Unlike some of her castmates in the new musical Shrek, which begins its pre-Broadway tryout at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre on August 14, Kecia Lewis-Evans has a little less to live up to as the Dragon. "In the movie, she didn't really have a voice, so I have the privilege of creating one," she says." Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the score, is an old friend, and she told me that when I came in and auditioned I totally changed what she had in mind. She's given me a base for the sound, sort of early 1960s Aretha Franklin, but I've gotten to play with it. It's originally a little more aggressive than mine, but then it gets softer as she falls in love with Donkey. And as a singer, it's much more rock-pop sounding than anything else I've done. It's not as easy as Broadway."
Lewis-Evans is really enjoying working with her castmates, a true bunch of Broadway pros. "It's a really chilled out group," she says. "Chester Gregory, who plays Donkey, is so great; he's just ridiculously talented and fun, and we're trying to find our own way with the story. And Brian d'Arcy James [who plays Shrek] and Sutton Foster [who plays Fiona] are neck and neck for the nicest people in show business. And our director Jason Moore is just fantastic."
The actress is also happy with her look as Dragon. "I get to be pretty glamorous -- and I have had some glamorous roles lately, like Trix in The Drowsy Chaperone," she says. "Dragon is really pretty and glittery and shiny -- and of course you'll see a lot of pink, which is fine, since my favorite color is fuschia. And I'm really happy with the make-up design, because you will be able to see Kecia through everything; Jason told us from the beginning that it was important that we all remain recognizable." That's also fitting to the show's moral, says Lewis-Evans. "One of the big themes to the story is that everyone is more than just what you see on the outside, and I think this show is a fantastic way for kids to learn that lesson."
If you don't immediately recognize Lewis' Drowsy castmate, Tony Award winner Beth Leavel as Frau Blucher in Broadway's Young Frankenstein, she won't blame you either. "I haven't played a role like this since I was in college, when I was always cast in the unattractive older women parts," she notes. "So I have had to embrace my older unattractive actress for this great role. But it was odd for a while. I've had six years of wearing pretty clothes and having lots of bling and showing cleavage. I've had to retrain my body -- to learn to stand differently, for example. We also double-check in the make-up room that my mole is securely on my face, since on my third performance, when I was hugging Chris Fitzgerald [who plays Igor], I could feel it move. First, it was on his face and then it was on the floor. And since I was new, I couldn't break up on stage. But we had a good private laugh after."
The actress may be perfect casting for the slightly crazy housekeeper, but she had to audition for the part. Twice. "I don't blame them; I'd never worked for Mel Brooks and I hadn't worked with Susan Stroman since Crazy For You," she notes. "But I wasn't as prepared as I wanted to be for my first audition, and frankly, I sucked. So I thought they called me back out of pity, but I did think the second one went much better." As it turns out, one thing Brooks and Stroman hadn't thought about was how much taller Leavel is than her predecessor, Andrea Martin. "I had one put-in rehearsal on the Hilton stage, and when I went to make my first entrance through those castle doors, with that big wig on my head, I was too tall to fit through. So I've learned to do a little limbo and hope the audience doesn't really notice."
Leavel could have been forgiven for turning down the role -- since closing in Drowsy last December, she moved on to Dancing in the Dark at San Diego's Old Globe and then the City Center Encores! production of No, No, Nanette! "I had great fun doing Dancing; I got to sing 'That's Entertainment' every night and it doesn't get better than that," she says. "And doing Nanette was wonderful; that cast was so supportive of each other. Of course, when they told me I would be dancing with Michael Berresse, I thought they were nuts. He really raised my bar. I kept apologizing to him all through rehearsal, until he told me to stop. If we ever have a real run, I could probably do a marathon by the time it's over."
While she would be thrilled if either of those shows made it to Broadway, as has been rumored, she's already landed another part in a Broadway-bound musical, Minsky's, which premieres in January at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre, and reunites her with Drowsy's Bob Martin and Casey Nicholaw. "I play Maizie, who's this bitter, jaded but funny, with a heart-of-gold dance captain; the kind of wisecracking broad every show needs," she says. "But the great thing is the palette is pretty open for me to create her, and I get a couple of really good songs by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead. I gotta say, I really love working. And if I am unemployed for more than two weeks, my family starts packing my bags."
IN MY SIGHTS
Daphne Rubin-Vega catching former Rent castmate Anthony Rapp in Second Stage's Some Americans Abroad; Tony winner Liev Schreiber and Oscar winner Ang Lee discussing their new film project, Taking Woodstock, at the Dakota Restaurant in Lenox, Massachusetts; the hilarious Jackie Hoffman applauding Xanadu co-star Mary Testa after a performance of her intriguing music-theater piece Sleepless Variations at Barrington Stage Company; Jane Krakowski happily taking in Hair at the Delacorte Theatre; and Jose Llana, Orville Mendoza, Sherry Boone, Barbara Walsh and more applauding Donna Lynne Champlin's hilarious solo show Finishing the Hat at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.
THE MOST BUSY FELA
A lot has changed for Tony winner Bill T. Jones since he first began working six years ago on the musical Fela!, now in previews at 37 Arts, about the late African composer and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. "Originally, I had an idea for three different Felas on stage; a young dancing Fela, a talking Fela, and an older Fela. Of course, now it seems like a terrible idea, but it did help me in imagining the piece," says Jones, who is the show's director and choreographer. "And it's been very interesting learning what the show needs to be while in front of an audience. For example, some of the things we had counted on landing, as they say in theater, aren't. But the good news is that audiences like our lead actor, Sahr Ngaujah. I met him during auditions for The Seven at New York Theatre Workshop, and though our director Jo Bonney rejected him, I retrieved his photo. It was partially his resemblance to Fela, but it was more an indescribable sense that he was the right person."
Jones first heard Fela's music back in 1977, when he was rehearsing one of his dance pieces. "We used a lot of different types of music back then, but I didn't know much about him in detail and I didn't really follow his life afterwards. Let's just say my appreciation has increased since then," he says. "But what really spoke to me is that the piece is this collision of the spiritual and the political that is rare to behold, and that's what my art is about."
Right now, the ever-multi-tasking Jones has had more on his proverbial plate than just Fela! He recently worked with the cast of the national tour of Spring Awakening, which pre-launches in San Diego on August 12. "I'm always looking to particularize the strengths of particular performers," he notes. "If there are good jumpers in the cast, I find a place for them to jump. I've changed some of the movements, as has Michael Mayer [the show's director], and I'll do more work before the show goes to Europe."
And one can't forget his first love, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary by opening the BAM Next Wave Festival, September 30-October 4 with A Quarreling Pair. "It's based on this play by Jane Bowles about these two old sisters living in one room, and it has this vaudevillian conceit that allows my dancers to clown around," he says. "It's kind of Beckett-like, but it's Monty Python-like too."