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Sing Out, Louise!

The French-Canadian star of Mamma Mia! on the thrill of her Broadway debut. logo
Louise Pitre
America has always welcomed our performing cousins from the North, making major stars of Canadian expats like Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, the Michaels (Myers and J. Fox), Robert Goulet, Jim Carrey, and Dan Aykroyd, to name just a few. Next up is a slender, prematurely silver-haired, bilingual dynamo who has suddenly become a major player on Broadway courtesy of her starring role in Mamma Mia!, which opened last night at the Winter Garden. "Louise Pitre is the musical's major asset," wrote Michael Kuchwara in his Associated Press review of the show. "She is a petite songstress and a game performer with a powerhouse voice. Plus, she looks awfully good in a sexy black slip."

A star throughout Canada for over 20 years, Pitre comes to us via London, Ontario (where she was born), Montreal (where she grew up), and Toronto (where, two years ago, she met and married her second husband, actor Joe Matheson). She has toured with Mamma Mia! for the last year and a half through San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, winning awards everywhere she went. In addition to Pitre's three Doras (the Canadian equivalent to the Tony Award) for Piaf, Blood Brothers, and Mamma Mia!'s North American premiere in Toronto, the ABBA musical earned her the San Francisco Theater Critics Award for Best Female Performance and the National Broadway Theatre Award for Best Actress.

In a Chelsea patisserie a couple of weeks before Mamma Mia's opening, Pitre dazzles in a red and white striped, spandex top tucked into form-fitting jeans and a waist-hugging American flag scarf; that last named item of clothing indicates that her mind is still very much on the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I've never felt so American," she says with great emotion. "This didn't happen just to you, it happened to the entire world, to all humanity."

The lady's trademark silver mane ("I decided to stop dyeing it a half dozen years ago. I'm proud of this hair, I've earned it!") sets off her laughing eyes and smiling mouth, both of which are prominently displayed on the cover of her new CD, All of My Life Has Led to This. I ask the obvious question in reference to her Broadway debut: "Has all of your life led to this?" "Oh," comes the quick reply, "I always dreamed of coming to Broadway. I just didn't want to come unless I could come in the right way. This is the right way, and I've waited a long time for it. I'm coming in the front door and I know I can handle whatever happens. If this had happened when I was 25, I'd probably have squandered it or partied my voice away. With Mamma Mia!, I know what I'm doing and I'm not scared."

Pitre holds a B.A. from the University of Western Ontario; her original career goal was to be a high school music teacher. A detour into a revue called Flicks changed that path forever, but not without consequences. "I had never studied voice and I had no technique," she says, "so I actually lost my voice [it's a rich, emotional contralto] and it took some time to get it back." The native French speaker recovered her ability to sing in time to do Piaf in 1992. "I'm probably proudest of that show," she tells me. "It's an on-stage marathon, the toughest show I've ever done; I ate like a horse and still lost weight, and my diaphragm was always sore to the touch. That's the kind of role I usually do, meaty roles like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Mamma Mia! I get to be stupid and silly. I'm not used to feeling this good every night when I step on stage!"

After her fourth Mamma Mia! audition in Toronto, Pitre was awarded the plum role of Donna Sheridan, a woman who runs a taverna on a mythical Greek island and is the independent single mom of a soon-to-be-married daughter named Sophie (Tina Maddigan). The plot, borrowed from the 1968 Gina Lollobrigida film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, has the daughter discover through reading her mother's diary that her heretofore anonymous father is one of Donna's three old boyfriends--so she invites all of them to her wedding. In Donna's young, wild, and crazy days, she and her best friends Rosie (Judy Kaye) and Tanya (Karen Mason) had had a rock band called Donna & the Dynamos; on the eve of the wedding, the middle-aged ex-bandmates are splendiferous in their bell-bottomed jumpsuits, singing "Super Trouper" and "Dancing Queen."

"I first met Karen in Chicago when she was doing her cabaret act at Davenport's," reports Pitre. "After the show, I went back to tell her how much I enjoyed it, whereupon she immediately introduced me to her parents and her husband Paul. And I met Judy on the first day of rehearsals. We really are like girlfriends now. I mean, it's so great for us. How often do they write great parts for women over 40?"

Ironically, Pitre was never an ABBA fan. "I was a disco freak when I was at university," she laughs, "Into 'funk,' you know. A lot of Earth, Wind, and Fire. And Tower of Power. So it's really odd that I wind up doing all this ABBA music. I only knew them as the guys who wrote Chess, which I think is brilliant. Björn [Ulvaeus] stayed with the show through its first week in Toronto. He still wasn't sure if anyone would like it here." Pitre is herself a songwriter: She composed two of the four songs in French on her new CD. "I write in English, too," she hastens to note, admitting that "I've written some pretty bad songs over the years!" She is delighted that the CD's final cut is a French version of Mamma Mia!'s "The Winner Takes It All," translated by Alain Boublil.

She and her husband will be New Yorkers for the foreseeable future, having sold their Toronto house and taken a midtown sublet with room enough for their dog, Tanya. "I learned the hard way not to drop out of a long running show," says Pitre, who left a Canadian production of Les Misérables after a yearlong stint as Fantine. "My contract with Mamma Mia! runs through October 2002." With the show's advance ticket sales at an astronomical level, its star certainly seems like a winner. As Pitre said in her acceptance upon winning her third Dora, "I am living proof that if you hang in there long enough and work your ass off, it will all pay off!"

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