Lauren Velez in Intimate Apparel(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lauren Velez in Intimate Apparel
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
BACK IN BUSINESS
Lauren Velez's co-starring role as a prostitute in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, which officially opens on Sunday at the Roundabout's brand-new Laura Pels Theater on West 46th Street, is literally a comeback for the popular TV star. "I decided to take the summer off after finishing the last season of Oz," says Velez, who starred as Dr. Gloria Nathan on the HBO series. "Then I got a chance to live for awhile at a friend's place in Spain, so I stayed there longer than I planned. Many people now say to me that it was brave to be away for so long, but I didn't feel any fear that I'd never work again; and I came back with the right perspective, especially for how much I love doing theater."

Indeed, Velez's stage roots are deep: She was originally an Alvin Ailey dancer (a career cut short by a back injury) and an early member of the LAByrinth Theater Company. But she hadn't expected to be back before the footlights so soon after returning to the United States. "I was planning to live on the beach in Los Angeles," she says, "but I came home first to New York and went on this audition, figuring I wouldn't get it. I am so thrilled to be doing this play! The script is so gorgeous, our star Viola Davis is extraordinary, and I would play Mickey Mouse if our director Daniel Sullivan asked me to."

Velez tells me that she'd love to do a Broadway musical. "I really want to do Anita in West Side Story," she says. (One of her Oz co-stars was Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the film version of WSS.) If you think you've already seen Velez strut her musical stuff on the Great White Way as Mimi in Rent, you're mistaken -- but understandably so. "My identical twin Lorraine has played that part a lot," she explains. "I can't believe how many times I'd be in the audience, having a drink at intermission, and people would come up and say, 'You were so great up there!'"


THOROUGHLY BUSY SUTTON
Sutton Foster has hardly been sitting at home eating bon bons and having daily pedicures since exiting her Tony-winning role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in February. "Even I thought I'd have more time to relax," Foster told me at an open rehearsal of Snoopy!!!, a benefit concert for the Pied Piper Children's Theater that will take place on April 12 at Symphony Space. Foster is not only co-starring in the Hal Hackady-Larry Grossman musical as the slightly sarcastic Peppermint Patty, she's also co-producing the event. "I've always had a lot of respect for producers, but I have even more now," she remarks. "All of that planning is hard work!"

Foster personally chose this musical, which had a decent Off-Broadway run in 1982, for a couple of specific reasons: "I did the show when I was 13 at the Jewish Community Center in Detroit and fell in love with it. I think it's even better than You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Plus, it was a perfect fit for my family in terms of casting." How true that is! Her brother, Hunter Foster, is Linus; his wife, Jennifer Cody, is Sally; and Sutton's boyfriend Christian Borle is living a dog's life as the title character. Rounding out the sensational cast are Ann Harada as Lucy and Deven May as Charlie Brown.

In addition to focusing on Snoopy!!!, Foster is preparing her first cabaret act -- which will debut as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series on May 15 -- and getting ready to play Jo March in the new musical Little Women, which is expected to hit Broadway next season. "I just did a reading of the show with the cast and it blew me away," she says. "And I'm reading the book for the first time. It's so entertaining!"


THE BRITISH ARE HERE! THE BRITISH ARE HERE!
You can't swing a cat today without hitting someone from across the Pond. "Brits Off Broadway," a three-month festival of British theater, has just begun at 59E59 Theaters. Opening the series is Tim Crouch's solo show My Arm; upcoming attractions include the all-girl trio Fascinating Aida (May 20-June 13) and actress Linda Marlowe in two different solo shows, No Fear and Berkoff's Women (June 8-July 4). Meanwhile, David Leveaux's revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, starring the extraordinary British actors Simon Russell Beale and Essie Davis in their Broadway debuts, is in previews at the Brooks Atkinson.

On the cabaret front, the peerless Dame Cleo Laine and her equally talented husband, Sir John Dankworth, are performing at the swanky Le Jazz Au Bar from April 9 through 16. And the Café Carlyle has Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman's show By Special Arrangement for a full month. As part of the program, Friedman is previewing "Ever On My Mind" -- a lovely song from The Woman in White, the highly anticipated new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Zippel, in which she will star this summer in London.


IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
Theme parks and Tony Award winners are admittedly an unusual combination. But Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has turned to the talents of two owners of the coveted statuette --The Lion King's master puppeteer Michael Curry and its lighting designer Donald Holder -- for Katonga: Musical Tales from the Jungle, a 35-minute, African-inspired musical that opens today at the park's Moroccan Palace Theater. Curry has created 45 puppets for this extravaganza, including a 21-foot-tall praying mantis. "My animals all have a relationship to human beings. It would've been very disturbing to do just a physically correct recreation of an animal," says Curry, who's particularly excited about one rather small creation: "For the first time in 18 years, I got to do a dung beetle."


WHERE WERE THEY WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT DOWN?
Broadway's fabulous Phantom, Howard McGillin, applauding Mrs. Farnsworth stars Sigourney Weaver, John Lithgow, and Danny Burstein at the Flea Theater on Friday...Betsy Palmer, still looking great at 77, at the York Theatre's Weird Romance on Saturday afternoon...Cabaret greats Karen Mason, John Wallowitch, Jim Caruso, Jamie deRoy, Eric Michael Gillett, Barbara Brussell, and Jeanne MacDonald standing for the incomparable Julie Wilson during the Sunday night performance of her show I'm Still Here at the lovely new Helen's Hideaway Room in Chelsea...Donna McKechnie, Joan Rivers, Joy Behar, Harvey Evans, Scott Wittman, Henry Stram, and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner among those packing Feinstein's at the Regency for the first performance of Patti LuPone's show there.