Why Tumacho Star Phillipa Soo Is Ghostbusting in the East Village

Soo brings comedy to a gunfight in Ethan Lipton’s musical satire of the Old West…and yes, she’s excited to watch the ”Hamilton” movie.

Summer 2016 was the last time New York audiences got a visit from Tumacho — Ethan Lipton's Western musical bonanza about a demon ghost that preys on the zany citizens of a frontier outpost. The Clubbed Thumb production was at the Wild Project, and considering the news of the moment, theatergoers were primed for the jolly rallying cry of a small country town banding together to purge itself of a poisonous demon.

Nearly four years later, Tumacho is back in the East Village (now at the Connelly Theater) and there are more noxious spirits than ever to oust with laughter and singing cacti. The cast — a mix of newcomers and veterans from the last production — now stars Phillipa Soo as Catalina Vucovich-Villalobos, a young woman plotting revenge against Big Bill Yardley, the town thug who murdered her parents.

Soo is a Tony-nominated actor who has lent her voice to some of Broadway's greatest modern ballads (most notably "No One Else" as Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812's original Natasha off-Broadway and "Burn" as Hamilton's original Eliza). But wait till you see what Soo can do when she's tasked with making us laugh instead of cry.

Tony nominee Phillipa Soo stars as Catalina Vucovich-Villalobos in the Clubbed Thumb production of Ethan Lipton's Tumacho, directed by Leigh Silverman, at the Connelly Theater.
Tony nominee Phillipa Soo stars as Catalina Vucovich-Villalobos in the Clubbed Thumb production of Ethan Lipton's Tumacho, directed by Leigh Silverman, at the Connelly Theater.
(© Joseph Moran)

How did you end up joining the cast of Tumacho?
I was asked by [director] Leigh Silverman to come join this group of people. I love everything that Leigh does, and I would follow her to the end of the world. And I read this play — I knew a little bit of Ethan Lipton's stuff — but his writing just was so hilarious to me and I was like, "Absolutely, this is something I want to be a part of." I haven't been in a theater that small since the Natasha, Pierre days. So it's very fun to get to play in a space like that.

The last time this play was done in New York City, your role of Catalina Vucovich-Villalobos was played by Celia Keenan-Bolger. Has she shared her experiences with Tumacho with you?
When I first agreed to do it, Celia was saying it was just such a wonderful experience and was giving praise to Leigh and Ethan and how much fun she had doing it. We're all very playful and very in tune if there's something interesting happening with someone onstage. The ball's in the air, and we're trying to keep it up the entire time.

Tumacho is pretty nearly all comedy, but it's also responding to serious cultural issues surrounding violence in communities. How does that balance manifest in the show?
I asked Ethan about it very early on. As we are introduced to this lousy little town in the middle of nowhere in a time vaguely unknown, it's setting up our minds to look at this town as — it could be my town, could be your town, could be any town anywhere at any point. And the people that are there are struggling so hard to just get by, what with violence in the streets, and everybody leaving town. Ultimately, the conflict of the play is this ghost named Tumacho, who is literally a demon ghost, but can represent toxic masculinity and violence, and also the worst in people and the worst in society. It's what the town has to work toward getting rid of. But they can't just settle and wait for this demon to leave. They have to come together.

Phillipa Soo and John Ellison Conleea scene from Tumacho at the Connelly Theater.
Phillipa Soo and John Ellison Conlee in a scene from Tumacho at the Connelly Theater.
(© Elke Young)

That feels very relevant to life as an American citizen today.
You could equate that to a lot of things that are happening in the world today, whether that's bad leadership or violence or corruption. Anything you can think of that's a toxic part of humanity is embodied in Tumacho. And I think along with all the hilarity and the very dry, brilliantly crafted humor that Ethan has given us, there's a lot of heart. We've been trying to find the humanity of all of these people living in this town. There's no actual hero. They're very imperfect and the biggest challenge is overcoming their own issues and coming together to defeat this demon.

Do you think humor is a productive way to inspire that fighting spirit?
It's great to be able to engage in difficult things through humor — because it's a lot, and we have to be ready to fight back, and it takes a toll on your spirit. I think things like this can give you a sense of hope and a little bit of a break, and at the same time inspire you to really carry forth with all of the hard work that goes into trying to make society a better place.

While I have you, I have to ask about the latest Hamilton movie news. Are you excited that there's a plan for its release?
Honestly, I'm really excited to see what [director] Tommy Kail has done and what they were able to capture. To be able to heighten that lens and focus in on very specific moments, it's just a feast of storytelling. So I can't wait to see how they've cut it together. It's so nice that more people will get to see it and be just as inspired as we were by what Lin-Manuel Miranda has created. I think we can get a little lost in our screens, but hopefully this will be a way to get people excited about being in a room with other people and having an experience together live.

The cast of Tumacho, running off-Broadway through March 14.
The cast of Tumacho, running off-Broadway through March 14.
(© Quinn Corbin)

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Closed: March 12, 2020