Truth be told, Carole Shelley's role as Grandma in the blockbuster musical Billy Elliot is mostly confined to the first 15 minutes of the show, but the Tony Award-winning star makes quite an impression in the short time, especially with her sensationally performed number "We'd Go Dancing," in which she explains to young Billy the pluses and minuses of being married.
"I went into the show knowing the part was small, but as they say, 'cherce,' " says Shelley. "I learned long ago that it's better to have a small part that's wonderful than a big part that sinks. In fact, as soon as I saw this show in London a couple of years ago, I told my agent that I wanted the part and wanted to meet Stephen Daldry, the director. Usually, this never works -- it's already been cast with some friend of mine. But it hadn't, and it turned out Stephen is one of the easiest human beings to fall in love with -- and I just love his method of working."
As for her number, Shelley sees it as integral to the show, as well as a showstopper. "It's her way of saying to Billy to be yourself -- to not be forced into anyone's mold," she says. "And when I saw Peter Darling's choreography for it -- with these men coming out of the woodwork -- I felt I'd never seen anything like it. I just wish I was younger so I could appreciate all those guys fully."
She admits that her strong singing voice might surprise her fans -- since it even surprised her in a way. "My mother was an opera singer, and since my voice wasn't nearly as glorious, I never took my vocal training seriously. I didn't have much belief in the sound," she says. "But when I took over the role of Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, my speaking voice was in the same key as my singing voice, and all of a sudden I could hear I had one. Now in Wicked, as Madame Morrible, I mostly spoke-sang -- which is an achievement in itself."
Working with three different actors as Billy -- Kiri Kulish, Trent Kowalik, and David Alvarez -- has also kept things interesting for Shelley. "They do have different personalities, and I tend to keep it simple with all of them, but they all work so hard and are so brilliant," she notes. "It's one thing to see this kind of dancing in a movie, where all the good bits may have been edited together, but to see it live is just so terribly exciting. And it's really a very happy company; we all get along so well. There's nothing worse than coming into work with people everyday and not feeling like you're at your second home. And the audiences are so gung-ho. I think I've only seen a single empty seat after intermission."
Having gone through numerous auditions last year to gain the role of Mrs. Darnell in the world premiere of Terrence McNally's Unusual Acts of Devotion at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, veteran actress Viola Harris was afraid she'd lost a great opportunity when the play was suddenly postponed. But it's finally on its feet -- with a cast headed by Faith Prince and Richard Thomas -- and she couldn't be happier to be part of the experience.
"It's a very exciting project to be a part of -- and to discover just how loved Terrence is in Philadelphia," she notes. "The play is about these five people who all live on the same floor of a building in Greenwich Village; there are these two couples, one of whom is young and still happily married, and one who are older and having some problems. And I'm the old woman in the building, who's sort of a pain in the neck, but we all care about each other. I think it's a very provocative piece -- it really has something to say about relationships -- but it's also very tender, touching, and warm, and ultimately very moving."
Since it is a new play, Harris expected a lot more changes to be made during previews, but was thrilled to find out that wasn't the case. "Terrence and our wonderful director, Leonard Foglia, have been working on this for quite a while, so there was much less to redo than I had anticipated -- which is great at my age," she notes. "And I love the fact that the play is very rich theatrically, with a lot of street sounds and dancing. I never got to live in Greenwich Village -- I live near Gramercy Park now after spending 30 years in Los Angeles with my husband and kids -- but the play feels very New York to me."
A certain song may have paid tribute to "the ladies who lunch," but the New York Library for the Performing Arts is tipping its figurative hat to another group of ladies with Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance, at the Library for the Performing Arts, November 17-May 2. Curated by costume designer Carrie Robins, this multimedia exhibition includes the work of such talented artists as Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Theoni V. Aldredge, Irene Sharaff, Patricia Zipprodt, Susan Hilferty, Christine Jones, Ann Hould-Ward, Anna Louizos, and many more! Brava!
TAKING THE WATERS
Demian Bichir is one of Mexico's most famous stage and screen actors, so it's interesting that Americans will see him play Cubans in his two newest projects: The Geffen Playhouse's current production of Robert Schenkkan's two-character play By the Waters of Babylon, in which he plays a simple gardener named Arturo opposite Shannon Cochran, and in Stephen Soderbergh's highly anticipated film Che, in which he portrays Fidel Castro alongside Oscar winner Benecio del Toro in the title role.
"I love the Cuban people and their culture, which may be part of what attracted me to these works," he says. "The play talks about so many things I'm interested in -- especially the idea of love as being healing -- and the Geffen has such a great reputation. And yes, I know that a two-character play can be very demanding and require a lot of concentration. Two years ago, in Mexico, my brother and I did an adaptation of Stones in My Pocket, where we each played seven characters. But it's a privilege to do this play."
As for the challenge of tackling a young Castro, Bichir was eager to jump at the opportunity. "It wasn't quite the project one jumps into lightly or superficially, and I'm the type of actor, that I once I say yes, I go overboard," he says. "I did a lot of research to play Castro; I read and watched and listened to whatever I could; I worked with a vocal coach; it was basically breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me. But I'm pleased. When I saw the film, I told my girlfriend that I didn't recognize me at all."
As it happens, Bichir is best known in this country for playing a Mexican: the corrupt mayor Esteban -- and the lover of Mary Louise Parker's Nancy -- on Showtime's Weeds. "To be honest, I never watched it before they offered me the role," he says. So then I watched the first three seasons in one sitting, and I thought how lucky I would be to land on a show with such amazing characters and a great cast. And it's fine that Esteban is a bad guy. Mexicans are not all terrible and not all fantastic; we have many aspects, like everyone else. And with a great and beautiful actress like Mary Louise in front of you, it's easy to do great work."