Country music icons don’t get much bigger than Reba McEntire. She is the reigning queen of the genre, a title she has earned and keeps earning even as she has tried her hand at other areas of entertainment over the years. Turns out, in addition to her trademark soaring vocals, she’s also a pretty darn good actress, too.
Well, just like Cher and Dolly Parton, she too, has become a popular character for impersonators, or if you prefer, tribute artists to emulate. But in that sea of Rebas, there are but a handful or artists who respect her and her music and do the role justice. Wendy T is one of those ladies. She takes on the part in a show coming to the Riverside Resort entitled “Simply Reba.”
The concept of the show is a straight-forward Reba concert, taking the audience into the moment of recreating the experience of being at one of her shows -— something many people in this area know about well, since she has passed through town a time or two.
“The showroom staff in Don’s Celebrity Theater is always on top of our production and they bring the lighting and feel of the music into the moment,” said Leonard Quenneville, show producer. “We also have a five-piece band on stage headed up by musical director Brett Cohen.”
The show also includes special guest “Roy Willie,” a premier Willie Nelson tribute artist from Las Vegas who will perform during the show to give Wendy time for a costume change.
Wendy T has been a Reba tribute artist longer than most, and it all started when someone mentioned their resemblance to each other.
“Well I started in a band and, of course, I was trying to get a record deal in Nashville,” she told the Laughlin entertainer.“Then I got involved with ‘Legends in Concert’ out of Las Vegas, and that became my staple of impersonating.
“That was a long time ago and I don’t want to put a date on it…,” she said with a laugh. “I was their first Reba that they used in ‘Legends in Concert.’ I worked with John Stewart and worked with all big shows back then, so that’s how I started doing that. It was because I was in Nashville trying to get a record deal and someone said I looked like Reba because I had big long curly hair back then. I wear wigs now. Reba doesn’t do that ‘sprayed to Jesus hair’ any more either. But that was her thing in the day, the long red curly hair.”
While the hair and the look — and even the singing portion — weren’t much of a stretch, taking on the persona of the country star and her speaking voice was a bit of an undertaking.
“I was in Nashville working on all original country music and so absolutely the vocals weren’t that difficult for me,” Wendy said.
“She’s an amazing singer and you know, she’s got really good songs — she’s really good at picking a hit song. And, of course, I’m an actress.
“My background is in acting as well, not just singing,” she added. “So for me, doing a character is something that’s perfect for me. I’ve played ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown,’ which I’m sure Reba could play. I know she did ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ on Broadway and that was another one I’ve done excerpts from before.
“I’m an actress first and then an impersonator, so it’s easy for me to do that. Then I branched out and I do Dolly all the time. Dolly is my main character now because I live up in the Pigeon Forge area in eastern Tennessee. I work with three different Kenny Rogers and I do Dolly Parton all over the world,” she said. “People don’t think that I can look like Dolly, but I’m really good with the drag and the wigs, and the other stuff that goes with Dolly.
“Reba was really inspired by Dolly, she was one of her mentors, so I think there’s a little bit of Dolly in Reba’s voice, you know?”
It was Reba’s speaking voice that proved to be the biggest challenge.
“I studied with a comedian who did impersonations because I had never done this before, so he was my first go-to,” Wendy said. “Of course he didn’t do Reba, but he told me how to do it. He told me how to study it and how to sound like her…and that was my biggest thing, the speaking voice.
“It’s easy to mimic someone when they’re singing, but when you have to speak like them — my first try I sounded just like Elvis because it’s a Southern accent, and I’m from Denver, Colorado, originally, so I have no accent,” she explained. “Now I can sound like Reba at the drop of a hat — (and she slips into the character… ‘Hi, I’m Reba McEntire, I’m just tickled to pieces y’all called me today to do this special interview. Just don’t let me have to sing with Barbara Jean’).
“Because Reba had her TV show, I think it’s so it’s much easier for girls studying her now. They can watch her talk,” she added.
So what is it that sets Wendy’s Reba portrayal apart from the others?
“Well, I have a spunky personality,” she said. “I think that’s kind of what makes my Reba different from other girls who do Reba. I think it’s my personality ’cause I’m really energetic, and I’m also an actress. I think that’s important because you really have to act the songs and have a lot of emotion when you’re singing the power ballads. Music videos made her an actress, too.”
Without giving away all of the show’s secrets, Wendy did share one juicy unexpected tidbit.
“I’m gonna sing ‘Crazy’ with the Willie Nelson tribute artist, because Willie wrote ‘Crazy.’ Of course, Patsy Cline was another big influence on Reba McEntire — Patsy and Dolly — all the older iconic ladies like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, they all played a part in Reba’s career.”
The most popular Reba song anywhere Wendy performs?
″‘Fancy’…children of all ages, they love ‘Fancy,‘” she said. “They want to hear ‘Fancy’ and they don’t realize it’s about…you know. And the kids are so funny. They sing along with it, with the same southern accent, too.
“Reba’s ‘Fancy’ is probably her most iconic. I love singing that and ‘Why Haven’t I Heard From You,’ and that wasn’t even a No. 1 hit. Isn’t that weird? It’s so recognizable and I do it because everybody likes it.”
You can bet those songs will be in the Laughlin show along with a whole lot more.
“It’s going to be a lot of high energy, you’re gonna hear all the hits you love, and then some newer ones as well. We’ll do some of the old iconic songs like ‘Whoever’s In New England,’ and ‘Little Rock,’ but we’re also gonna do the song — a guy in the band sings with me — ‘If You See Her/Him.’ It’s the one she did with Brooks & Dunn.
“There’s gonna be current songs,” Wendy said. “When Reba went through her breakup with her husband, she put out a song called ‘Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That.′ That’s in the show as well. There’s some of the new stuff and the old iconic stuff, too. It’s a good mix.
“I want to do everything that people know,” she added. “I make a costume change. I have a wonderful costumer from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, that actually works with the real Dolly and he does my costumes, so hopefully that will be a highlight as well.”