Kim Criswell, who has spent much of the past decade performing on theatre and concert stages in the U.K., has thankfully returned to the States for her latest role, that hostess-with-the-mostes, Mrs. Sally Adams, in the Goodspeed Musicals production of Call Me Madam. One of the more exciting belters around, Criswell is currently thrilling audiences with such Irving Berlin tunes as "Hostess with the Mostes'," "Washington Square Dance," "Can You Use Any Money Today?" and the classic duet "You're Just in Love." Criswell also triumphed in another Berlin musical, the West End production of Annie Get Your Gun, for which she garnered an Olivier Award nomination. I recently had the chance to chat with the talented singer actress, who spoke about her current role, her work on the London stage and her upcoming recording. That interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with this production of Call Me Madam?
Kim Criswell: I've been living in England, and a friend of mine who used to be my agent in the States called and said, "What about you coming over to Goodspeed to do Call Me Madam?" Another friend of mine, Jimmy Brennan, was directing it. And I said, "Well, yeah, okay, that's a good thing," so I just pursued it because I thought I haven't been over in awhile, and this is a great role, and it's something I've wanted to do. I had done it last year in a concert version on Radio 3 with the BBC. I had already done it and tried it on for size a little bit and thought, Well I should actually do this!
Q: Have you ever worked at Goodspeed before? What's the experience been like?
KC: No, I never have. It's like going to musical-comedy summer camp [Laughs]. It's great fun. It's a good gang of people, and it's all very family oriented. We are a family here.
Q: How did you know the director?
KC: I had called [James Brennan] a couple of years ago. I had done a production of Lady Be Good at an opera company in Venice. And, it was such a success that they wanted to do it again in Lisbon at the opera company there. The male lead in that, the Fred Astaire role, was originally done by George Dvorsky, but he wasn't available for the second production, so I called and got Jimmy Brennan to come and do it. I had worked with him as an actor. I do a lot of what I call address-book casting. [Laughs.] I call up friends and go, "Do you want to come to Lisbon for a month?" We had a ball doing that.
Q: Your home base is now London. How did that transition come about?
KC: It was about 12 years ago. For starters, I was asked to sign a record deal by EMI Records, which is EMI UK. I had been doing recordings regularly for EMI Classics, which is also based in the U.K., in London. Then, they signed me to a pop deal, and it just made sense for me to be there. To clinch it, every time I would go over and do a record or do something that had to do with a record, I would always end up being offered something else — a domino effect. So, in this particular case, I had recorded Annie Get Your Gun for EMI Classics. Right before that record came out, somebody asked me to do a one-woman show, so I came over and did that, and when I was there, a producer, Ronny Lee, came to me and said, "Do you want to do Annie Get Your Gun in the West End?" So I said, "Well sure." That's what actually took me over there, and in the course of life and all those things, I fell in love and got married and stayed . . . It is a great city. To do what I do, there are really three cities in the world that are appropriate for me to live in — London, New York and L.A. — and I've tried them all on for size. At that point, certainly, London looked like the best idea because I had a record deal over there and there were a lot of opportunities coming my way. Q: You just mentioned having done Annie Get Your Gun, and now you're doing Call Me Madam. It seems like you have a real affinity for Irving Berlin's music.
KC: I tend to now make the majority of my living doing concert things, whether it's just straight concerts or concert versions of musicals, but it all seems to be stuff from the Golden Age. So, it's not just Berlin. It's Berlin, it's Porter, it's Gershwin, it's Kern, Weill. Over the years I've gotten quite friendly with all the various estates, which has been very handy because they've been very helpful with getting material for me and helping me to find things. Normally, what I do is run around and do a concert of, say, Gershwin and Rodgers with a symphony orchestra. It's rare for me to be singing with less than 60 players.
Q: Do you have a favorite song or moment in Call Me Madam?
KC: Oh, there are too many to count really! I really like it, and I was surprised. I was surprised by how much I liked the role because I didn't think I'd like it as much as, say, Annie Oakley. I think I like it better. I think it's more fun to play than Annie Oakley was — maybe it was to do with the production or the people or who knows? — Annie Oakley was hard work. This one, the way it's structured — it's just as much work because God knows I'm on stage all night, but it doesn't feel as difficult, as tiring.
Q: I recently went out to the Paper Mill Playhouse to see the 20th anniversary production of Baby, and I was wondering what some of your memories are of the original production.
KC: Oh wow. Well, you know, of course, that I didn't stay with the production very long. I was in the show because Richard [Maltby Jr.] and David [Shire], the writers, they wanted me in the show, so they sort of put something in for me to do, which was an enormous compliment. And the thing that they put in was a song called "In One Cell," but it was a character that didn't need to be there. [Laughs.] The show was just not about her, and we never really did figure out why she was there. We had a technical glitch when we were trying to put the show into the theatre, and the orchestra was in the pit. Some of [my] number was on a synthesizer track, and the orchestra came in halfway through live. There was a delay in the theatre, so it was absolutely, completely out of synch. What they were playing with the track that they were hearing was not in sync with the track that I was hearing on stage. We tried it once in the theatre — we had rehearsed it the whole rehearsal period. About halfway through, I kind of went, "Guys, who should I be singing with — the tape or the orchestra? Which would you like?" [Laughs.] And we never solved the problem, but I think what it brought home is it just didn't need to be there. They would have liked me to stay in the ensemble, I think, but I had an out in my contract in case the song got cut. So, I did exercise the out, not because I didn't like them but because I didn't want to sit around and be unhappy. I had signed on not as a chorus person. I was in the ensemble, but I had a feature, and I didn't want to go backwards with that. But very, very amicably I gave my notice on opening night, and I even helped them find a replacement, and I came back and did the cast album a few months later. So it was all very amicable, but I did indeed quit on opening night! [Laughs.] 'Cause I said, "Look, I'll hang on through all the previews. I won't try to leave . . . It will give you a problem if I leave in previews. So what I'll do is I'll wait till opening night, you'll have the reviews, you'll know — that'll give you an extra two weeks — you'll know whether you need to replace me or not, whether you're going to run the show or not from the reviews."
Q: Do you have a preference for doing a show in a concert form or in a regular staged production?
KC: Because I'm an actress, I really love doing shows, but I often get to a point where I go, "Okay, no more eight-shows-a-week. It's wearing me out." So, whenever I say that, it usually follows through. It's funny, be careful what you ask for, you'll get it. [Laughs.] After I did Annie Get Your Gun in the West End, I went, "You know what? No more eight shows a week for a while." I want to have more creative control of the product. When you're putting together a concert, you do. I put all those things together for myself these days. It's very rarely the situation where I'm not doing the programming.
Q: Do you enjoy that aspect of it?
KC: I do. And sometimes I get tired of that and I just go, "Oh, I just want to go be an employee and let someone else be in charge." [Laughs.] The key is to find a situation like we have here, which is a director that I really respect and like and love working with and who can make me better. You don't always get that. Sometimes you get a director who is no help at all, and you spend all of your time trying to politically step around him because you're either at cross purposes or they don't know how to help you or you don't respect their ideas. Unfortunately, this has been known to happen in England enough that I know that it's not something you can count on that [you are going to] find a director that you think is fantastic. I've worked with some really great directors, but I've also worked with some that just made me roll my eyes. [Laughs.] And in England — the fact is, American musical theatre is an American art form, and we're brought up doing it, but they're not. There's a lot of stuff that we learned in Musical Comedy 101 that they still don't know yet, sometimes. It depends on who you're dealing with. Some of them know it, and some of them don't . . .
Q: Do you have any new recordings in the works?
KC: I do, actually. Because of [Call Me Madam], John Yap, a producer I work with at TER/Jay Records, and I had a conversation. We had some tracks that I had already done of various Irving Berlin songs in the can. In fact, we have five tracks from Call Me Madam that we had done but had not been released, so we decided to put together an Irving Berlin album, which we kind of raced to do. I think it's probably being pressed as we speak. That should be turning up in the next two or three weeks. It's called "Something to Dance About: The Music of Irving Berlin."
Q: What current composers do you admire?
KC: I would say that my favorite of this generation is — I love Steve Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, but then I was predisposed to because I went to college with Stephen. [Laughs.] He's just one of the nicest people on the planet and so is Lynn. I'm really delighted at their success. I think they're really good. I think they're fantastic. There are a couple of writers over in England called Stiles and Drew, who are also very nice guys who are also quite good. I think they're kind of the best new writing team over there. I don't know anything about the people who wrote Urinetown. I don't know where they came from, but boy do I think they're good. They're going in a really good direction — they're clever, clever writers. David Zippel — I've always had a huge amount of respect for David Zippel. It just depends on which composer he's with and what they're working on as to how it turns out. I think David is consistently good. Bill Finn. He's not really a new composer, but I am such a fan of his. I think he's just wonderful because he's got a really unique voice.
Q: Anything else planned for you after Goodspeed?
KC: Well, I'm concentrating on [Call Me Madam] for now. I have to go back next weekend [to London] — I have a solo concert with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. After that I've got concerts scattered around, but I'm very open to the idea of something popping up over here because I like being back here. I'm one of those people who's uniquely placed just due to the luck of the cards. I can work either place — I have the legal status to work on either side of the ocean without having to do any swapping around with Equity, and not many people have that status. . . I'm looking around to see what's out there!
Call Me Madam will play the Goodspeed through July 3. Tickets, priced $24-$53, are available by calling (860) 873-8668 or by visiting www.goodspeed.org.
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK I heard great things about the Roundabout Theatre Company's recent Spring Gala at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Directed by Scott Ellis, the April 26 evening paid tribute to the works of Tony Award winners John Kander and Fred Ebb and featured appearances by Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer and Susan Stroman — the latter discussed her big break as choreographer of the revival of Kander and Ebb's Flora, the Red Menace. The star-studded gala boasted performances by Marin Mazzie, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth Joel Grey, Debra Monk, Michele Pawk, Karen Ziemba, Brent Barrett, Natasha Richardson, John Benjamin Hickey, Brenda Pressley, Jason Alexander and Liza Minnelli. Mazzie, I was told, brought down the house with her comedic version of "Ring Them Bells"; other songs heard included "Mister Cellophane" (Alexander), "Everybody's Girl" (Monk), "I Don't Remember You" (Barrett), "All I Need Is One Good Break" (Ziemba), "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (Neuwirth) and "And the World Goes Round" (Minnelli) . . . . How exciting that WNYC (New York Public radio) will broadcast the May 7 performance of Candide — starring Patti LuPone and Kristin Chenoweth — live at 8 PM! Diva lovers should tune in to WNYC 93.9 FM, and the musical will also be available via webstream at www.WNYC.org. Margaret Juntwait will host the broadcast, which will feature interviews with conductor Marin Aslop as well as members of the star-studded cast. The history of Candide will be explored by Sara Fishko and will include chats with lyricist Richard Wilbur and original Cunegonde Barbara Cook. WNYC's "Evening Music" — hosted by David Garland — will salute the works of Leonard Bernstein in the hour leading up to the live broadcast. Backed by the New York Philharmonic, Candide will star Tony Award winners Chenoweth and LuPone as, respectively, Cunegonde and The Old Lady. They will be joined by tenor Paul Groves in the title role, tenor Stanford Olsen as Governor/Vanderdendur/Ragotski and baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Pangloss/Martin. The musical, which will play Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall May 5-8, will be directed by Lonny Price. Single tickets, priced $50-$150, are available by calling (212) 875-5656. . . . Variety reported earlier this week that PBS plans to air the 1957 television broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" starring Julie Andrews. In fact, PBS, Andrews and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization have joined forces to rebroadcast the classic television musical prior to its release on DVD by Image Entertainment. The search is on for a color copy of the fifties musical; however, if one is not found, it will be distributed in black-and-white. Andrews will also narrate the upcoming six-part documentary "Broadway: The American Musical." The six hour program will examine the Broadway musical from the turn-of-the century to today, including a spotlight on the new Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked. . . . May will be a busy month for the Tony-nominated co-star of Side Show, Alice Ripley. Ripley will begin a stint as a Las Vegas showgirl on "All My Children" May 17. Ripley will encounter Erica Kane (Emmy Award winner Susan Lucci), who travels to Sin City to begin a new life far away from Pine Valley. Kane will catch the eye of a producer, who casts her in one of his Vegas extravaganzas featuring Ripley. Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky will also appear on the ABC soap, playing a choreographer. And, on May 2, Ripley will return to the concert stage when she and her band, Ripley, offer a program of all-new tunes at Arlene's Grocery. The New York hotspot is located at 95 Stanton Street, and show time is 9 PM. Visit www.arlene-grocery.com for more information. . . . The Broadway Spotlight series, which presents concerts with stars of the musical theatre, will offer its second annual evening of "Broadway Understudies" May 3. The concert will feature understudies from a host of Broadway musicals performing the tunes they rarely get the chance to sing for paying audiences. The line-up is set to include Bombay Dreams' Aaron Albano (Akaash); Wonderful Town's Nancy Anderson (Eileen); Rent's Sebastian Arcelus (Roger); Wicked's Kristy Cates (Elphaba); Avenue Q's Barrett Foa (Princeton, Rod) and Aymee Garcia (Kate Monster, Lucy); and Assassins' Kendra Kassebaum (Squeaky) and Brandon Wardell (John Hinkley). Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky will be the musical director for the evening, which begins at 8 PM. The Ars Nova Theater is located in Manhattan at 511 West 54th Street. Tickets are priced at $15; doors open at 7:30 PM. Call (212) 868-4444 for tickets or go to www.SmartTix.com. . . . TRIO television network will salute the one-and-only Dame Edna Everage Sunday, May 30. The pop culture network will present a day long tribute to the wacky, lovable creation of writer-actor Barry Humphries. Included will be the U.S. premiere of the concert special "Dame Edna—Live at the Palace," which will air at 9 PM ET. Other Dame Edna titles scheduled for the day include "The Dame Edna Experience 1," "The Dame Edna Experience 2" and "Dame Edna—A Night on Mount Edna." (A repeat broadcast of "Dame Edna—Live at the Palace" will air at midnight that evening.) . . . And, finally, I couldn't end this week's column without a nod to John Tartaglia, the Avenue Q charmer who returned to the Ars Nova Theater Monday night for his second "Broadway Spotlight" appearance. With special guests Jennifer Barnhart and Aymee Garcia, the talented singer-actor-puppeteer ended his delightful hour-long show with Q's Rod delivering a show-stopping (and hysterically funny) version of Gypsy's "Rose's Turn." Hopefully he'll reprise the Gypsy gem at next season's Gypsy of the Year competition.
Liz Callaway in Concert:
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
May 5-8 in Candide with the NY Philharmonic in New York, NY
May 18-30 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Louise Pitre in Concert:
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!