/arranger.  

Thank you Raissa Katona Bennett for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

Do you have any pics?

If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    
My next blog will be... My Exclusive interview with Leslie Becker, Hello, Dolly! Wisconsin's Fireside Theater

Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!


Richard Skipper,                            

This Blog is dedicated to ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level! 

1 comment:

  1. Firstly Richard, THANK YOU for your continued support of this community. I love that your blog interviews go to who we all are as people. It is so nice getting to know people I thougt I knew a lot about already even better in these interviews. Miss Raissa is one of THE most supportive, smart and talented ladies in this business. I can't wait to see her new show at Feinstein's. Thank you for featuring her.