Alison Fraser has long been one of my favorite gals ever since I heard the original cast recording of March of the Falsettos during my freshman year of college. The charming and talented Fraser even agreed to an interview for a radio program I hosted during college, and it was at that time when I first heard her beautiful rendition of "New York Romance," which was written by her late husband, the wonderful musician and composer Rusty Magee. Since that time I've had the pleasure of seeing Fraser's Tony nominated performances in Romance, Romance and The Secret Garden, and last year she reprised her comedic and touching performance as Trina in Playwrights Horizons' Falsettos anniversary concert. Fraser is now lending her unique talents to the George Street Playhouse's production of Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which runs at the New Jersey theatre through March 7. A recent review in the New Jersey Star-Ledger said this about Fraser's performance in the McNally opus: "Chloe, who's a community theater actress, is impeccably played by Alison Fraser. She's part divine diva, part flibbertigibbet, and all free spirit. The way she saunters across the stage, turns, and delivers a line is mouth-opening amazing. Yet when Chloe must come down to earth, Fraser can come down to brass tacks — and use them to burst anyone's balloons." I recently had the chance to chat with Fraser about her current role and her many upcoming projects. That brief interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with this production? Had you ever worked at George Street before?
Alison Fraser: My darling agent, Tony Cloer, decided it was high time to get me back on the boards, so he sent me to audition for [the role of] Chloe at Pat McCorkle's office. It's difficult for me to work out of town because of my single-mother status, but George Street is an easy commute, and the powers that be there were really great about facilitating my accepting the role. I had never worked at the Playhouse before, but [artistic director] David Saint had cast me in his Tartuffe—Born Again at Circle in the Square a few years back, so I knew that I would be in very good hands. I felt an immediate affection and admiration for our wonderful director Michael Morris, and my castmates — Deirdre Madigan, Kevin Carolan and John Bolger — couldn't be more terrific. It's been a tough few years for me because of what happened to my husband [the late Rusty Magee], and I felt it was very important to be in supportive and loving company for the year's anniversary of his death. I wound up in exactly the right place.
Q: Is this your first time acting in a Terrence McNally play? Had you seen the original production of Lips Together?
AF: This is my first time working in one of Mr. McNally's plays, and I must say it's like being a kid in a candy shop. Delicious, delicious! A lot of the work I do involves original material, and that has its own rewards and challenges. It's marvelous to create a role, but there's a lot of angst involved. I feel it's my duty to protect my character within the confines of the piece, and I have to make sure that it's done intelligently and diplomatically. I fear I have failed on both counts in the past. With an extant play, especially one written by one of our national treasures, the only work I have to do is play the superb piece. What luxury! I had never seen the play before, but of course I can imagine that Christine Baranski was fantastic. I hope I do her Chloe justice. I say 'her Chloe' because she originated her, so it will always be part hers.
Q: Tell me a bit about the character of Chloe.
AF: Chloe is a small-town diva — a high-spirited woman with a lot of pizzazz who uses flamboyance and optimism as a way of dealing with incredible pain and anger in her life. She is passionate about her family, and her avocation of community theatre star (and occasional usher) provides her with great solace. She's bright, funny, capable and charming, but she somehow manages to drive everyone around her crazy. Her joie de vivre can be tiresome, but her inner strength and generous heart are not to be denied. It's a great privilege to be in her parade of fabulous shoes every night.
Q: The anniversary concert of March of the Falsettos was really thrilling. What was it like revisiting the role of Trina?
AF: Revisiting Falsettos, especially at such a stressful time in my life, was an unbelievably intense experience. Rusty was in his last stages of cancer, and it was to be the last show he would ever see. He had to be carried up the stairs to the theatre because he was in a wheelchair, and the elevator in the brand-new Playwrights Horizons Theatre wasn't working yet. He died three weeks later, but I know that making the effort to be there was incredibly important to him and, of course, to me.
As for the material itself, when I originated the role of Trina, I was far too young. I was in my early twenties, yet I was supposed to be the mother of a 13-year-old child. I really thought when James Lapine came aboard after the workshop of Four Jews In a Room Bitching and added the Jason concept, that I would be sent on my merry way. Bye, bye Alison! Of course, it didn't happen that way, for which I am forever grateful. But doing the material at a more appropriate age and with the added life experience that being the mother of an actual 13-year-old [Nat] brings, was incredibly fulfilling. I felt much more three-dimensional, and appreciably stronger. When Marvin hit me, I wasn't devastated — I felt sorry for him. And, rather than feeling like I had settled by accepting Mendel, I felt like I had fallen deeply and maturely in love. It was a glorious feeling. Singing 'Happy Men' was one of the best moments I've ever had on a stage. And, of course, to do 'Breaking Down' in the context of the piece was really exciting. I've been doing it in concert for years, but to lead up to it and explode was sooooo much fun. I'll always be grateful to Tim at Playwrights for asking me to be a part of that awesome night.
Q: Do you have plans for a new album?
AF: Yes indeedy, I do! I can't wait to get back in the studio with Chris McGovern, who produced "Men In My Life" and Rebecca Luker's new CD "Leaving Home." I do a duet of "Wick" with [Luker], and she sings one of Rusty's songs "Coming Apart" on it. She also dedicated the CD to his memory, which touches me deeply.
Q: Are there any other theatre projects you're involved with — workshops, readings . . . ?
AF: All of a sudden I have a stack of really exciting scripts that I am involved with in one capacity or another — Rob Hartman's hugely clever and affecting The Vanishing Point; Kia Heath and Mark Gaylord's exquisite Far From the Madding Crowd; the Zellnick Brothers' elegant and disturbing City of Dreams; Randy Cohen's bitingly funny Boswell piece, Reprehensible Passage; Jon Brielle's steamy Nightmare Alley; Norman Noll's droll and witty The Chromium Hook in which I sing an aria in a straightjacket! How much fun is that? I don't know if I'll eventually wind up in any of these, but I try to get these scripts in the hands of people that can help get them produced. I love Chris [McGovern's] Lizzie Borden and would love to have another crack at that, and then, of course, there's the whole Rusty canon to promote. I believe there is a concert version of The Green Heart in the planning stages, to be recorded by John Yap. It will be great to have a CD of that show, because the score really is terrific. I am also involved with a new version of Tom Jones, so if it works out, I might do that, and I am on the committee to choose new musicals to be workshopped under the aegis of Ensemble Studio Theatre's new Rusty Magee Music Project Award. It's very exciting stuff, and I know Rusty would have approved mightily of the promotion of new musicals.
(The George Street Playhouse is located in New Jersey at 9 Livingston Avenue. Tickets are available by calling 732-246-7717 or by visiting www.georgestplayhouse.org.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: The cast for the upcoming Broadway By the Year series, produced and hosted by Scott Siegel, has been announced. The March 15 event will salute the Broadway musicals of 1935, including Jumbo, Jubilee, May Wine and Porgy & Bess. Among the stars interpreting songs from that season will be Little Shop of Horrors' Douglas Sills, The Life's Chuck Cooper, Side Show's Emily Skinner, Show Boat's Gretha Boston, Hairspray's Barbara Walsh and Marie Christine's Darius de Haas as well as Todd Murray, Laurie Williamson and Lumiri Tubo. (Christine Andreas, who had recently been added to the line-up, has withdrawn due to a previous scheduling conflict.) Tickets for Broadway By the Year: 1935 are priced at $45 and are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or (212) 840-2824. Town Hall is located at 123 West 43rd Street. Visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org for more information. . . . The acclaimed revival of Gypsy — starring two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters as Momma Rose — will offer two performances to benefit the Actors' Fund of America next month. On March 7 and 14 at 3 PM, the company of the classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical will perform benefit performances for the non-profit organization. Tickets, priced at $101.25, are now on sale by calling (212) 221-7300, ext. 133. Those who purchase orchestra or front-mezzanine tickets through the Actors' Fund will have the chance to participate in a discussion with the cast and creative team ofGypsy following each performance. . . . Get those VCRs ready! This season's "Evening at Pops" television series will feature broadcasts with Tony Award winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kristin Chenoweth and former Kiss of the Spider Woman star Vanessa Williams. The Emmy Award winning PBS series, featuring the Boston Pops orchestra, will also offer an evening celebrating Keith Lockhart's tenth season as conductor. The retrospective episode will include past performances by such Broadway favorites as Nathan Lane, Martin Short, Jason Alexander, Sarah Jessica Parker, Audra McDonald and Elaine Paige as well as k.d. lang, Dawn Upshaw, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Diana Krall and Penn and Teller. The May 24 taping — led by former conductor John Williams — will pay tribute to film composers Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrmann. Mitchell — of Ragtime and Kiss Me, Kate fame — will perform such Mancini classics as "Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses. The May 29 performance will feature the talents of pop star and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. McDonald will perform selections from his "Motown" album; the evening will also include Cape Breton fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster. Vanessa Williams will be part of the June 7 taping, which pays tribute to landmark black Broadway musicals and their stars. And, the final taping on June 10 will boast Wicked's Chenoweth. That evening will honor movie musicals that went on to become Broadway hits and Broadway musicals that became movie hits. . . . Three-time Olivier Award winner Maria Friedman has landed the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical The Woman in White. Friedman will join former Phantom Michael Crawford, who will play the Italian villain Count Fosco in the musical, which begins previews Aug. 28 at London's Palace Theatre. In a statement composer Lloyd Webber said, "I am delighted that Michael has accepted the delicious role of Count Fosco, a character of overpowering charisma and integrity, and one of the best villains in Victorian fiction. It is fantastic that we have lured such a great international star back to the West End where he belongs." The Woman in White officially opens Sept. 15, 2004. Directed by Trevor Nunn, the musical features lyrics by David Zippel and a book by Charlotte Jones. For more information visit www.womaninwhitethemusical.com. . . . A host of Broadway performers will take part in a concert for the Artists Showcase Series on Sunday, April 4. Entitled The Broadway Kitchen Sink Volume One: Your Favorites Sing Their Favorites, the evening at Makor will feature the talents of Rent's Anthony Rapp, Cabaret's Kate Shindle, Taboo's Cary Shields, 42nd Street's Kate Levering, The Boy From Oz's Stephanie J. Block, Nine's Sara Gettelfinger, Hairspray's Shoshana Bean, Bare's Michael Arden and veteran singer-actress Anita Gillette. Performers are scheduled to sing their favorite tunes from the stage or screen. Show time is 7:30 PM. Geoffrey Soffer created the Artists Showcase Series to present readings of new plays and musicals as well as concerts featuring stars from the worlds of Broadway, cabaret, television and film. Proceeds from the concerts go to a selected charity chosen by the various artists. The series will also present An Evening with Julie Gold, the Grammy and MAC Award-winning singer-songwriter, on March 7 at 7:30 PM. Makor is located in Manhattan at 35 West 67th Street. Tickets are priced at $15 and are available by calling (212) 601-1000. For more information, visit www.makor.org.
Next week: Sweeney Todd's Elaine Paige
Betty Buckley in Concert:
March 2-27 at the Cafe Carlyle in New York, NY
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
Feb. 29 with Stephen Schwartz and Friends in Wilton, CT
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
March 17-21 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
March 29-April 1 at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, CA
April 3 at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, TN
April 6-24 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
May 5-8 in Candide with the NY Philharmonic in New York, NY
Louise Pitre in Concert:
February 28 at the Sanderson Performing Arts in Brantford, ON
February 29 at the Silverthorn C.I. Auditorium in Toronto, ON
November 4 at the Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, ON
November 5 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts in Oakville, ON
November 6 at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium in Welland, ON
November 11 at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, ON
November 12 at the Imperial Oil Centre in Sarnia, ON
November 17 at the Markham Theatre in Markham, ON
November 20 at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, ON
November 21 at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, ON
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!