DIVA TALK: A 2009 Diva Season Preview

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A 2009 Diva Season Preview News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
9 to 5 workers: Allison Janney, Megan Hilty and Stephanie J. Block
9 to 5 workers: Allison Janney, Megan Hilty and Stephanie J. Block Photo by Justin Stephens

Happy New Year, diva lovers! What follows is a look at some of the diva-filled musicals (and concerts) that will be seen on New York stages in the first half of 2009.

ON BROADWAY

Guys and Dolls: Since I'm not too familiar with the work of Lauren Graham or Kate Jennings Grant, who will play, respectively, Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown, in the forthcoming revival of Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling's Guys and Dolls, I'm most looking forward to seeing what the always dependable Mary Testa — last on Broadway as the comical, conniving muse Melpomene in Xanadu — does with the role of General Cartwright. Director Des McAnuff also has a pretty good track record with Broadway musicals — The Who's Tommy, the Matthew Broderick revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and the Tony-winning Best Musical Jersey Boys — so the production, which will arrive at the newly refurbished Nederlander Theatre Feb. 3, should be in good hands. The cast will also boast The Music Man's Craig Bierko as Sky Masterson and Emmy nominee Oliver Platt as Nathan Detroit, and the big-voiced Tituss Burgess will get the chance to belt out the Loesser classic, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."

Hair: At the outdoor Delacorte Theater, the Public's revival of the classic rock musical Hair was so exciting that one can only hope director Diana Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage will be able to bring that sense of wonderment indoors when the James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot musical begins previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre Feb. 10. With the exception of that glorious high belter Eden Espinosa, casting has yet to be announced for the Broadway production, although one imagines most of the young, talented cast that impressed audiences for the past two summers will make the journey to the Hirschfeld.

West Side Story: I missed the 1980 revival of West Side Story, so the upcoming production — featuring direction by its librettist, two-time Tony winner Arthur Laurents — will mark the first Broadway production of the groundbreaking Laurents-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical I've seen. Karen Olivo's vocals were so thrilling in the Tony-winning In the Heights that I'm especially excited to see what she makes of the role of Anita, which, was, of course, created by theatre favorite Chita Rivera. I'm also curious to see what 21-year-old Argentinean actress Josefina Scaglione, who created the role of Amber Von Tussle in the Argentinean production of Hairspray, brings to the role of Maria. And, then there's the legendary choreography of the late Jerome Robbins that is being re-created by Joey McKneely. 9 to 5: The Musical: The most exciting prospect of the second half of the theatre season is 9 to 5, which is based on the 1980 film of the same name. Not only does the cast boast Broadway belters Stephanie J. Block (in the Jane Fonda role) and Megan Hilty (in the Dolly Parton role), it also features the terrific comedic actress, multiple Emmy Award winner and Tony Award nominee Allison Janney (in the Lily Tomlin role). With a score by Parton, there are high hopes that the workplace comedy, which arrives at the Marquis April 7, will be the blockbuster it should be.

Rock of Ages: It will be interesting to see whether Rock of Ages, which ends its run at Off-Broadway's New World Stages Jan. 4, will be able to do for the rock songs of the '80s what Mamma Mia! has done for the tunes of ABBA. I'd imagine producers of Rock, which begins its Broadway run March 20 at the Atkinson, would be happy with a tiny fraction of Mamma Mia!'s success. Casting has yet to be announced for Rock of Ages' Broadway run, but with songs by Journey, Bon Jovi, Styx, Reo Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia and Whitesnake, the production will certainly have a different sound than anything currently playing on The Great White Way.

Heidi Blickenstaff

BROADWAY REPLACEMENTS An especially exciting cast change in 2009 promises to be Heidi Blickenstaff as Ursula in Disney's The Little Mermaid. Blickenstaff, who now has a loyal fan base thanks to her endearing performance and open-hearted, roof-raising rendition of "A Way Back to Then" in [title of show], will get to wrap that powerful, rich alto around "I Want the Good Times Back" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" when she succeeds Sherie Rene Scott for a limited engagement at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Blickenstaff will play the evil Ursula Jan. 27-April 5 in the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman-Glenn Slater-Doug Wright musical.

Sherie Rene Scott

OFF-BROADWAY Speaking of Sherie Rene Scott, the versatile singer-actress will perform her semi-autobiographical work Everyday Rapture — penned by Scott and Dick Scanlan — this spring at Second Stage. A previous version of Rapture, entitled You May Now Worship Me, was presented last March to benefit the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors Fund. The upcoming run, which begins April 7, will be directed by Tony winner Michael Mayer and features the songs made famous by David Byrne, George Harrison, U2, The Dap Kings and Judy Garland. Scott will be joined by four other actors, and the new stage production is billed as "the story of a young woman's psycho-sexual-spiritual journey on the rocky path that separates her mostly Mennonite past from her mostly Manhattan future."

Tony winner Betty Buckley

CABARET Before she returns to Broadway in Blithe Spirit — co-starring the legendary Angela Lansbury — two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole will offer a new program at the Café Carlyle Jan. 20-31. Directed by Scott Wittman, Ebersole, who possesses an unusually versatile vocal instrument, will perform the songs of Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac at the East Side venue. The Grey Gardens star will be backed by musical director John Oddo, who will lead a quintet.

The most exciting cabaret offering this winter promises to be Tony Award winner Betty Buckley's return to Feinstein's at Loews Regency with her acclaimed Betty Buckley By Request program. Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander and featuring Seth Rudetsky at the piano, this is the act that Buckley fans have been clamoring for for years. Expect tunes from all of Buckley's Broadway outings, including her sensational turns in Sunset Boulevard, Cats, 1776 and Triumph of Love, among others. Buckley will begin her month-long engagement at the posh nightspot Feb. 10.

Feinstein's will also welcome husband-and-wife Broadway stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, who will offer their critically praised Opposite You March 24-April 4.

Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

OUT-OF-TOWN HIGHLIGHTS How do you follow the mammoth role of stage mother of all stage mothers Rose in Gypsy? For Patti LuPone, who concludes her award-winning run in that classic Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents musical Jan. 11 at the St. James Theatre, the answer is simple enough: LuPone will join her former Evita co-star, fellow Tony winner Mandy Patinkin, for a limited tour of An Evening with Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin, which features duets and solos from such musical theatre classics as South Pacific, Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and, of course, Evita. The award-winning actor-singers also perform their signature songs. Visit pattilupone.net for tour dates and venues.

Last season's sold-out weekend run of Les Misérables in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl was so successful that the California venue has invited the show's director, Richard Jay-Alexander, back to helm a concert staging of the classic Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls. Featuring choreography by A Chorus Line Tony winner Donna McKechnie, the July 31-Aug. 2 concerts will likely be the event of the summer. All-star casting will be announced shortly — stay tuned for details!

DIVA TIDBITS
Tony Award winners Lillias White and Chuck Cooper will be among the stars of Syracuse Stage's upcoming production of the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together. Directed and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the Sondheim revue will play the John D. Archbold Theatre Jan. 27-Feb. 15, 2009. Opening night is scheduled for Jan. 30. In addition to The Life Tony winners White and Cooper, the company will also feature Tyler Hanes (A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity and Hairspray), Andre Ward (Xanadu, The Producers) and Stephanie Youell (Curtains). Dianne Adams McDowell will be the production's musical director. For tickets, priced $24-$48, call (315) 443-3275 or visit SyracuseStage.org. The Syracuse Stage box office is located at 820 East Genesee Street in Syracuse, NY.

The 2009 cabaret season at The Royal Room Cabaret, located within The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, FL, has been announced. The New Year kick offs Jan. 2 with stage and screen star John Davidson, who will play the Florida venue through Jan. 3. Davidson will be followed by Marilyn Maye (Jan. 6-10, Jan. 13-17, Jan. 20-24), Sylvia McNair (Jan. 27-31, Feb. 3-7), Faith Prince (Feb. 10-14, Feb. 17-21), Jack Jones (Feb. 24-28, March 3-7), Ann Hampton Callaway (March 10-14, March 17-21), Maestro Bob Lappin (March 24-28), Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. (March 31-April 4, April 7-11) and Maureen McGovern (April 14-18, April 21-25). Doors open at 6:45 PM for 8 PM shows. The Colony Hotel is located at 155 Hammon Avenue in Palm Beach, FL. For reservations call (561) 659-8100.

Once Upon a Time and Tomorrow: The Best of Charles Strouse is the title of an upcoming evening at Carnegie Hall that will pay tribute to the Tony Award-winning composer of Annie, Applause and Bye Bye Birdie. Presented by and featuring The New York Pops — conducted by Martin Yates — the concert will be held April 3 in Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium. Show time is 8 PM. Among those currently scheduled to lend their talents to the evening are Barry Bostwick, Gregg Edelman, Tony winner Debbie Gravitte, Rebecca Luker, Karen Mason, Emma Rowley and Eric Jordan Young. The concert will also feature the Young People's Chorus of New York City under the direction of Francisco J. Núñez. Tickets, priced $29-$100, are available by visiting www.carnegie-hall.org. Annie Golden, most recently on Broadway in Xanadu, will be Patrick DeGennaro's guest star at his upcoming concert at Birdland. As part of the Broadway at Birdland series, singer-songwriter DeGennaro will play the famed jazz club Jan. 19 at 7 PM. DeGennaro will be backed by his band, which features Alec Berlin on guitar, Randy Landau on bass, Clayton Craddock on drums and John Roggie on keyboards. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $25 cover charge and a $10 food/drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.BirdlandJazz.com.

Eartha Kitt
photo by David Turner/Studio D

And, of course, I couldn't end the first column of the New Year without paying tribute to the singular sensation that was Eartha Kitt, who lost her battle with colon cancer Christmas Day at the age of 81. Kitt, who could do more with a single purr than many performers can do with the entire English language, graced Broadway several times throughout her illustrious career and was rewarded with Tony Award nominations for her work in Timbuktu! (1978) and The Wild Party (2000). I had the privilege of catching the zesty, sometimes campy singer, actress and best-selling author several times in New York cabarets, and she was never less than thrilling, a performer who knew how to grasp her audience and never let them go. During my one interview with Kitt, who was last on Broadway in the Tony-winning revival of Nine, she had this to say when asked what she would like to people to think when they heard the name Eartha Kitt: "I'd like them to remember me as a versatile artist of the business." Indeed, she was versatile and unlike anyone who had come before her . . . or since. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.