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Still on 42nd Street, But More Than a Broadway Baby — Leslie Kritzer Speaks About Her Off-Broadway Role in The Memory Show

Leslie Kritzer talks small venues, Jewish mothers, and the high school experience that nearly ended her career.

A regular on the Broadway stage (most recently appearing as Jovie, shy love interest to the title character in Broadway's Elf: The Musical), Leslie Kritzer has moved to the much more intimate Duke on 42nd Street, where she is now costarring in Transport Group's production of The Memory Show.

In The Memory Show (book and lyrics by Sara Cooper and music by Zach Redler), Kritzer plays a 31-year-old woman who moves home to take care of her mother (played by Catherine Cox) who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Already ridden with resentment and Jewish guilt prior to their cohabitation, Kritzer's character finds it increasingly difficult to manage a strained relationship with her mother as the disease progresses.

Having been with the show since its original run at Barrington Stage Company in 2010, Kritzer shared with TheaterMania the details of its nearly three-year journey to the off-Broadway stage, as well as the fears that come with playing in a small off-Broadway space. She also took some time to talk about her upcoming show at Joes' Pub — a staged illustration of how she went from being a musical theater nerd from Livingston, NJ to New York City's biggest "Jewrican" star.

Leslie Kritzer and Catherine Cox in The Memory Show at the Duke on 42nd Street
© Carol Rosegg

You've been with The Memory Show for several years now. How did the part originally come about for you?
I was contacted by Barrington Stage through Bill Finn. Zach and Sara, who wrote the piece, went to NYU and Bill wanted Vadim (Kritzer's husband who is an NYU alum and The Memory Show music director) to work on [it] and he had me in mind. I think Zach and Sara had me in mind too. It was just a perfect situation. It just happened luckily that it was like, "Let's call Leslie" and I was free and Vadim did it and it just kind of happened magically. It usually doesn't. [Laughs]

You've done a lot of light, comedic musicals in the past (Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Elf). Why do you think they thought of you for such a dramatic piece?
I had done A Catered Affair on Broadway, which was not a comedic role at all…It kind of showed a different side [of me] and I've always wanted to do more stuff like that.

How did the show make its way off-Broadway?
After we did our last presentation, Jack Cummings from Transport Group was like, "I really, really want to bring this and I'm going to find a way to do it." So it's been two years and he found a way to bring it to Transport Group. We were kind of on hold for two years just saying, "Well, if it happens, great, if it doesn't, okay, but at least we can say we did it." So when it came around, he wanted to make sure our schedules worked, and they did, so here we are.

How do you approach the mother-daughter relationship in the play?
That is a volatile relationship. [You're] dealing with someone [who's] difficult that you don't really get along with, and yet you're very similar to. I think a lot of people can identify with their parents. We always say, "We don't want to be our parents, we don't want to be like our parents," and most times, we're very similar to our parents. There are things about them that aggravate us because they bring out the worst in us or they trigger us or they know how to push our buttons, so I based a lot of the character on that. Building the relationship between the mother and daughter. Also…finding compassion and struggling with the differences between her difficulties and the disease. That's something I'm working on.

Do you relate to your character, being a Jewish daughter yourself?
Most people think I am Jewish but I'm not. My father's Jewish. I was raised Catholic, actually. My mom's Puerto Rican, so I'm kind of a hybrid but I always felt Jewish in nature. I grew up in a very Jewish town, I have a lot of Jewish friends…[and] the Jewish mother thing is the same as having a Puerto Rican mother: strong opinions, set in their ways, stubborn, nitpicky, and also very loving…I really drew upon that.

Yeah, I see in the description of your upcoming show at Joe's Pub you describe yourself as a "Jewrican."
It's easier than saying, like, "Polish." [Laughs] "Jewrican" kind of sets it all up, so yes, I am a "Jewrican." That's how I label myself.

What kind of show do you have planned for Joe's Pub?
Basically it's about my senior year of high school in 1995. It's all about that year. How I almost didn't graduate — how I almost didn't do this with my life. [In the show] I do everything…a little Nirvana, a little '90s, '80s…the usual you would expect from a high school girl who grew up in the '90s.

Any showtunes?
Not really. [It's] definitely not a musical theater kind of cabaret. It's about musical theater and my love of musical theater, and how I almost didn't pursue a career because I almost didn't graduate high school, but it's basically what happens when you don't get the lead in your school play your senior year, which is every high school girl's dream…when you're a theater nerd. [Laughs]

How has it been playing in such a small space at the Duke on 42nd Street, compared to big, Broadway houses? Do you prefer one over the other?
It's definitely scarier. It's easier to play for a house of 1500 people than 100. But I value both…I think it has really taught me something about my relationship with the audience on a small scale. Do I prefer one over the other? Besides the money? [Laughs] No. You take a lot of money on Broadway but it's not about that. It's really about the piece itself and I really connect with the audiences [who] are coming to see the show. [Whether] they like it or not, I feel like we're giving them something to walk away with. I've learned a lot about people too.

How so?
A lot of people cry in silence and a lot of people cry outwardly. Some people laugh inside, some people laugh out loud. It's amazing to see different people do different things and react different ways. They can enjoy it the same and react differently outwardly. It's very scary sometimes to connect with the audience. I'm still an actress — I still want people to like the show. And some people are very uncomfortable, but that's okay. It's okay to walk away from a theatrical experience and not like it. It's okay for them to love it, to like it, to not like it, to hate it. What we're here to do is give them a little tiny something to think about. This is such an important issue. It's more prevalent than ever and I just think it's important theater versus just entertainment — and I think there's room for both! I love doing entertaining theater, I love doing thought-provoking theater — I love making money, and I don't mind not making money when I'm doing something I believe in. I'm just grateful to be able to have any of it.