By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Fresh from singing alongside Carrie Underwood in NBC-TV's “The Sound of Music Live,” Catherine Brunell visited her hometown and appeared Dec. 27 at the Shrewsbury Public Library. She spoke about her theater experience from Shrewsbury to Broadway and sang several show tunes. Accompanying her on piano was Michael Lapomardo, a music and theater teacher at Shrewsbury High School (SHS).
Among the familiar faces Brunell acknowledged that evening was Richard Monroe, her first voice teacher when she was age 13. He now teaches at St. John's High School.
“Richard was quite formative in developing my love of music and singing in those early years,” she said.
That passion began as a second-grader at Paton Elementary School when Brunell was cast as the female lead in “Hansel and Gretel.” She continued gaining more experience with the Worcester County Light Opera Company and the Westborough Players” Club.
A 1993 SHS graduate, Brunell performed in school musicals annually. Her favorite was in her senior year when she portrayed the title role in “Peter Pan.” The school hired a company that provided the equipment to lift her airborne while singing “I's Flying.”
“All the opportunities in community theater and SHS allowed me to start honing my technique,” she said. “And then I became more studied about it when I went to college.”
Brunell majored in vocal performance at Northwestern University. While in college, she was cast in the national touring company of “Les Miserables” in which she understudied the roles of Eponine and Cosette. A year later, she was promoted to play Eponine on Broadway. That's when she met another cast member making a Broadway debut, Christopher Peterson, with whom she's now married.
“I wasn's really keen on dating someone who I was working with,” she shared, “but fate unfolded and we started dating after about three months.”
Between more Broadway and regional theater shows, she took a break and gave birth to twin boys.
Plans to return to school changed when she got auditions for the Broadway production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” She was cast in the show and understudied for the title role, played by Sutton Foster. While still in previews, Foster woke up with laryngitis. Though Brunell hadn's yet been fitted for costumes, the show went on with her as Millie.
“I was thrown into the show with costumes from all these department stores,” she said. “One of the costumes split all the way up the back while I was dancing in front of 1,600 people.”
Brunell also played the title role in the Broadway production of “Mary Poppins.” When the understudy suffered an injury, she booked the position and later played the role over 100 times. An early rehearsal spawned memories of performing at SHS when she was fitted for a harness to fly as Mary.
“This man asked me where I's from,” Brunell relayed. “Then he said that he set up the flying equipment for a production of “Peter Pan” years ago in Shrewsbury. He said, “I flew you!””
Another fond memory was when her twin sons saw her perform as Mary.
“I'sl never forget seeing their faces in the audience as I flew over their heads,” she said.
The time came for her to take another break.
“I had to leave “Mary Poppins” when I was five months pregnant with my daughter because I couldn's fly,” she said.
Describing the experience of playing a singing nun and the role of Frau Zeller in “The Sound of Music Live” as “equal parts terrifying and exhilarating,” Brunell added, “It was an honor to be a part of something so special.”