Had the acclaimed City Center production of Gypsy moved directly to Broadway, actress Nancy Opel would have had to make a difficult decision: Stay with that show, in which she played the scene-stealing roles of Mazeppa and Miss Cratchit, or accept what has turned out to be her next gig, the role of Beatrice Stockwell in the national tour of the hit musical The Drowsy Chaperone, which kicks off on September 19 in Toronto.
"I am not sure what I would have done, so I am glad I didn't have to make a choice," says Opel. "But it was worth its weight in gold to be able to do Gypsy and work with Arthur Laurents and Patti LuPone and all those performers. It was like a year's worth of a college," she says. "And not only did I learn to play the trumpet; I bought one and I plan to keep it up."
Not surprisingly, she's thrilled with the chance to play Beatrice -- aka Drowsy. "It's really fun to play someone larger than life; it's very freeing," she says. "This kind of role allows you to do anything. And although there's a lot of room to be big, you always have to be truthful as well." Opel says she's grateful that director Casey Nicholaw isn't asking her to copy the Broadway performance of Tony Award winner Beth Leavel. "I've been given a fair amount of freedom to come up with ideas on my own rather than being pushed to shape the part in somebody else's footsteps," she notes. "I think I tend to find my characters from underneath and then build them up from there."
Despite her many years as a working actress, Drowsy marks Opel's first national tour. "I am scared, yes indeedy, but it will be fun to explore places like Chicago, Texas, and Toronto," she says. "And I figure I'll just take a couple of plastic bags worth of clothes and buy something new in every city. It's going to be a fascinating year."
GETTING HER POINT ACROSS
Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor knew she had to overcome one big pitfall in her new film musical, Across the Universe, which features rising stars Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs -- not to mention Bono and Eddie Izzard -- performing more than 30 songs by the Beatles. "I had to stay away from their original renditions as much as possible, since the closer they sounded to the originals, I knew the more people would feel you should just use them instead," Taymor told a star-studded crowded at a special Broadway Cares benefit screening of the movie, which opens today in New York, adding that 90 percent of the music was recorded live. "I was also nervous about the literal nature of some of the songs coming through, but I had to give up worrying about it early in the process."
The film, which also features appearances by theater favorites Dylan Baker, Bill Irwin, Linda Emond, Lynn Cohen, and Logan Marshall-Green, is essentially a boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl story set in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War as its canvas. "The story is about a young person who gets involved in the anti-war movement because of a personal crisis and finds she has to act," said Taymor. "So I hope it will provoke people to talk about its content and not just the music."
And if the movie's oversize puppets look familiar to fans of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, they should. Taymor was a member of the group in the 1970s and got permission to re-create their work. Indeed, Taymor drew on a variety of inspirations for the movie's visual style, from music videos to faces she saw while riding the subway to Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night. "I adore that movie," she said. "But I never much liked Yellow Submarine."
BODY OF WORK Margaret Cho has no trouble commanding a stage by herself for two hours, but she's got plenty of company in her new show The Sensuous Woman, which plays Chicago's Lakeshore Theatre, September 19-22, before starting a four-week run at NYC's Zipper Theatre on September 26. This 21st-century variety show will also star such national burlesque favorites as Princess Farhana, Selene Luna, and Dirty Martini, along with a variety of sketch comics and other performers.
"The show is really a celebration of women's bodies in a way that's irreverent and exciting," says Cho. "We don't really have enough body-positive role models in this country; instead, we're forced to attain an ideal that isn't possible." Indeed, Cho says she was forced to deal with criticism of her own body during the filming of her ABC sitcom All-American Girl. "My body type was being questioned all the time. I was being told I was too fat, even though I was playing the part of myself," she says.
Cho will be doing more than just stand-up comedy in the show; she's become a burlesque performer herself. "I was always open to do it, but once I saw it, it changed my life and I just couldn't wait to do it myself," she says. "My teacher, Pleasant Gaman, helped me a lot, and she's in the show too." Not only is Cho hoping audiences will enjoy seeing this new side of her, but so will her parents. "They haven't seen it, but I hope they'll like it," she says. "I know it will be a very different thing from what they've seen me do before."
HERE AND THERE
Tony Award nominee Barbara Walsh will perform at Long Island's Airmid Theatre Company's Fall FriendRaiser and Cocktail Fete on September 16. Broadway stars Kathy Fitzgerald and Patrick Wetzel will headline a free reading of the new musical Ain't We Got Fun at the York Theatre Company on September 17, TheaterMania columnist Peter Filichia will present a panel discussion on community theater at the Drama Book Shop on September 17; while the store will host a book signing and discussion with author Ethan Mordden on September 19. Mike Daisey will return to Manhattan's Ars Nova Theatre on September 19 with his newest monologue, Tongues Will Wag.
On September 20, Tovah Feldshuh will star in a one-night presentation of the play Irena's Vow at the JCC of Manhattan. Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright will bring his acclaimed show My Trip to Al-Qaeda to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre on September 22-24. The Guggenheim Museum's Works and Process Series will present scenes from the Signature Theatre Company's production of Iphigenia 2.0 and a panel discussion featuring author Charles Mee and director Tina Landau on September 23-24. Natasha Richardson, Michael Ball, Cheyenne Jackson, and Orfeh will be among the celebrity attendees at the amFAR Rocks benefit on September 24 at the Puck Building.
Adam Bock, Oskar Eustis, Richard Nelson, and Mac Wellman will be among the panelists at Prelude '07 at CUNY's Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, September 26-29. Marni Nixon will discuss her stage and film career at the New School in a free program on September 27. Paul L. Mills (aka Poez the Poet) will celebrate the release of his first book The Poetry Dollars with a four-day run of his one-man show Poet Bazookaed on West 4th Street at the Bowery Poetry Club, September 27-30. Liza Minnelli will inaugurate Morristown, New Jersey's Community Theatre at Mayo Center for the Performing Arts' new stage on September 28. Fred Willard and his sketch comedy group The MoHos will perform at StagesTheatre in Fullerton, California on September 29.
I KNOW WHERE I'VE BEEN
If any proof was needed that Broadway babies know how to "get down," it was all right there at Birdland on Monday at the amazing Broadway Salutes James Brown benefit for the Broadway Inspirational Voices. The Godfather of Soul had to be smiling from beyond as he listened to blistering renditions of his work, including "Please Please Please," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and "I Feel Good," from such tremendous talents as Darius De Haas, Aisha De Haas, Devin Richards, Chester Gregory II, Chuck and Lilli Cooper, Michael James Scott, Jesse Nager, Monroe Kent III, John Eric Parker, and Joshua Henry. Brown's "second son," Reverend Al Sharpton, Jr. was on hand briefly to applaud the cast and address the crowd. Brava to producer/director Amy Birnbaum, who also turned out to be a phenomenal singer, and molto bravos to the truly incredible back-up band. I wonder if they're available for weddings and bar mitzvahs?
Meanwhile, the new play Alfred Kinsey: A Love Story doesn't have all that much new to say about the famed sexologist, but it's got a quartet of expert performers -- Wayne Maugans (in the title role), Melinda Wade, Jessica Dickey, and Carter Roy -- to keep one interested in the goings-on. One caveat: if you're expecting a scene exactly like the one between Liam Neeson and Peter Saarsgard in the 2004 film Kinsey, you're out of luck!
Lastly, R&B legends Ashford and Simpson made a triumphant return to Feinstein's at the Regency on September 11, with a smartly conceived show that mixed the duo's chart-topping hits, including "Solid" and "I'm Every Woman," with a few newer or lesser-known numbers. The overflowing opening night crowd included club namesake Michael Feinstein, actors Arlene Dahl, Eileen Fulton, and Keith David, director George Faison, and "national treasure" Dr. Maya Angelou.