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15 Minutes With Rockette Katie Walker

July 15th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

The Radio City Rockettes in 'New York Spectacular' (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

The Radio City Rockettes in ‘New York Spectacular’ (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

With approximately 11 shows to perform on a weekly basis, Katie Walker doesn’t find herself with much free time. The North Carolina native, who serves both as a dance captain and performer in the New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, is entering her ninth year with the famous precision dance company.

Best known for the Christmas Spectacular, the Rockettes are currently starring in a summer spectacle that is thrilling audiences and critics alike. This marks the second consecutive year for the non-holiday themed show, which is a splashy love letter to New York. It also heralds a fresh approach for the Rockettes through Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels.

Walker recently spoke with the Broadway Blog over the phone to discuss the artistic process and the improved changes she’s noticed since joining the troupe.

Katie Walker (Photo provided by MSG via the Broadway Blog.)

Katie Walker (Photo provided by MSG via the Broadway Blog.)

BB: How long have you been with the Rockettes and how did you land such a coveted gig?

KW: I’ve been with the Rockettes since 2008. The audition process was probably the most intense audition of my life. It’s a two-day process if you make it past the callbacks. There are approximately 500 other girls and you go in 100 at a time. You have about 20 minutes to learn the choreography. Then you perform it three at a time. It’s quick, it’s a lot of pressure, and after you perform it, they will make an initial cut. Then they repeat that process throughout the day. At the end of the day, about 50 dancers are chosen to come back for Day Two where they do it all over again. Then, it’s a waiting game. I auditioned in April and didn’t get the acceptance call until July.

BB: How did the collaboration with Mia Michaels emerge?

KW: We worked with her last year on the opening number (Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”). We had a little time to work with her on that, but this year [as director and choreographer] we had the chance to work with her every single day. We started pre-production for the show on January 12 and would meet from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. to find the balance between her world and ours. We then called in some of the Rockettes to see how the material would work on a larger scale. Then Karen Keeler, director of the Rockettes creative, Mia and myself would put the formations on paper.

BB: What is one of the major changes you noticed with the New York Spectacular from last year to this year?

KW: The biggest difference is that this year, the Rockettes are featured non-stop. There is one number that we do where we have literally 90 seconds to change costumes and run back on stage. This year, thanks to Mia, the dance has an edgier style. The choreography is much more modern, physical, and contemporary but it still maintains the precision and unity that the Rockettes are known for.

BB: How has the Christmas Spectacular changed?

KW: When I started in 2008, many of the dances had been in the show for years. Over the last few years, they’ve introduced a new number every three years to make it a bit more modern and lyrical. It’s a nice balance between the classic and the contemporary.

BB: There’s a lengthy rain scene in the show in which all of the Rockettes are dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” How are you able to get through that with without slipping and sliding?

KW: We have taps at the bottom of our rain boots and sometimes we put tape at the bottom. Even then, the stage and the water will wash it away. We rehearsed that scene so much during technical rehearsals. Because of how the rain falls, we have to change the balance on our feet or the pressure we are putting on the stage.

The Radio City Rockettes (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

The Radio City Rockettes (Photo courtesy of Madison Square Garden via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: Is there a favorite scene in the show for you?

KW: I absolutely love the finale, which we call “Radio City New York, New York”. It’s a perfect balance between the traditional and the contemporary. Mia put a modern edge on it and it pushed us away from “being in a box” to giving us the freedom to “just dance it.” Frank Sinatra’s famous song is playing, a backdrop reveals the skyline of New York, and the audience is on its feet. It’s my proudest moment.

BB: How do you maintain your stamina through this process?

KW: Once we start rehearsals, we rehearse six hours a day, six days per week. Other activities like the gym and yoga go by the wayside and the rehearsal itself is really our stamina building activity. There is no downtime aside from a lunch break. After one week, we’re all in great shape for show mode. Now that we are performing, we have a little more free time. We are fortunate to have an athletic training center and gym at Radio City, so when we have long gaps between shows, many of us will run on the treadmill in order to keep our downtime active.

Katie Walker taking a moment on stage at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Facebook)

Katie Walker taking a moment on stage at Radio City Music Hall. (Photo: Facebook)

BB: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a Rockette?

KW: One of the most amazing things, in addition to performing, is so much of the outside work we get to do. We are so well known and viewed as a historical icon of New York City. We get to do a ton of community work with children and at children’s hospitals. That interaction on a human level is one of my favorite things about this job. This year, as assistant choreographer, I taught nearly every dance in the show myself. To prepare 41 other Rockettes for a new show that was created for them was a huge moment for me on opening night.

BB: What is the most challenging?

KW: None of it is really hard because it’s a job that we love so much. Even though we have to wake up sometimes at 6 a.m. to do a 9 a.m. show, we don’t mind because we get to have so many cool experiences. The physical wear is probably the most challenging because our muscles get tired and things get sore, but we just push through it and not let it affect our performances.

BB: I imagine after this show wraps on August 7, you’ll start preparation for the Christmas Spectacular?

KW: We will. We’ll have about four weeks off and I hope to visit my family in Elon, North Carolina.

BB: I will spread the word to my fellow cynical New Yorker friends that this show is not just for tourists!

KW: Yes! You’ll leave the show loving New York City!

New York Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes
Radio City Music Hall
1260 Avenue of the Americas at 50th Street
Through August 7

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics and Teaching Theatre Magazines. Follow him on twitter: @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

15 Minutes with Barrett Foa

June 18th, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Barrett Foa (Photo provided by Feinstein's at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa (Photo provided by Feinstein’s at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

“After seven years of being a featured actor,” quips Barrett Foa, who brings his cabaret act to Feinstein’s at the Nikko June 24 and 25 in San Francisco. “It’s nice to get back to being self-indulgent again.”

Behind every joke, of course, is a little truth.

New York born-and-bred, Foa—best known for playing operative Eric Beale in the ensemble of the stalwart CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles—is a theater kid at heart.

Foa, 38, made his Broadway debut fifteen years ago in the original cast of Mamma Mia! and has also played Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q (Foa was the first non-puppeteer specifically trained for the show) and replaced Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

“Television has given me a cushion,” he says, “So I can get back to singin’ and dancin’. I’ve really missed the immediate gratification of laughs and applause that you get from a live audience.”

Barrett Foa (far right) and the cast of 'NCIS: Los Angeles' (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa (far right) and the cast of ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

“To be honest, that’s why I started putting this show together,” says Foa, who debuted his new act in April at Los Angeles’ Rockwell and played Feinstein’s 54 Below in New York earlier this month.

“Cabaret is really the most self-indulgent of all the art forms,” he says, suggesting that it may also be and antidote-of-sorts to disappearing into formulaic procedural television.

“I’ve dipped my toe into this a bit before, doing some numbers in collaborative shows with a group of friends at Ars Nova and the Duplex in New York, but this is my first full show.”

Called Grin and Barrett, the show began with Foa assembling a long list of his favorite songs—“These are all songs that make me happy every time I hear the first chords play”—and then paring it down to dovetail with a group of anecdotes he wanted to share about his life in and out of the theater.

“It’s not your mother’s cabaret,” he says, noting that the show includes songs by James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and other pop composers as well as theater music. “I need it to appeal,” he jokes, “to laypeople as well.”

Barrett Foa at the PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa at the PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Molding his own show also gave Foa a chance to create structure amidst the unpredictability of ensemble TV series work in Los Angeles compared to a live theater schedule.

“On Broadway, you know exactly where you need to be every night. You plan brunch at 11 and dinner at 5. With a series, you can have a 13-hour day and you don’t necessarily know when you’re going to start or finish. Over time, things have become a little more regular at NCIS and we usually work from very early in the morning and get off at 6 or 7. It’s been interesting for me to have an evening at my disposal instead of providing someone else’s entertainment.”

As he makes clear in his cabaret act, Foa loves losing himself in a character and looks forward to returning to Broadway after NCIS: LA runs its course. “People used to want to cast me as romantic characters like Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Rolf in Sound of Music. But I don’t think those are the roles for me any more. I’m ready to be a quirky leading man.”

On hiatus last summer, Foa tested those waters, playing Harold Hill in a successful Connecticut production of The Music Man. “It was a blast,” he recalls, “And I was really grateful to have a chance to play a lead like that.”

The show also held some nostalgic value for Foa, who performed a smaller role in the show while studying theater at the University of Michigan. Also in that cast were friends and fellow Broadway actors, Gavin Creel (Hair) and David Burtka (husband of Neil Patrick Harris).

Foa has fond memories of the Michigan program and this past May 16, joined dozens of fellow graduates in a New York concert celebrating their one-time professor, Brent Wagner, before his retirement.

“Every year I’m out of college I realize how important it was to me. That program really gave me my life.”

And that life, Foa makes clear, has live theater at its heart.

“My heart and soul are in New York. I want to be on stage and I want to be closer to my family. I have a seven-year-old nephew and I want to be more to him than ‘Uncle Barrett from California.’”

Barrett Foa
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
Friday, June 24; Saturday, June 25

 

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

15 Minutes with Judy Kuhn

June 1st, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Judy Kuhn (photo provided by 'Fun Home')

Judy Kuhn (photo provided by ‘Fun Home’)

Kuhn’s work as Helen Bechdel, long-suffering wife of a closeted gay man, in the show adapted from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographic novel, is indelible. While Fun Home might easily have played primarily as a father-daughter story, the distillation of intensity, bewilderment and loss Kuhn brings to her show-stopping performance of Helen’s soliloquy song, “Days and Days” adds astonishing dimensions to the show as a whole. It presses audiences to reconsider the entire story from a third perspective.

It is a wrenching portrayal, and one would hardly blame Kuhn for taking a hard-earned hiatus for purposes of rest and relaxation alone. But the 57-year-old’s six-week break was long-planned to allow a much-needed hip replacement surgery.

But for Kuhn, creation and recuperation went hand in hand. In the midst of her successful recovery—“We are so lucky to be living in a time when this is not such an ordeal and you can be walking on crutches in days,” she said during a recent phone conversation—Kuhn put finishing touches on her new concert’s repertoire.

Judy Kuhn in 'Fun Home' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Judy Kuhn in ‘Fun Home’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The program, an evolution of Kuhn’s one-night American Songbook show at Lincoln Center last year, brings together songs from a single family’s three generations of composers: Richard Rodgers, daughter Mary Rodgers (Once Upon A Mattress), and grandson Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins).

“I first heard Adam’s work,” says Kuhn, “through my friend Tina Landau who directed the premiere of Floyd Collins. I’m actually not the kind of person who has ever spent much time listening to cast albums. But I listened to that one over and over, I just found it so compelling.”

“At some point, I found out that he was Richard Rodgers’ grandson and I was so fascinated. When I thought about the opening of Floyd Collins [set in an Appalachian coal mining community] and the opening of Oklahoma, I could see a connection. There’s this idea of American optimism and the search for what you’re meant to do, a sense that ‘Something really good is about to happen to me.’”

“And then, when you bring in Mary, you see that all three of them are romantics. They write the most beautiful ballads that express people’s need for connection. In the past, we’ve seen multiple generations of actors and authors, but I’ve never seen this sort of thing with composers.”

Whether exploring the Rodgers family or the Bechdel family, Kuhn, who also works as an acting teacher, says she doesn’t like to make a distinction between her acting and her singing.“It’s all storytelling,” she says. “Sometimes we use music to help tell the story. Shakespeare used verse.”

“I always start with the lyrics. I don’t know how to do a song without a good lyric. Language is the leading element, its what needs to be communicated,” says Kuhn. “Then I think about what the composer has done with the music to lift the lyric up. What are the musical cues the composer is offering me as a storyteller. There are some highly trained singers who have never been asked to focus on anything but perfect sound.”

“I’ve never been interested in doing any writing,” says Kuhn. “I never wanted to learn to play the violin. I like being a detective and trying to understand how to best tell a story.”

Judy Kuhn
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
June 3, doors: 6:30 p.m/Show: 8
June 4, doors: 5:30 p.m./Show: 7 p.m.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

15 Minutes with ‘Perfect Crime”s Catherine Russell

May 23rd, 2016 Comments off

The Perfect Crime

It’s difficult to imagine repeating yourself nearly 12,000 times—unless you’re Catherine Russell. Russell is the star of the smash hit off Broadway play Perfect Crime, which is now entering its 30th year. At the time of this writing, she has missed only 4 performances, earning her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Housed at the Anne L. Bernstein Center, it is the longest running play in the history of New York theater, on or off Broadway. Russell plays Margaret Thorne Brent, a Connecticut psychiatrist accused of killing her husband and she has been with the project from its’ inception. The Broadway Blog recently talked to her about this stalwart that has been thrilling audiences since 1987.

Richard Shoberg and Catherine Russell in 'The Perfect Crime.' (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

Richard Shoberg and Catherine Russell in ‘The Perfect Crime.’ (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: What is about the show and you that endures?

CR: I’m a proponent of the off-Broadway economic model. This has a small cast and one set, so the costs are relatively low. I think people really like thrillers too. It’s a genre that people understand and the title lets people know exactly what to expect. Because crime dramas are so prevalent on TV, this is something that they recognize when they choose live entertainment. The ticket prices are less expensive and seats are much closer because of the intimate space. Our Times Square location mixed with the 30-year history is also an endorsement.

In terms of my involvement, I was in a theater company called the Actors Collective. It was at 39 Grove Street. We did a season of plays with Warren Manzi as the artistic director. Manzi told us that he had written a play that had been in his drawer for seven years. It started as a showcase that ran for 16 performances, and then it moved Off Broadway and has moved nine times. I never expected that it would run as long as it has.

BB: And you’re not only the star of the show, but you also manage the theater yourself, produce the musical The Fantasticks (housed in the same complex), and you teach college English and Theater as well. Where do you get all this energy?

CR: I really like doing the play and I like stability. In a weird way, I’ve been able to carve out that stability in an unstable business. For me, those two hours, eight times a week is wonderful. I’m doing a show that I have fun doing and I try to find something different in every performance. I try to use gravitas from my own life experience and draw on that.

Catherine Russell in 'The Perfect Crime.' (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

Catherine Russell in ‘The Perfect Crime.’ (Photo: Graham Dougherty via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: Well, your pep definitely comes across in the performance. Do you exercise or is this show your workout?

CR: (laughs) I can do a lot of pushups, I’ll say that. I can do about 180-200—not bad for a 60-year-old!

BB: Wow! You’re like the younger female version of Jack Palance!

CR: Exactly.

BB: Do you ever think you’d like to do other roles, or are you satisfied in this one?

CR: Fortunately, I’ve been able to work around my schedule and I’ve done some work in films and television. I tend to get offered roles similar to the character I play in Perfect Crime, which is nice, but it would be great to have an opportunity to play someone completely different.

BB: Do you foresee an end point for your involvement in the show or will you be with it for as long as it runs?

CR: Quite honestly, I’m not sure. The fact that I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records is a selling point, but I certainly don’t feel as though I’m the only one who can play the role.

BB: Has there been anything unexpected, funny and/or traumatic that has happened in the 30 years of doing the show?

CR: Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. I used to bring my dogs to the theater and one of them walked onstage during intermission and began eating the props. Things have broken; guns haven’t been placed on stage. We used to have a glass table in the first scene and the actor who gets shot accidentally shattered it. I’ve fallen down the stairs. My dress has fallen off. We once had a kid in the second row projectile vomit onto the stage. The first row leaned forward and dodged it, but we just kept going.

BB: Have you thought about putting your experience of this show into a memoir?

CR: Not really. It may be interesting only to theater people. I’m not being false modest when I say this, but my life is pretty boring.

BB: I think what puts you on the map is that you have done this production for so long and it’s a huge achievement. Your work ethic is extremely impressive.

CR: Thank you but isn’t it sad that we value people who show up to work every day. I could take a vacation if I wanted to. I mean, it’s not like this is a prison, but I just like to work a lot.

BB: Has there been talk of licensing this show to other markets?

CR: I’ve always thought it would do well in London, or as a vehicle for former television stars, but it’s on my to do list.

BB: Any pre- or post-show rituals?

CR: The guys watch Jeopardy, I run the box office and take tickets for The Fantasticks and then run upstairs to do the show. Afterwards, I take out the garbage.

BB: So you go from the not so glamorous, to the glamorous, back to the not so glamorous.

CR: Yes. It keeps thing in perspective. I don’t fantasize about driving off in a limo at night. I love being part of it all. I look out and see the lights on Broadway and I’m glad to be a tiny part of the theater world in New York. I’m really grateful for that.

Perfect Crime
Anne L. Bernstein Theater at The Theater Center
1627 Broadway, NYC

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

Don’t Miss: ‘A Twist of Limelight’ Benefit with Eden Espinosa

May 4th, 2016 Comments off
Eden Espinosa (Photo Courtesy of Bay Area Musicals.)

Eden Espinosa (Photo Courtesy of Bay Area Musicals.)

The rest of the country might be green with envy on Monday, May 9, when A Twist of Limelight, a benefit for San Francisco’s Bay Area Musicals (BAM) features a full hour-long concert by Eden Espinosa. The actress is well known in the theater community for her portrayal of Elphaba in the now iconic musical Wicked.

Espinosa was Idina Menzel’s standby in the original Broadway production and went on to perform in the first national tour, came back to play Elphaba on Broadway, then on to the Los Angeles and San Francisco productions—she’s likely played the role in more performances than any other actress.

“I think I brought my own signature to the part,” says Espinosa of the not-so-wicked witch widely associated with Menzel. “My experiences and emotions informed it and made it mine.”

Espinosa’s ability to take artistic ownership of material made familiar by others is showcased to stunning effect on her 2012 debut album, Look Around, on which Broadway tunes are significantly reframed as standalone pop ballads.

eden espinosaEspinosa’s elegiac, cello-inflected rendition of “One Song Glory” from Rent, her unexpected elevation of “Petrified” from the Boy George musical, Taboo, and her intimate guitar-accompanied reading of Elton John’s “I Know the Truth” from Aida bring a fresh, often-poignant vitality to material that’s either been overlooked or overdone in the past. She is currently working on a follow-up in the same vein.

Like Espinosa, the year-old BAM and its founder/artistic director, Matthew McCoy, are committed to reframing well-known musicals, teasing out new meanings and resonances without setting aside their tried-and-true pleasures.

“In our first season, we’ve done How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which I think is surprisingly relevant in its story about women in the workplace; and Hair, which was really important to do in this city, which is changing so much with the influx of the tech industry—people need to keep being reminded what San Francisco has stood for in the past and the idealism it somehow needs to hold on to despite all these changes.”

bay area musicalsOver 13,500 audience members saw the company’s first two shows, with the number of ticket buyers increasing by 25 percent between the first and second, a promising sign for the fledgling troupe, especially in the face of reviews that, while encouraging, were equivocal.

“The local theater community is really supportive,” notes McCoy. “So many people are helping us out and rooting for us to grow successfully.”

BAM’s final show of the season, opening in July, is La Cage aux Folles. The 1983 Tony Award-winning musical by Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book) feels almost anachronistic in contemporary San Francisco, where it’s easy to strike a blasé attitude about gay relationships. But historically, in terms of evolving public perspectives, the show is important. Along with jazz, the Broadway musical is the quintessential American art form.

La Cage aux Folles“This was the first Broadway musical,” McCoy points out, “that ever had two men kissing on stage.” Since then, makeshift “marriages” like Albin and Georges’ in the show have become a thing of the past.

McCoy is a seasoned director and choreographer who has worked on the regional theater circuit nationally as well as in Las Vegas, Paris, London, and Shanghai. He moved to the Bay Area four years ago from South Carolina as a choreographer for the Berkeley Playhouse and began fundraising for BAM through an IndieGoGo campaign.

In addition to choosing shows that can provide unexpected prisms for considering the Bay Area, McCoy is committed to casting that reflects the local population, with black, Asian, Latino and white actors cast based on skills rather than preconceived ideas for who should play what role.

“I really want to do non-traditional casting,” says McCoy. “And I know that Bay Area audiences are really supportive of that. But what they don’t necessarily understand is that I have to work with what I get. While I’ve brought in a couple actors from out of town and may do a little more of that in the future, I want this to be a local company, which means I have to cast from who shows up to audition. I want more minority actors to try out and am going to continue pushing for that in our next season.”

It seems entirely in keeping with McCoy’s aspirations that—with the help of friends—he’s been able to get Espinosa, fresh from a run in the debut production of Michael John LaChiusa’s Rain at the Globe in San Diego, to donate next Monday’s benefit performance. Her multicultural background and unusual interpretation of Broadway favorites is a lovely encapsulation of everything BAM hopes to achieve.

A Twist of Limelight
Castro Theatre
429 Castro Street, San Francisco
May 9
6:30 p.m.
Tickets start at $30.

 

15 Minutes with Laura Osnes

April 18th, 2016 Comments off

 by Jim Gladstone

Two-time Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes appears at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco on April 22 and 23. Jim Gladstone chatted with her about the difference between theater roles and nightclub performances.

Laura Osnes (Photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog.)

Laura Osnes (Photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog.)

“I had never planned to perform in a cabaret setting,” recalls two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes, recalling her 2012 debut at the ne plus ultra of such venues, The Café Carlyle. “Someone from there got in touch with my agent and asked if I’d do it.”

“I was so nervous,” says Osnes of being asked to headline a venue associated with the gimlet-eyed cosmopolitan likes of Elaine Stritch, Bobby Short, and Eartha Kitt.

Regularly cast—and admittedly typecast—in ingénue roles including South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush and the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, the 30-year-old, devoutly Christian Minnesota native felt anxious that “I wouldn’t be enough” to fulfill cabaret audiences’ expectations of sophisticated confessional entertainment.

“Cabaret is so much more vulnerable,” says Osnes. “To me, it’s vastly different than the theater, where you’re in a costume with a character to hide behind. The intimacy of it is an amazing opportunity for audiences, but it was nerve wracking for me.”

“My confidence has grown a lot,” she notes of the subsequent four years, during which she’s developed three additional cabaret sets. “It’s been two years since my last Broadway show”—she’s slated to return in a new musical, The Bandstand, next year—“So I’ve been able to grow more comfortable with concert and cabaret performances where I really have to put myself out there.”

That said, notes Osnes, “I’ve worked Norah Jones and Sarah Bareilles songs in my cabaret shows, but tend to stick to theater songs. That’s what I love and that’s what I know. I do try to find ways to connect them to stories from my life to make them more personal than they’d be in a show.”

Osnes’ love of theater music has been lifelong, beginning with playing a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz in second grade. Continuing to appear on stage through high school, she enrolled in college as a music theater major, only to drop out after a year to “do the work I was studying to do.”

Yet a performing apprenticeship at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company and roles at the local Chanhassen Dinner Theaters are not obvious paths to Broadway stardom.

laura osnesIt was during a run as Sandy in the dinner theater’s production of Grease when Osnes was spotted and cast as a contestant in the television competition, Grease: You’re the One That I Want. As the winner, Osnes got to play the role on Broadway, where she was quickly recognized as more than a television gimmick. (The overall production fared considerably less well, described by The New York Times as “a musical set in a high school that feels like a musical put on by a high school.”) 

“I’ve had a charmed career,” Osnes says. “But part of the impetus for this new cabaret act that I’m doing at Feinstein’s is to let people see that there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes; that performers have failures as well as successes.”

In the show, called Paths Not Taken, Osnes present songs she hasn’t had the opportunity to sing in stage productions, several because after making final callbacks, she didn’t get cast in the roles.

“Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon, “Til There Was You,” from The Music Man, and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady are among the selections Osnes will sing at Feinstein’s, accompanied on piano by her music director, Fred Lassen.

Despite the fact that her last Manhattan role was Polly Peachum in Threepenny Opera, it’s clear that Osnes tastes run toward the wholesome.

“I still haven’t seen The Book of Mormon,” she confesses, though she has twice appeared as a featured vocalist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “I did do Cabaret in high school. It’s not something that I would typically be up for. But its part of being a stage performer, getting to be different than yourself, getting to act sexy.”

As a PG-leaning Christian, how does Osnes feel about working with a significant number of gays and lesbians in the New York theater world and knowing that Broadway musicals have a large gay fan base?

“I love my job and the people I work with,” she says. “In my heart, I know that God put me here to love, not to judge.”

Laura Osnes
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
April 22, doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show at 8 p.m.
April 23, doors open at 5:30 p.m.; show at 7 p.m.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

15 Minutes With Norm Lewis

April 9th, 2016 Comments off
Norm Lewis (Photo courtesy of NJSO via The Broadway Blog.)

Norm Lewis (Photo courtesy of NJSO via The Broadway Blog.)

Broadway star Norm Lewis heads to New Jersey to perform with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, April 15-17. The program’s headliner has garnered critical and audience acclaim and made history as Broadway’s first African-American Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Frequent NJSO guest conductor and audience favorite Thomas Wilkins conducts.

The New York Times praised Lewis’ history-making turn in The Phantom of the Opera, writing that Lewis’ “sonorous baritone has been among the most reliably impressive voices on Broadway for many years now. In his big solo ‘The Music of the Night,’ Mr. Lewis’s supple phrasing and power combined to gorgeous effect. His Phantom is imposing in his willfulness, as his lustrous voice comes booming down from the heavens, and touching in his energetic but unrequited love for Christine.”

Norm Lewis (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

Norm Lewis (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)

The Hollywood Reporter hailed the actor’s “multidimensional” performance in the Broadway production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opposite Audra McDonald: “this is a man who literally grows in stature and strength before our eyes, as if nourished and emboldened by love. His ‘I Got Plenty of Nothing’ is an explosion of sheer joy that almost blows off the roof.”

In this NJSO POPS program, Lewis performs music from Phantom, Porgy and Bess, Les Misérables (he appeared as Javert in a West End production and in Les Misérables: The 25th Anniversary Concert, which aired on PBS) and other Broadway shows; he also performs songs from his debut album, This is The Life.

The Broadway Blog caught up with Lewis as he prepared for the three-concert weekend, titled Norm Lewis: Music of the Night with NJSO.

How did the NJSO performance come to fruition?

Cheyenne [Jackson] had an obligation and the symphony thought of my name and they gave me a call. I worked with maestro before and that was how I got connected.

What elements of concert performance do you enjoy that are different than appearing in a traditional book musical?

The last show I did on Broadway was Phantom—eight times a week is a commitment—you’re giving 100 percent (or as close to possible) every night, sometimes twice a day. The concert world is exciting because it’s just you. Each song has its character but you have to relate to the audience between those songs. I just want to make it fun… like you’re in my living room.

I’ll also be performing with Ramin Kamilroo in Peter Jöback’s I Love Musicals [also featuring Scarlett Strallen and Japanese star Seiko Niizuma] at the Nippon Budokan Arena in Tokyo on July 7.

You’re a bit of an enigma – breaking boundaries for actors of color: Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, even A New Brain. Was there a “big break” that happened or would you consider your career trajectory more slow and steady?

I did not have the background that a lot of actors have. I didn’t go to Carnegie Mellon or the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Honestly, I was jealous and intimidated. I worked in advertising and studied. I hit the ground running and went to [audition]. I just showed up. And that’s why I got hired. Early on in my career I got hired to do A Chorus Line to play Richie, they heard me sing and hired me on the spot. But I’m not a great dancer and I asked them why they hired me. They said, “You’re the only black guy that showed up.” From that I was able to get certain jobs – just by auditioning.

Director Eric Schaffer saw me in the original Broadway production of Side Show. He offered me the lead in Sweeney Todd at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. I think that was a big break for me and people started to see me in a different light.

What do you think about the state of non-traditional casting right now on Broadway?

It’s such a great season for diversity. But when it comes to doing a show in a universal world—one that doesn’t talk about race— as long as you can portray that character, it’s a no brainer to hire an actor that fits the role.

The whole idea of non-traditional casting is not about affirmative action, it’s just about having the chance to audition. Students go to school, study and learn these roles but when they get out it might be a different story. But these doors have been cracked.

For me, being Phantom and all of the attention that came with it was much bigger than me. A lot of people came up to me— from India, Japan, South America— and said, “Now I feel I have a chance.”

Music of the Night: Norm Lewis with the NJSO
Friday, April 15, at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank
Saturday, April 16, at NJPAC in Newark (Fourth Annual ‘Saturday Night Out’)
Sunday, April 17, at State Theatre in New Brunswick

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

15 Minutes with Lea DeLaria

April 2nd, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Lea DeLaria (Photo: Sophy Holland via The Broadway Blog.)

Lea DeLaria (Photo: Sophy Holland via The Broadway Blog.)

Lea DeLaria won’t be upset if you stop her on the street and snap a photo with her. The Broadway star, who appeared in the 1998 revival of On the Town, and later in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, has grown accustomed to the attention she’s received lately. As a series regular on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, DeLaria is well aware of the immense popularity of both her role (Big Boo) and the show.

Currently, the multi-talent is focusing on her vocal side by touring cities to sing and promote her latest album, House of David. The album showcases the late David Bowie through DeLaria’s unique, classy musical interpretations. On Saturday, April 9, she’ll take to the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for two performances.

In a recent phone conversation she chatted with The Broadway Blog about fame, activism, and even the taboo subject of politics.

You have recently acquired the nickname of “Bull Dyke Santa Claus”. What is that all about?

That is my fiancé’s affectionate term for me. She calls me that because, due to the popularity of Orange Is the New Black, whenever we go anywhere, people stop me and want to take a picture with me, shake my hand, and talk. My fiancé said, “Ya know, just the sight of you makes people happy. You’re like Bull Dyke Santa Claus. We laughed and laughed and it just sort of stuck.”

How has the show changed your life in terms of your recognition?

Before, I was moderately famous and was leading what I would call a very charmed life. I toured, I did stand up, I worked on and off Broadway, I did television and movies and it was all good. I was a working actor. Then, Orange Is the New Black put me in a whole different category. Because of the digital medium, people all over the world are watching the show in a single weekend and the numbers are staggering. So now, everyone carries their cameras, takes pictures and then post to social media, so I get even more famous. Welcome to fame in the digital age!

Does that annoy you or are you more appreciative?

I love it! I love my fans!

House of DavidAnd now you are doing the House of David tour. What inspired you to do this album?

First of all, David Bowie is a genius. You never hear anyone say, “Oh! That hack David Bowie!” I’ve never heard anyone trash him. I’ve heard people argue over the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Kurt Cobain, and whether or not hip hop is real music—but never in my whole life have I heard anyone say anything bad about David Bowie and that’s because he’s a fuckin’ genius.

His music speaks to me in volumes in regards to being an outsider from the Midwest. He made being weird, cool. He gave kids who didn’t grow up in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles hope. As a performer, he taught me that you should be true to yourself as an artist and if you’re gonna fail, fail big!

Will we hear other songs at your concert or will you focus exclusively on songs from the album?

Mostly, it will be House of David, but there are other standards that I’ll sing. And of course, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a stand-up comic, so the audience will get that, too. Plus, it is an election year, so they’re going to get that as well.

What are your current thoughts on the political race?

Well, I’m gonna talk about that in the show, so I’d rather not talk about it now. But, I think that people know my political beliefs… Run like a girl! Although I can’t claim that slogan. That is from Emily’s List, an organization that is dedicated to getting females elected to high office, especially non-white females. I’m on their creative coalition.

Who were your musical influences?

Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Anita O’ Day (most definitely). I also like Mel Torme a whole fuckin’ lot. More than the singers and because my father was a jazz pianist, I believe that I’m more influenced by horn players. When I sing, I sing from my gut and I work on having my own style. My dad told me, “If you’re gonna be a singer, don’t be a chic singer. There’s a whole lot more than just having a pretty voice and looking pretty. You’ve gotta know your scales, you’ve gotta be present, and sing the music as well as the lyrics” Those things were hugely influential to me as a singer. 

And with the comedy aspect, who or what makes you laugh?

I was really upset by Garry Shandling’s recent death. George Carlin was a heavy influence, as was Lenny Bruce. The more political comedians who were really trying to say something were the kind I’ve always appreciated. Plus, the entertainers…those people that did many things and did them all well, like Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Jackie Gleason, The Rat Pack. To me, it’s always been about being well rounded.

Do you consider yourself an activist and do you think that artists in general have a responsibility to activism or would you rather they just entertain and separate the politics?

My response is that people can only be who they are. Some people are incapable of activism within their frame. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like them. There are plenty of goofballs who just make me scream with laughter. For me, I started as an openly gay comic and everyone knows what a big ass dyke I am. I’m really clear about that. But it was my choice to be that open. I couldn’t entertain being anyone else. I never begrudge celebrities who are in the closet who later come out. That’s their path. Changing the world is really the reason I did what I did. I didn’t start out in 1982 talking about being queer because I thought I’d get famous and I didn’t think I’d be on television much less on a worldwide hit. So first and foremost, I am activist.

Kudos to you for that. It’s a mature way of looking at things. I think that the coming out process is tough no matter who you are. It’s a journey for every individual, right?

Absolutely! Depending on who you are and where you grew up, it totally is an individual journey. I’ll even go one step further and say that I get very upset with people within my community who get upset by people who are not out. Frankly, that is like blaming the rape victim because she is provocatively dressed. No matter how much the world has changed, it’s still very difficult to be out in the world. It’s not easy. There are dangers. People do get killed and families do ostracize and we do not have the rights and equalities under the system we currently live in. If you know those things, why would you blame someone for choosing not to be out?

True. And Being in a metropolis like New York, it’s easier for us to forget that people in smaller towns aren’t quite as progressive as they are in this city.

Oh… no shit! (Laughs)

Lea DeLaria at New Jersey Performing Arts Center
1 Center Street, Newark, NJ
Saturday, April 9
6 p.m.; 8:30 p.m.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook

15 Minutes With: Lesli Margherita

March 14th, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone 

Lesli Margherita (Photo: Isaac James Creative via The Broadway Blog.)

Lesli Margherita (Photo: Isaac James Creative via The Broadway Blog.)

“My mom took me to see Annie at the Curran Theater when I was eight years old,” remembers Lesli Margherita, the Fremont-born Broadway star who’s back on native turf with her new cabaret act, Broad, at Feinstein’s at the Nikko March 25 and 26.

“I’d been taking dance classes,” recalls Margherita who originated the role of Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda in New York and tickled audiences as Mona Kent in the sadly sunken recent production of Dames at Sea, “but I had never sung in my life. I was fearless though. I wanted to be up there immediately!”

“That was it!” says the youngest of four sisters who remembers “always playing the clown at home, always bugging them, trying to make them laugh. They were already in college when I was little and I wanted them to notice me.”

As it turned out, eight-year-old Margherita had both a solid singing voice and parents willing to support her enthusiasm. In short order, she was winning roles in Bay Area community theater and professional productions.

“I was a weird theater-geek kid,” she recalls. “One of my sisters was working at a San Francisco television station when Phantom of the Opera came through town. I begged to go to work with her when she interviewed Andrew Lloyd Webber. You would have thought I was meeting the Beatles.”

In high school, Margherita spent summers singing and dancing in revues at a Great America amusement park—a gig that paved her way to a part-time job performing at Disneyland while studying at UCLA.

One of the requirements of the well-regarded UCLA theater program is that students are not allowed to take on professional acting jobs while enrolled in the department.

Margherita—already energized by a steady diet of limelight—took a pass, opting to major in dance and eventually switched to pre-law to acquire some safety net skills.

But a net was hardly necessary. Margherita took a yearlong break from college after being cast for a national tour of A Chorus Line. And almost immediately after graduation, she won a plum part in Fame LA, a 1997-1998 syndicated television reboot of the hit film and earlier series.

For close to a decade after Fame, Margherita carved out a steady career in regional theater and a solid array of small film and television roles. But in a tale that combines two classic Hollywood tropes—superficiality and happy endings—Lesli Margherita came to play Inez, the gypsy queen, in a flamenco-driven Zorro musical—a role that would begin her circuitous path to a long-dreamed-of Broadway debut.

“I won the role because people were making assumptions about my ethnicity. A lot of the cast’s first language was Spanish, and half of the lyrics to my songs were too. I had to learn everything phonetically. Eventually, after it was clear I was doing well, I came clean and told everyone ‘Hey, I’m ‘Margherita’ the pizza, not the cocktail!”

Zorro! the Musical opened on London’s West End in 2008, and Margherita won an Olivier award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical.

In 2010, after Margherita had returned to California, one of her British pals called, excited about Matilda, then playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“There’s a part,” the friend told her, “That’s just perfect for you!”

Mrs. Wormwood, the neglectful mother of the titular character, is a low-class, high-brass, coarse-mouthed comic gem.

“She’s all about sparkles and hair and bigger is better,” says Margherita. “And she has a really big dance number. There aren’t a lot of roles where you get to be funny and do serious dancing.”

Margherita had her agent begin to put out feelers long before a New York transfer was even announced. Ultimately, the American actress who first found real stardom on the West End soon found herself playing a beastly Brit on Broadway.

All that brass and sass—with a touch more class—is on display in Broad, Margherita’s tribute to some of the unconventional female performers with whom she feels a kinship.

“I love Mae West. Sophie Tucker. Eartha Kitt. Chita Rivera, Bette Midler of course. All of these strong women who did songs that were funny and, for their time, raunchy.”

Margherita has an impish sense of impropriety herself, not to mention a passing resemblance to Sarah Silverman, playfully displayed in a behind-the-scenes video blog she made for Broadway.com as Matilda prepared for its opening (Search “Looks not Books” on YouTube).

The reach of YouTube combined with the fact that Matilda had a built-in audience of tweens and teens who had grown up with the Dahl book has led to Margherita’s having a huge comment-crazed adolescent fan base on social media.

“I love them,” she says. “I would have killed to be able to tweet Chita Rivera when I was a kid. I try to reply to them or at least ‘like’ or ‘favorite’ their posts.”

But Margherita also has some strong opinions to share with the Glee generation.

“There is nothing more disheartening for a performer than looking out into the audience and seeing phones held up in front of people’s faces. It really keeps them from being there in the moment and creating that feedback loop between the stage and the audience that gives live theater so much of its specialness.”

Leslie Margherita: Broad
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
March 25, 8 p.m.; March 26, 7 p.m.

15 Minutes With: ‘Straight’ Playwrights Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola

March 9th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Thomas, E. Sullivan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Fewer shows in recent Off Broadway history have been more provocative than Straight. The three-person play, set in contemporary Boston, is a complex love triangle between Ben (Jake Epstein), a 26-year-old closeted investment banker, his girlfriend, Emily (Jenna Gavigan), and his part-time male lover, Chris. (Thomas E. Sullivan). Without divulging major plot twists, suffice it to say that audiences are leaving the Acorn Theater with mixed emotions of shock, anger, disbelief, and in rare cases, uncomfortable laughter.

The Broadway Blog recently spoke over the phone with playwrights Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola to discuss their audacious new work.

Drew Fornarola

Drew Fornarola

Scott Elmegreen

Scott Elmegreen

BB: Where did you get the idea to write Straight

SE: It came to us a few years ago. It struck us that our favorite plays are only about a handful of things: family, race, class, and sexuality. We noted that sexuality, in particular, has been rapidly changing over the last 10 to 15 years. Ben’s journey is transgressive. That idea really lit us up and felt right for the stage. We thought that we could explore the issue of sexuality in new ways through the lens of this character and his perspective

BB:  Did you intend to write it so that audiences would have such extreme reactions? 

SE: I don’t know that we intended a particular audience reaction. We just wanted to tell an interesting dramatic story. The fact that audiences leave with a lot to talk about and continue the conversation long after they leave the theater is a good thing. We’re excited that it is happening.

BB: What reactions and comments have you heard? 

SE: We need to keep a list of things we’ve overheard

DF: Just yesterday, while the ending was happening, a lady in the audience turned to her friend and rather audibly said, “I can’t breathe!”

SE: Every performance so far has been met with collective gasps. It’s fun to see audiences so engaged by the material.

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in 'Straight.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Epstein and Jenna Gavigan in ‘Straight.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

BB: So, does anyone in this show really “win” in the end? 

SE: Hopefully, the audience. I don’t say facetiously, but people are leaving with varied ideas and opinions about how things turn out for these characters.

BB: LGBT people seem to be living in more affirming times, especially in major metropolitan areas. Why then do you think there is still a resistance for people to come out? In 2016, why are we still wrestling with whether or not it’s okay to be gay?  

SE: One of the things we’re excited about is that even as we continue win these cultural battles of accepting sexuality, there is still a personal journey involved. There is an extent to which we are defined by our sexuality as well. Ben knows that if people are aware that he is gay, they will view him differently, so he’s posing the question, “I don’t have to come out if I’m straight. Why do I have to come out because I’m gay?”

BB: Sure, but he’s also compartmentalizing his life, too. I left wondering if there is a moral and ethical responsibility that we have to let our significant others know what our persuasion is.

SE: People who are leaving the play who don’t like it are leaving with the assumption that the play thinks this way—or the play’s attitude is (fill in the blank). I don’t think that plays have opinions, but rather characters in plays have opinions. All three characters in this show have different world views and it is up to the audience to form their own opinions.

BB: Do you worry that younger audiences might misconstrue the message (whether intended or not) and leave with the impression that they should be ashamed of and hide their sexuality?

SE: I don’t. I think younger audiences have actually connected more easily. Older audiences walk away noticing that the state of affairs is not much more different now than it was when they came out. People kill each other in plays, but no one walks out believing that this is a good choice. This is more of a modern tragedy. We’ve died several deaths over the choices that we’ve made and Straight is just a modern way to convey that.

BB: True. And you’ve done a good job in balancing Ben’s apprehension to accept his sexuality and Chris’ laissez faire, nonchalant approach to it. 

SE: Thank you.

BB: Have you considered that Emily is aware that Ben is gay and is just in denial about it? 

SE: Yes. One of things that audiences talk about most is “How much does Emily know and how much does it play into her arc in this show?”

DF: Emily wants to end up with Ben and how far is she willing to go to make sure that it happens?

SE: And another issue is that Ben is cheating on Emily. People often say that they want the truth, but do they really want to know it?

BB: It must be a thrill for you both to have written a play that is sparking such thoughtful and opposing reactions.

SE: There’s also something to be said, sexuality aside, about the difficulties in choosing a life partner. Many people don’t always choose well. It’s difficult to put oneself in the shoes of a person dealing with that, but it’s valuable to have a conversation about the person with whom we share our life.

Straight
Acorn Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Through May 8

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

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