Stage & Dance

Musician, actor was a rising star

Early Friday morning, a bouquet of flowers was placed on the grass outside the Mall at Lexington Green, near the scene of the shooting Thursday that took the life of Christopher Tolliver.

It was part of an outpouring of condolences and appreciation for a 31-year-old musician who touched many lives and organizations from his childhood in Eastern Kentucky to Lexington and had ambitions to take his music beyond the Bluegrass.

"He was really getting to a point in his career where he could do the music he wanted to do and make a living from it instead of just piecing things together," said Larry Snipes, director of the Lexington Children's Theatre, where Tolliver was music director for most of the musical projects the past few years.

Tolliver's death — in which Toby Ray Lasure of Lexington has been charged — leaves several projects incomplete, including LCT's upcoming show, How I Became a Pirate, and a summer outdoor musical based on the life of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders to be staged in Corbin.

"He was into the idea of a big show in that area of the state to encourage young artists," said Bo List, who was collaborating with Tolliver on the Sanders project. "He wanted more musical opportunities for kids down there."

Born in Harlan County to Harvey Lee Tolliver and Lillian Lewis Fredrick, Tolliver sat down at a piano one day when he was 9 and started playing with competence. At that point, "he hadn't had any lessons," said his sister, Joy Middleton, with whom he shared a home in Lawrenceburg.

But Tolliver's parents and his teachers soon began doing everything they could think of to foster his talent.

Tolliver's musical talent progressed so quickly that when he was a junior in high school, his parents began driving him to Lexington every week so he could take music lessons at the University of Kentucky, Middleton said.

Tolliver's music teacher Marty Wilder remembers "a good country boy, shy, polite and soft-spoken," who often arranged pieces for the school chorus before graduating from James A. Cawood High School in Harlan in the mid-1990s.

"He was a bright star in our community," said Pamela Holcomb, Tolliver's high school drama teacher.

One day, Holcomb said, Tolliver approached her at school and said, "I want you to come and hear my song. It's on tape."

"I thought he was going to sing a song. But he had composed a piece with full orchestration" that was being played by the UK Symphony Orchestra, she said.

List, currently working in theater in Memphis, met Tolliver at UK. Their first collaboration was an arrangement of Were You There that Tolliver wrote for List's production of Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi for ActOut Theatre Group in 2006.

"He was always up for doing anything," List said. "He would take your ideas and come back with an all-encompassing orchestral sense of whatever idea you had."

At UK, he participated in several productions by the UK Opera Theatre, which planned to pay tribute to him Friday night before its performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Lexington Opera House.

Tolliver began moving into the Lexington arts community, performing in Studio Players' 2003 production of The Fantasticks, in which he played the storyteller El Gallo, and eventually beginning his fruitful relationship with Lexington Children's Theatre.

Karyn Czar, an actor and reporter for WLAP-630 AM, said Tolliver helped her get back on stage when she had lost confidence in her acting ability. At auditions for LCT's 2007 production of Beauty and the Beast, "Chris pulled me aside and said, 'You have a beautiful voice. You can do this.'"

Czar recalled a rehearsal when she started making up a nonsense song about a pony.

"He sat down at the piano and wrote this beautiful melody for it," Czar said. "I would always brag that Chris wrote a song just for me."

Middleton, Tolliver's sister, said there was a prevailing element to her brother's character that he carried into adulthood: He was non-judgmental toward all he met.

And his friendships carried beyond the arts world.

He had worked at the Starbucks on Nicholasville Road, across from Lexington Green, for two years.

Starbucks' regional director Stacy Elwell-Chalmers said the regular employees at the café were off Friday. A grief counselor has been made available to employees, she said.

Tolliver was also well-known for his stints as a bartender at The Bar Complex and the now defunct Club Liquid.

In his musical pursuits, Tolliver left behind unfinished work, including the LCT show, which Snipes said Tolliver was writing so that actors would play instruments.

"He will be very difficult to replace," Snipes said, noting the projects with Tolliver were allowing the theater to do work it had wanted to pursue for years.

Then there's the musical about Colonel Sanders, which was envisioned as a big summer outdoor production.

"We had a great time working on it," List said. "He appreciated the irony, the kitsch and the funny things about it."

Sharae Meyers, Main Street director for historic preservation and community development for the city of Corbin, choked back tears while remembering Tolliver. She said the project had received a congressional community development grant for a feasibility study, and they had gotten as far as finding a possible location for an amphitheater.

"We had pretend-danced on the stage, or where the stage would be," Myers said. "They could have taken this to Broadway or off-Broadway, but they were committed to keeping it where the story started."

List said a few songs and scenes for the musical have been written and had been shown to some people in an effort to drum up support.

"It's hard to imagine moving forward without him," List said, but he added, "Chris would want the show to go on."

Myers said, "This gives us more inspiration to finish. He wouldn't want this project to die."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader