“The only good thing around here is hard work,” said Hicks as Anderson early on, pipe in hand.
Hard work has always been Hicks’ modus operandi. Since winning “American Idol’ in 2006 during its most popular season, Hicks has performed all over the country, sung “Beauty School Dropout” as Teen Angel in a national tour of “Grease,” done a lengthy residence in Las Vegas and hosted an INSP food show “State Plate.”
Hicks has been itching to get into acting as well. So when Serenbe Playhouse creator and artistic director Brian Clowdus chose the Civil War era family musical "Shenandoah," he said he wanted a "big name" to headline the show. He needed a singer with "an earthy Southern vibe" to complement the "country musical feel."
>> RELATED: Going off script: From malls to gardens to a church, theater in new places makes theater new
When he saw Hicks was available, he was intrigued. Clowdus is a fellow Alabama native and loved Hicks’ “Soul Patrol” stylings on “Idol.” Clowdus felt he could get Hicks up to speed despite his lack of acting experience.
“Taylor has been an awesome sport,” said Clowdus before a dress rehearsal Tuesday in a field at Serenbe, where a “Union encampment” was set up for actual retailers, food sellers and a barber. “This is a huge role even for a seasoned theater actor.”
Hicks spent the past three weeks learning the script, the songs and the craft of acting with as much intensity and dedication as he did competing on “Idol.” He spent 12 hours a day prepping with Serenbe’s peaceful community setting making it easier to focus and tamp down the inevitable anxiety.
“This character isn’t too far off from some of the essence of who I am as a person,” Hicks said. “I’m learning as I go. Being emotional while singing comes second nature to me. This is a whole different side I’m having to learn through acting.”
He has to convey the pathos of a man who had already lost his wife and faces more suffering as the war drags on.
“The more I’ve gotten comfortable in the role, the more Charlie speaks inside my head,” Hicks said. “I’m really connecting with him more than I did in the beginning.”
Hicks said singing without a hand mic was not a big deal but he is used to moving his hands and arms around a lot in concert: “Brian has quelled that quite a bit, which is good for my acting.”
Serenbe’s specialty is outdoor productions open to the elements providing both actors and attendees an immersive experience.
"Shenandoah," Clowdus noted, is not done very often anymore. The musical, which ran on Broadway from 1975 to 1977, was based on the 1965 Jimmy Stewart film of the same name.
“I think the Civil War, people are afraid to talk about it,” Clowdus said. But he liked its family-oriented story line and felt Serenbe’s outdoor setting would do the musical justice.
“We can create gunfire and cannon smoke and use live horses,” he said. “It would be a lot trickier to do that in an indoor theater. You can’t have things blow up like I can outside.”
Clowdus also liked that the Anderson family was “very progressive for that time. They don’t think slavery is right. To be a Virginian and stand up against the war was a big deal.”
For a musical themed around war, “Shenandoah” provides plenty of lighter moments and songs. There’s courting, a wedding and dancing.
But “the entire show gets more tense as the war gets tense,” Clowdus said. “Then there’s a big moment of relief near the end.”
Hicks during the dress rehearsal started with clear nerves in his voice. But he grew more confident as it went along. It helped that he was surrounded by professional actors and even another reality star: "X Factor" finalist Rachel Potter.
And for those who love Hicks for his harmonica, the musical allows him to whip one out later in Act 1 for a few bars during the wistful “The Pickers are Coming.” Then he goes hog wild doing a harmonica solo during “It’s a Boy!” and pulls off a few Hicks-like moves.
“Luckily my first dramatic role is this and not what Simon Cowell once called me: the drunk uncle at the wedding!” Hicks said with a laugh.
“Shenandoah” starring Taylor Hicks
March 13 to April 7, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays (recommended to arrive at 7 p.m.; a Civil War battle re-enactment starts at 7:45 p.m.)
$60 adults, $70 VIP ($55 seniors and students)
The Horseman’s Meadow in Serenbe
10950 Hutchesons Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills