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From lawyer to singing donkey

Burnaby resident stars on Theatre Under the Stars stage

From would-be lawyer to singing donkey?

No, it's not a lawyer joke. It's Ken Overbey's life in a nutshell.

Overbey, you see, was supposed to be a lawyer. He was studying at the University of Southern California with that aim in mind. But it turned out that an elective class in dance and a summer job as a performer at Disneyland would conspire to take his career in an entirely different direction.

Overbey is getting set to star as Donkey in the Theatre Under the Stars production of Shrek: The Musical.  

It's a homecoming of sorts for the Burnaby resident, who first performed with TUTS in Sweet Charity back in 1993, shortly after moving north from California.

"I'm very fortunate, very happy that I was given this chance," says the affable Overbey, chatting over tea about his life and his career. "It's kind of a nice welcome back."

Overbey's happy to be on stage in his home base - in fact, he's happy to have a home base these days, after a career that has included about 15 years of travelling around the world, following his performing dreams.

Those dreams started to stir during that summer job at Disneyland - which would, in the end, stretch to six years in the theme park's entertainment division, performing in parades and stage shows.

"It's probably the best job I ever had in my life," Overbey says with a fond smile.

He points out that a lot of the big Disney musicals actually began life as stage shows at the theme park, so it was the perfect training for life in musical theatre.

Overbey did actually start a law career, working as a clerk for a law firm. But when he found himself confronted with handling a case he wasn't comfortable with from an ethical standpoint, he found himself drawn to a life in performance instead.

He spent years performing on stages from L.A. to Las Vegas to London - where he landed a part in the West End production of West Side Story. He laughs at that memory, recalling that he just showed up for an audition call in one of the most prestigious theatre districts in the world.

"Because I didn't go to theatre school, there were certain things I wasn't afraid of," he says with a smile. "I just went in and did it."

Much as he loved the years of travel and performance, he found himself ready to stop living from hotel to hotel and instead stay in one place for awhile.

On his move back to the Lower Mainland, he was able to get work - in film, in television, as a choreographer, and working with high school drama programs, among others.

He's loved all of it - and he has a special love for working with students. He's spent the past six years working with the musical theatre program at Magee Secondary in Shaughnessy.

"It's like a rejuvenation for me to work with those kids," he says with a smile.

It was, in fact, through his work at Magee that he found his way to Shrek. The music director for Magee's musicals, Christopher King, also happens to also be the music director for Shrek, and he suggested Overbey audition for the Donkey role.

Overbey has never seen the DreamWorks movie on which the musical is based, so he didn't really know a lot about the part - beyond that it was voiced by Eddie Murphy in the movie.

He chose to keep it that way, too, noting he'd rather not find himself influenced by someone else's performance.

Instead, he's taken the script and worked out his own character - finding himself influenced by the work of such performers as Flip Wilson, the first African-American to have his own variety TV series, and comedian-actor Chris Tucker's work in the 1997 film The Fifth Element.

And the part itself, he says, has more meat than you'd suspect on first glance for a talking animal.

"His part is so well-written. It needs such an open, gregarious, fun-loving person, but there are also shades of such caring," Overbey says. "He really, really wants friendship more than anything."

Like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, Overbey says Shrek offers something for both kids and adults - while kids will understand the surface action and humour, older viewers can appreciate some adult banter and deeper themes in the musical's messages of acceptance and inclusion.

"It's so layered," he says. "For the parents that are there with their kids ... I think they are going to find they enjoy it just as much."

Overbey is greatly enjoying the TUTS experience, especially working alongside Matt Palmer as Shrek - he's worked with Palmer before and describes him as a "very giving, open actor."

The performance has particular meaning to Overbey because he's dedicating it to the memory of Denis Simpson, the beloved Vancouver-based actor who passed away in 2010.

Overbey credits Simpson with his success in the musical theatre world, noting Simpson really opened a lot of doors for him and put a lot of work his way. And he notes that Simpson's spirit - his spiritual sense and his ability to remain calm in the face of all life's trials - was an inspiration to the people who met him.

"He was so beautiful," Overbey says.

And he adds, with a grin, that there will be no slacking on stage at TUTS - because he knows just how much Simpson would have loved the part of Donkey.

"I think he would have eaten the role up," Overbey says. "That's the Denis incentive."



Theatre Under The Stars is presenting two shows this summer at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park: Shrek and Legally Blonde. Shows run on alternating nights from July 11 to Aug. 23. See for all the details and to buy tickets.