A Change of Tune

Special Features   A Change of Tune Though best known for her thrilling soprano, Rebecca Luker plays it straight in Indian Blood, a new play by A.R. Gurney
Rebecca Luker
Rebecca Luker Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Rebecca Luker flashes that sweet smile of hers and shakes her head. No, there is no truth to the rumor she was hired for Indian Blood, A.R. Gurney's new play at Primary Stages, because she can sing a pretty mean "Indian Love Call." Truth to tell, the comedy is totally song free, and Luker will be lifting her lovely lyric soprano exclusively in spoken word.

Because the voice is so beautiful, you may have missed what she was doing when she wasn't doing "Make Believe" or "Till There Was You" or "All I Ask of You." She was acting, making credible human beings of Magnolia Hawks, Marian Paroo and Christine Daaé - a tough task given the sticky, stick-figure potential of those straitlaced ladies.

"It is hard to do straight ingenue leads - nobody knows that better than I," says the pretty, professional heroine. "If I could go back and do those roles again, I would. In a heartbeat. As the years go by, you think, 'Oh, I'd have done this or that,' but you do them when you do them because you're the right age. I'd love to be a character actress, too, but type-wise, that's not really who I am. Actually, I think every role is hard, whether it's the straight person or the character part. They all take tons of work and research and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing to find something in the character that makes her real."

Indian Blood, directed by Mark Lamos and running now through Sept. 2 at 59E59 Theaters, gives her a rare opportunity to flex that upstaged muscle and work without a net (or song) to her name. She plays a middle-class housewife in Buffalo of 1946 and mother of three, in particular a 16-year-old "emerging artist" (Jeremy Blackman) who rebels against his provincial, genteel world and blames his behavior on his Seneca bloodline. Training wheels were not needed, but Luker found comfort in having a pair of musical-theatre parents on board: John McMartin, her father in Show Boat, and Katherine McGrath, her mother in The Music Man, have been cast as her father-in-law and her maid. Jack Gilpin is her insurance-selling hubby, and Pamela Payton-Wright is his mom.

Why did Luker change her tune to no tunes? Would you believe kismet? Her husband, actor Danny Burstein, did Gurney's play Mrs. Farnsworth down at The Flea in 2004, and during the run the two crossed paths. "Pete Gurney is the dearest man in the world, and we became friends. At some gathering, he said he'd written a new play and was interested in me for a role. I just stared at him. I never thought it would be something that would happen. I just thought it was Pete being a friend." When he mentioned it a second time, she asked to see the play. It was love at first reading; she emailed him a fast, enthusiastic yes. "He must have seen something in my personality right for the role."

Whatever the reason, Luker leapt into the fray rather fearlessly. "It's not that straight plays are easier than musicals," she notes. "They both have their challenges. To me, it's just as hard to project your speaking voice for two hours as it is to sing. There's a whole different mind-set. With plays, scenes run longer and you can flesh out the characters easier. Musicals are a rather hurried way to get to the character. You've got to work really hard to get the character - in a shorter amount of time, usually. That's what I love about plays: you get to just be that person and not worry about breaking into song."

Not counting readings, this is her third nonmusical outing. She zestfully played a much-hit-on secretary in a quirky Off-Off-Broadway comedy called Can't Let Go, and she was in the final company of The Vagina Monologues before author Eve Ensler reclaimed them for herself. Otherwise, it has not been much of an interrupted Broadway melody since she moved here from her hometown of Birmingham, AL, 21 years ago. "I never even considered leaving and going back home. It wasn't an option I gave myself."

Sure, she waitressed (a week, at Windows on the World), and sure, she temped (another week, in law offices), but when she realized that real-world work was cutting into her audition time, she quit and focused on what her true objectives were.

"The next week I got a concert, and that started the ball rolling. I did those Town Hall shows - the Encores! of their day - and summer stock. Then, The Phantom of the Opera came along right after that. I was understudy to Sarah Brightman when Patti Cohenour was the alternate. A year later, I became the alternate for four months, and then I assumed the lead for the next two years. I called it Camp Phantom, because I truly learned my craft doing that show. I was very green and very inexperienced, and I learned the value of hard work and sticking with something."

Needless to add, you can't keep a good lyric soprano down. At the end of this month, Rebecca Luker comes off musical rest and tunes up for Mary Poppins (she's Mrs. Banks, who allocates her children-rearing to the high-flying nanny of the title). Singer by day, actress by night - from the end of August to early September - the best of both worlds.