Ashley Brown keeps Poppins up; Mitzi Gaynor shares some Pacific memories; Pablo Schreiber is Under the influence; and Lauren Kennedy plays around in 1776.
New York has been a slightly less cheery place since former Mary Poppins star Ashley Brown has left town. But the actress, who's now playing the supernanny in the show's national tour in Chicago, will be back in the Big Apple ever so briefly on Monday, April 20 to participate in New York Moments, a star-studded gala concert to benefit the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.
"When I signed my new contract for the tour, I made it so I could do concerts like this one. I've got a bunch coming up, like the Boston Pops on May 20 and the Indianapolis Symphony," says Brown. "But this one is so exciting for me since I get to share the stage with people like Liza Minnelli. I'm singing 'I Happen to Like New York,' which I sang previously with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, and when Marvin Hamlisch heard a tape of me singing it, he wanted me to do this show. I just met him the other day for the first time. The day after I saw the documentary Every Little Step, which he's in, I went to his apartment, and he's such a sweet, regular person."
Returning to the role of Mary after a three-month break has been a joyous experience for the actress. "You rarely get a chance to revisit a role like this, and when I left Broadway, I thought about all the other choices I could have made with the part," she says. "And having a whole new cast has really given me and Gavin Lee (who plays Bert) all new energy. And the audiences are loving it here. They even laugh in different places. We also have one new musical number, instead of 'Temper, Temper,' and I think it was great for the cast to feel like we were able to create something unique. Even my costumes are new -- except my boots. I tried to wear new ones, but I got horrible blisters trying to break them in, so I just took my old ones back."
After the show departs Chicago in July, it will stop in numerous cities, but Brown is most excited about visiting Los Angeles. "It will be nice not to have a winter next year, this one was a little too cold for me," she says. "I haven't spent much time there and it will be nice to explore. And I'm already a little curious about how high I'll be flying at the Ahmanson; that's really my biggest adjustment as we go from city to city."
Even a half century can't dim Mitzi Gaynor's fond memories of working on the film version of South Pacific, many of which she was willing to share while promoting the Blu-ray release of the film last month at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle. Among her most amusing was one that involved her co-star Rosanno Brazzi, who played Emile DeBecque.
"Rosanno really wanted to do his own singing; and his English was pretty good by the time we began filming, but he didn't really have the right voice for the part," she recalls. "So one day, I said to him "Rosanno, you know that Ezio Pinza (who originated the role on stage) was an opera singer, and although you sing beautifully, they're going to expect that kind of voice.' So then he starts to belt, and I said 'No, that doesn't mean louder, it just means they want a more trained voice.' And for a while he pouted until he met Giorgio Tozzi, who was dubbing him, and since Tozzi was also Italian, it all worked out. But I'm sure over the years he probably took credit for doing his own singing."
Another special memory involved a visit to the movie's set by the show's lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and his wife Dorothy. "Oscar was basically a slender man, but he had a little bit of a pot belly," she notes. "So one time, our director, Joshua Logan, said to him, 'Oscar, why don't you tell Nellie where to enter for this scene.' So he took his belly and pointed with it and said to me, 'So, you come in here and then come upstage and then go down there.' And then I said to Oscar, 'So should I just follow your belly?' And then Dorothy chimed in, 'Well, I've always done that.'" They were really good people; we had a lot of fun with them."
PABLO GOES UNDER
The show has arrived in New York just weeks after premiering at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and Schreiber was glad he had the chance to perform what he half-jokingly terms "a trial run" in Chicago. "One of things we really had to learn in previews, just by being in front of an audience, is how to find the right tone for the piece," he says. "It does reach the heights of tragedy and certainly there's passion to spare in the story, but it can easily go into melodrama. I know there can even be a camp factor to it, with humor showing up in the wrong places. So the important thing was finding how to keep the tension up so that it stays in the realm of tragedy, and I think we did that."
The pivotal moment in the show is when Eben enters into a passionate affair with his new, young stepmother Abbie, played by Carla Gugino. "I think as actors you just have to commit to the fact that these are two people who have very competing feelings," says Schreiber of the characters' hate-turned-love relationship. "Plus, on one hand, Eben just wants to revenge himself on his father, and on the other, there's this absolute lust and attraction he has to Abbie. And it's not hard to lust after Carla. But more importantly, I think it's great that she and I found sort of an instant trust with each other, because otherwise doing these roles can get really ugly. When you feel you can work safely together, you can really go forward and explore this complicated relationship and make it work on stage."
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TAKING A CONSTITUTIONAL
Lauren Kennedy knows there's truth to the motto that there are no small parts, only small actors, which is one reason she accepted the tiny if showstopping role of Martha Jefferson in the Paper Mill Playhouse's current production of 1776. "I originally auditioned for the role of Abigail Adams, but while I was there, they asked me to sing Martha's song, 'He Plays the Violin,' so I just learned it and did it," she says. "I had only seen the show once while I was in high school, in a production that was directed by Terrence Mann, and the good thing is I felt I could do whatever I want with the song -- and I still do."
She certainly has plenty of time to think about her interpretation during rehearsals. "I have to admit that until we did a whole run-through I didn't fully understand where Martha fits in and why she's so valuable to the show, since she's only on for five minutes. But I realize the thing is that she's so different from Abigail and all the men -- she's sort of a device -- and the audience likes the idea of seeing this woman dance around."
Indeed, if she wants more pointers or insight about the part, Kennedy freely admits she could simply call the role's originator, Betty Buckley, with whom she and her husband Alan Campbell worked with on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard. "I have been tempted to at least download her rendition of the song, especially since we heard Betty sing it at Feinstein's a few weeks ago," she says admiringly. "Her voice is just so good."
The role is also keeping Kennedy busy during a period when she might have been expected to be on Broadway in the musical Vanities, which is now opening instead Off-Broadway at Second Stage this summer. And that decision is fine by her. "If you're a small musical like ours, you don't want to sacrifice it by blowing it out of proportion and have to offer something spectacular just because Broadway has such a high ticket price," she says.