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After suffering stroke on Broadway, N.D. singer finds voice again

Host of the Medora Gospel Brunch Emily Welter, left, and Broadway soloist Job Christenson practice on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Medora, N.D., for the Magical Medora Christmas. Photo by Sydney Mook / Forum News Service1 / 5
Job Christenson, 412 / 5
Job Christenson, a Grand Forks native and Broadway soloist, sings a song with his fellow Magical Medora Christmas group members during practice Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Medora, N.D. Photo by Sydney Mook / Forum News Service3 / 5
Grand Forks native and Broadway soloist Job Christenson sings a song with his fellow Magical Medora Christmas group members during practice Nov. 22, 2016, in Medora, N.D. Photo by Sydney Mook / Forum News Service4 / 5
From left to right: Host of the Medora Gospel Brunch Emily Welter, Broadway soloist Job Christenson, Broadway star of the Million Dollar Quartet & Stompe Jared Mason and British Pedal Steel guitarist Roger Rettig practice Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Medora, N.D., for the upcoming Magical Medora Christmas show. Photo by Sydney Mook / Forum News Service5 / 5

BISMARCK — Job Christenson followed his passion for singing and theater from his hometown of Grand Forks to the bright lights of Broadway until a blood clot broke free and silenced his voice.

Now, for the first time since that massive stroke four years ago left Christenson doubting if he would ever sing again, the 41-year-old will return to the stage Saturday, Nov. 26, as "A Magical Medora Christmas" makes its 2016 debut at the Avalon Event Center West in Fargo.

"I really viewed it as a rebirth and a second chance," he said this week.

Christenson had just wrapped a Broadway performance of "Billy Elliot" and was heading to the theater lobby when he lost his balance and collapsed on Dec. 28, 2012.

He said he remained cognizant the entire time and quickly realized he'd had a stroke, but he didn't understand how or why. He'd been physically active, and his singing voice was in prime form. His Facebook page contains videos of his last performance two weeks before the stroke, his tenor soaring through "Silent Night" and other classics.

But the clot stopped the blood flow to his brain and immobilized his entire right side, leaving him unable to walk or talk, let alone sing.

Physical therapy became his full-time job. He was speaking again within a month, but not without difficulty. The singing voice that had propelled him to the stage in New York City became an afterthought.

"I remember going to vocal therapy and they'd say, 'Wow, you're actually doing very well.' And I said, 'No, I'm not,' " he said.

"The singing took time, and I was really initially only doing singing because it was part of my vocal therapy and never really thinking that I would return to performing at all," he added. "It sort of seemed like an impossibility."

Enter Bill Sorensen, the former Medora Musical co-host who now hosts and manages the traveling Christmas show. The two were friends from when Christenson performed in the musical in 2008 and 2009, the year before he returned to Broadway for "Billy Elliot."

"Bill Sorensen really looked at me and he said, 'This is a part of you and it will always be a part of you, and you're in a safe place and we love you and we want you to perform again,' " Christenson recalled.

While Christenson continues therapy for his right hand, his voice is strong as he makes his comeback, Sorensen said.

"And we're excited about that," he said.

Christenson graduated from Grand Forks Central High School in 1993 and attended the University of Michigan until landing a role in the Broadway production of "Cats" in 1997. He performed intensely for the next nine years, spending about six of those in Grand Forks as artistic director of the North Dakota Ballet Co. and a member of the Crimson Creek Players, a local theater group.

Since October 2013, Christenson has been development director at Sleepy Hollow Theatre & Arts Park in Bismarck. He went back to school, earning a theater arts degree from Empire State College in New York, and has also channeled his creative energy into playwriting.

This holiday season, Christenson said he's most thankful for the love and support of family and friends.

"They had faith in me, and probably faith that I didn't have," he said.

His voice is still a work in progress and he's "not trying to be some shining example of something," he said. But his music, he explained, is part of his story — one that begins a new chapter on Saturday.

"And hopefully it can be a little bit inspiring," he said.

Twenty-four performances are scheduled across North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota through Dec. 19 for "A Magical Medora Christmas," which is sponsored by Forum Communications and the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. A full schedule and ticket information is available at medora.com.

Christenson said he's excited to share the stage with Sorensen, vocalist and Medora Gospel Brunch host Emily Walter, pedal steel guitarist Roger Rettig and Jared Mason, who recently starred on Broadway as Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet."

"The talent is just extraordinary," he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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