A star is born at Jerry’s Habima Theatre

Katharine Burnette (center) performs during a rehearsal for Little Shop of Horror, which is her third production with the Jerry’s Habima Theatre company, at Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. The Habima Theatre is Georgia’s only theatrical company that features actors with special needs along with professional actors from the community. Katharine Burnette was born premature, blind in one eye, and with cerebral palsy. Doctors said she would never walk. They were only partly right. Now 22, Katherine is not only walking, she has made a name for herself, holding audiences spellbound with her voice. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Katharine Burnette (center) performs during a rehearsal for Little Shop of Horror, which is her third production with the Jerry’s Habima Theatre company, at Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. The Habima Theatre is Georgia’s only theatrical company that features actors with special needs along with professional actors from the community. Katharine Burnette was born premature, blind in one eye, and with cerebral palsy. Doctors said she would never walk. They were only partly right. Now 22, Katherine is not only walking, she has made a name for herself, holding audiences spellbound with her voice. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Little Shop of Horrors

Feb. 27 – March 9. $35 general admission; $15 children 12 and under; $25 MJCCA members; $10 children 12 and under. Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Morris & Rae Frank Theatre, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody, 678-812-4002. www.atlantajcc.org/boxoffice.

The young woman moves across the stage, unsteady step after unsteady step but also with a sure confidence, as though she were born right there in the spotlight at Jerry’s Habima Theatre.

Indeed Katharine Burnette has become a regular here, singing her way into the hearts of audiences like a robin stirring us in the early morning.

It has been this way since 2010, when a family friend took her to see “Happy Days” and introduced her and her parents, Deborah Burnette and Melanie Eyre, to Habima, Georgia’s only theatrical company featuring actors with special needs like Katharine.

The following year, the 22-year-old from Roswell auditioned and landed the part of Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” She has been here ever since.

“She was riveting,” Dina Shadwell, a long-time director at Habima. “I was just amazed at her singing voice and her acting. She took the character and really just went to town with it.”

The next year, Katharine was back again, trying out for a part in “Grease” and landing the role of Rizzo, a main protagonist in the production.

And she returns again this season, the Habima’s 21st, as one of the Ronettes, street urchins who set the scene and comment on the action in “Little Shop of Horrors,” which opens Thursday at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s Morris & Rae Frank Theatre.

Shadwell said she initially considered Katharine for Audrey, the lead role, but believed Katharine would serve the play better as an urchin because she has such a good ear and could finally bring the production a three-part harmony.

“She can really anchor the alto part,” Shadwell said. “She has perfect pitch memory. Even when we don’t have our music director here playing piano, she remembers her exact pitch and key. She comes in clear and she sings from her heart. There are no filters between her and her voice.”

An ear for Bach

In just three seasons, Katharine’s star power has grown bigger, brighter and more formidable, much like the man-eating plant that is “Little Shop’s” unsung star.

“She has physical impairments but she never lets that get in her way,” Shadwell said.

Katharine was born extremely premature and blind in her left eye. She also has cerebral palsy, a disorder of the nervous system. Doctors warned her parents she might never walk.

None of that mattered to Burnette and Eyre. Even at age 2, there was something irresistible about Katharine, which led in 1993 to the couple adopting her. They made sure they followed a doctor’s recommendation: feed her as much unprocessed food as possible, keep her on a regular schedule and make classical music and children’s stories her constant companions, especially at bedtime.

“It would give her brain a leg up,” the doctor told them.

It wasn’t long before they noticed their little Katharine was a singer. And not just that. She loved classic stories.

“I listen to them at night,” Katharine said before rehearsal last week. “Always at night. I’m listening now to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”

When she wasn’t listening to the classics, she was absorbed in Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. By age 4, she could recognize the Brandenburg Concerto playing during Princess Diana’s funeral mass.

“She ran into the living room and said she heard Brandenburg’s Concerto,” Burnette recalled. “About that time, they flashed the name on the screen.”

Burnette said that Katharine sang almost constantly and even though she couldn’t understand the words, she knew very early exactly what her little girl was singing because she was always on pitch.

It wasn’t until middle school, however, that anyone else noticed.

“Her music teacher told us she had perfect pitch,” Burnette said. “Then her high school teacher said she was one of only two students he’d taught who had perfect pitch and he’d been teaching high school music for 16 years.”

Early on, Katharine sang in school and church choirs but she never wanted to take voice lessons. She preferred karate and ballet instead.

In 2003, Burnette and Eyre enrolled her in the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, where she took piano lessons but had little opportunity to sing.

“I sang in my room with my CDs,” Katharine said. “I was a star in my bedroom”

In 2006, she returned to Roswell High School and then North Springs High and was reunited with her first love: the chorus.

“I’m an alto,” she said. “I love singing the alto part.”

“Bop she bop”

Susie Davidow, director of the MJCCA’s Blonder Family Department for Special Needs and a former special education teacher, said if someone had told her 40 years ago that people with developmental disabilities like Katharine would act in a full-scale musical, she would’ve laughed.

“I would’ve thought it was science fiction,” she said. “It’s so nice to see how far we’ve come. Each year we get better and better and offer more opportunities for people with special needs.”

In addition to her rare vocal talents, Katharine is also one of few African-Americans with disabilities participating in Habima.

“For whatever reason, we don’t have a lot of African-American actors so it’s refreshing to see her,” Shadwell said.

And so there she was with fellow cast members on the day Atlanta awakened from its first snow storm late last month, ready to go.

“We don’t have (a pianist) tonight so we’ll be using the CD,” Shadwell announced as they made their way to the stage. “I know it’s frustrating but we’ll do our best.”

Enters Katharine and the show’s four other Ronnettes.

“Little shop, little shop of horror, bop she bop,” they sang crossing the stage and snapping their fingers

Shadwell is pleased with the opening song.

“Ladies, I can tell you’re practicing,” she says. “God bless you.”

They move quickly through Act One, stopping only for Shadwell’s critiques and forced repeats. Katharine imagines her favorite celebrity Shania Twain sitting out front saying, “You go, girl.”

It eases the jitters, she says.

“I can get nervous sometimes but not a lot,” she said.

She can also feel pride bubbling up but she has a remedy for that, too.

“I try not to get a big head because my mom doesn’t like that,” Katharine said. “She always says, it’s not all about you. So I try to not to think too much of myself.”

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