DIVA TALK: A Chat with Caroline's Tonya Pinkins, a Gypsy Thank You, Headley Comes Home and "Idol" Thoughts

News   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Caroline's Tonya Pinkins, a Gypsy Thank You, Headley Comes Home and "Idol" Thoughts
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change
Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change Photo by Michal Daniel

TONYA PINKINS

Tonya Pinkins' day begins around 6 AM with spiritual meditation and breakfast with her four children — Maxx (16), Myles (13), Maija (7) and Manuel (5) — before traveling from her Jersey City home into Manhattan, where she takes her kids to school and heads to the ABC studios to film her role as attorney Livia Frye Cudahy on "All My Children." Pinkins' days also often include voice lessons and massages, followed by dinner with her children. And, oh yes, eight times a week she stars in the title role of the Tony-nominated musical Caroline, or Change, offering what may be the most moving musical-theatre performance of the season.

As I've written before, Pinkins is never less than captivating in the musical, which explores Caroline's humble existence against a backdrop of social change prior to and following the assassination of President Kennedy. She completely inhabits the role of the dispirited and physically and emotionally exhausted Caroline. Possessing a thrilling, rich belt that she pours out repeatedly in the poignant production, Pinkins literally stops the show with her second-act tour de force, "Lot's Wife." It's an often grim, devastatingly real performance, and Pinkins is consistently moving, whether she's letting her anger spew at her college-attending friend Dotty or her employer's son Noah; hugging her daughter Emmie; or opening her soul and battlefield-of-a heart in the aforementioned "Wife." Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the Tony-nominated actress; that interview follows.

Question: How did you originally become involved with Caroline, or Change?
Tonya Pinkins: I was invited to do a reading by [director] George C. Wolfe. [It's our fourth] project together. We did The Wild Party together, we did Caucasian Chalk Circle together, and he wrote my very first nightclub act at Sweetwater's about 20 years ago. Q: What's Wolfe like working with as a director?
TP: He's extraordinary. He and I just have a very, very special connection that, I think, transcends lives, quite frankly. He's really smart and he's really funny, so being in the room with him is always a lot of fun. And, his mind is just extraordinary. We always say about Caroline that they'll be a lot of "bad, sentimental productions" of it after this one because his sensibility is so irreverent and so against the grain. He's always adding interesting detail. His attention to detail is extraordinary. You think he's not going to notice — he notices every single choice you're making, even if it's an internal choice. He's aware of all of it.

Q: I was really moved by the show and your performance. How do you think your performance has changed — or has it changed since the Off-Broadway production?
TP: Thank you. Well, they're two different shows — even just the stage at the Public is so much bigger, eight feet bigger, and then you had this smaller audience, so there was a sense at the Public that the audience was actually in the basement with you. There was a sense for them, I think, of being a little more — people [are] moved now, at the Public they were wrecked. [Laughs.] They couldn't get out of that basement, and you'd just look out in the audience and see people wiping up pools of tears. I think here there was the adjustment of not having so much space, the space is so much smaller, and yet we were looking out at so many more people. And making the decision of whether you play [to] the balcony or not. Ultimately I decided I would not play the balcony, that they would just be sort of like the people at the Public who got to look down into the basement, this fly-on-the-wall view.

Q: Do you know anyone like Caroline, or is there anyone who influenced your performance? What did you drawn on?
TP: I think Caroline is a lot of women, and certainly most of my ancestors that I know, there is some of Caroline in them; and she's in me, just what it is to struggle to raise children alone, so I know that on a very personal level.

Q: How do you go about preparing each night for the show? Is the performance as draining as it seems it would be?
TP: Gosh, that seems to be the proverbial question. [Laughs.]

Q: From the audience, it looks like it's such an emotional journey for you. But that's part of your craft, so perhaps it doesn't take a personal toll every night.
TP: [Laughs.] Everybody's been asking me this question. I think my preparation for Caroline has less to do with what I do before I go onstage as it has to do with how I live my life. I've never had a role in my life that, to me, is so much about something other than just the part itself — it's so much greater than the sum of the parts. I'm very aware that Caroline is touching something in people that's intangible, so so much of my work, for me, has to do with my own spiritual disciplines, about being out of the way so that whatever this is that comes through this piece can come through as purely as possible. So, it's a lot about emptying myself and getting rid of as much of my ideas of me, so that whatever this energy is can through. Somebody, I think, is going to come and film me preparing, and there's nothing to see. [Laughs.] I don't do anything. I live my life and I have children, so I could be on the phone after half-hour if there's something going on in my life. I'm handling my life, just as Caroline has to [handle hers].

Q: Do you try to watch vocally what you do during the day?
TP: No, I can't. I have kids . . . [Laughs.]

Q: And you're also filming "All My Children" at the same time, right? TP: Yes. Q: Take me through your average day. What time do you wake up in the morning?
TP: I'm up anywhere between 6 and 6:45, and then I have my own spiritual disciplines that I do, and then I get my kids up and either make them breakfast or get them dressed and get them on the train and we eat breakfast in the city. And I take them to school. Once I've dropped them off at school, I might have a voice lesson or I might have a massage or in the last few weeks, we've had a lot of awards ceremonies and luncheons, so that's filled the day. And I've been in the process of moving during this — so a lot of moving and unpacking, and now I'm into school registration. Then I go in and do the show.

Q: And you also film "All My Children" . . .
TP: On a day that I'm filming "All My Children," I usually have to get someone else to take my kids to school because I have to be in earlier. I take the Path Train in from Jersey City, which is where I'm living now, and then I would get someone else to meet me in the city with my kids and take them to school while I head up to "All My Children." And then they let me out in time to do the show, so I go straight from there to the theatre. Sometimes I have my kids come over to the theatre and have dinner with me, or they'll come up to "All My Children" and eat, depending on what else is going on in the course of the day.

Q: Do you have a favorite scene in the show or a moment you look forward to?
TP: I look forward to Grandpa Stopnick's scene. I love that scene because the audience is so exuberant with laughter and knowing that that is also the essence of what is going to be the turning point in the piece as well.

Q: At the end of the show, Caroline returns to work for the Gellmans. Do you have an idea of what happens to her after that point?
TP: No, I think that's the beauty of the piece, that Tony [Kushner] leaves it open, and I think that's one of the ways in which it moves people so much because he didn't put a bow on it, so you can't leave and go, "That worked out nice." [Laughs.] So you're left with our own stuff.

Q: I think it was a shock for most people when it was announced that Gregory Hines had passed away. I wonder what some of your memories are of working with him on Jelly's Last Jam.
TP: I remember that he was the most charming person I'd ever met. I had spent time with him walking down the street or just being in his dressing room, and what I was most keenly aware of about him is that if he was having a conversation with someone — it could be a fan on the street, it could be anyone — no matter what else was going on, he did not give that any attention. He was completely focused on the person in front of him. The assistant could be tapping his shoulder, the phone could be ringing. He was very focused and complete with each person that he had an exchange with; that's something I really admired about him. And he was just great to work with onstage because he was so playful, and he was so comfortable with improvisation and loved it so much that it made it fun every night. We had the structure of the lines and the structure of the blocking, but within that we could play and have a really fun time.

Q: Do you feel you're able to do that with Caroline?
TP: There is a little room for play with Caroline. You just never how it's going to turn out. I really believe every audience creates the show they need to see, so there are things that happen, ways that things come out, that are different every night.

Q: Would you tour with Caroline?
TP: I would love to tour with it.

Q: What are your thoughts about the upcoming Tony Awards?
TP: I am very excited. I'm very excited to get to do "Lot's Wife" because I think there's something about it. People compare it to "Rose's Turn," but "Rose's Turn" isn't that same journey. It is, but when I think of "Rose's Turn," I think of it as more of a victorious song, where this is not, and I think that this really takes people somewhere that people don't go very often. And it's very exciting to get to do that in a room full of people who are all made up and dressed up because of the effect I know that it tends to have!

GYPSY

This weekend, the critically acclaimed revival of Gypsy — starring two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters as Momma Rose — ends its year-long run at the Shubert Theatre. I just wanted to say thank you to Peters and the entire cast of the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents musical for a memorable year of theatregoing. I was lucky enough to catch the Sam Mendes-directed production five times throughout its run, beginning with the show's first preview and, most recently, two weeks ago. It was always a completely moving experience, an emotional journey through life's possibilities and disappointments, dreams realized and dreams unfulfilled. As thrilling as the performances were when the show opened, Peters and her co-stars somehow managed to continue to grow in their roles, finding more and more dramatic and comedic moments, while subtly shading and coloring their work. I have long been an admirer of Peters, thrilled by her performances in such musicals as Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Song & Dance and Annie Get Your Gun; yet her work in Gypsy seemed to mark a new chapter in her career, completely shedding her endearing persona and fully delving into the psyche of the powerhouse that is Momma Rose. Her performance of "Rose's Turn" will remain one of the great theatregoing experiences, and I'm anxious to see what this formidable talent tackles next.

HEATHER HEADLEY

Singer-actress Heather Headley came Home this week to the New Amsterdam Theatre, offering a one-night-only concert Monday night to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS' Children and Families Initiative. The Aida Tony winner, sporting long hair and a wedding band, was in tremendous voice, opening her show with The Wiz anthem "Home," and the enthusiastic crowd welcomed Headley with a roar of applause. Headley's two-act concert seemed to chart her career: The first half focused on theatre songs, including tunes from Aida, The Lion King and Ragtime, while the second half featured pop tunes, including several from Headley's Grammy-nominated recording, "This Is Who I Am." There was also a heavy dose of gospel numbers as well as several guest artists who also shone in the concert directed by Graciela Daniele. Among the first act's highlights were three duets — "Sarah Brown Eyes" with Norm Lewis, "Written in the Stars" with Adam Pascal and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" with Clay Aiken — as well as a jazzy "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," the A Chorus Line ballad "Nothing" and a belty "The Music That Makes Me Dance," dedicated to her new husband. Headley began the second act with the Aretha Franklin hit "Chain of Fools" and also offered a tribute to another of her vocal mentors, Gladys Knight, with "Neither One Of Us." She performed four tunes from "This Is Who I Am" — "He Is," "I Wish I Wasn't," "Fallin, for You" and "If It Wasn't for Your Love" — and also welcomed the Broadway Inspirational Voices under the direction of Big River Tony nominee Michael McElroy. A few gospel tunes brought the sold-out audience to its feet, and star Headley emotionally thanked everyone for following her through all the phases of her career.

"AMERICAN IDOL" THOUGHTS: PART II

As I had hoped, North Carolina native Fantasia Barrino was named the "American Idol" during the show's finale Wednesday night. It was a close race between Barrino and 16-year-old Diana DeGarmo, who demonstrated the power and range of her voice during Tuesday night's showdown. But it was Barrino who had consistently shown her star quality, even if a bit of understandable nerves seemed to diminish her usual enthusiasm during Tuesday and Wednesday night's performances. But the 19-year-old had won numerous fans (including myself) throughout the entire "American Idol" season, and she accepted the title as she wept onstage and her family did the same in the audience. It was an especially moving moment for the single mother, who somehow managed to get through what will be her new single, "I Believe," as tears streamed down her face. She also said afterwards — still evidently on an emotional and triumphant roller coaster — that now she will be able to take care of her two-year-old daughter, adding that single parents should follow their dreams no matter what obstacles they face. The young DeGarmo also showed amazing poise after the name of the "Idol" was announced, congratulating Barrino and thanking the crowd for helping her grow not only as a singer but also as a person. I look forward to following both of their careers.

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK A concert version of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde will be presented June 25-27 at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in Marlton, NJ. Heading the cast of the concerts will be Robert Evan in the title roles with Kate Shindle as Lucy and Lauren Kennedy as Emma. Evan was the standby in the Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde, which features such tunes as "This Is the Moment," "Someone Like You" and "In His Eyes." The concerts are set for June 25 and 26 at 8 PM and June 27 at 2 PM. The summer series at the New Jersey theatre will also include productions of Miss Saigon and Noises Off as well as concerts with original Jekyll & Hyde co-star Linda Eder (Sept. 4) and Miss Saigon Tony winner Lea Salonga (July 16) plus an evening with Martin Short (Sept. 11 and 12). Tickets can be purchased by calling (856) 983-3366. Visit www.sjtheater.com for more information. . . . Mandy Gonzalez, who co-starred in the short-lived musical Dance of the Vampires, will kick off the new "Front and Concert" concert series next month. On June 14 Gonzalez will offer an evening of song featuring tunes from the worlds of Broadway, rock and jazz. Her Vampires co star, Max von Essen, will be the evening's special guest, and Gonzalez will relate stories about that ill-fated musical as well as her time spent touring with Bette Midler. Jamie McGonnigal directs the 7 PM performance. The "Front and Concert" series — the second Monday night of every month — continues in July with Bare cast members, and August will spotlight the talents of Gavin Creel and special guest Laura Benanti. The series hopes to present new and familiar theatre talent in an intimate setting. Steven Minichiello's Pink Room at Club Black is located in Manhattan at 605 West 55th Street. Tickets are priced at $15 and there is a two-drink minimum; call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com. . . . Three-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, nominated again this season for her work in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, is set to premiere a new song cycle next month at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation, the cycle is entitled The Seven Deadly Sins and comprises seven works for the soprano and her musicians. Each of the pieces concerns one of the "seven deadly sins": envy, gluttony, pride, greed, sloth, anger and lust. McDonald will perform the song cycle June 2, 4, 8 and 10; show time is 8:30 PM. Ted Sperling will act as musical director and pianist with Rick Heckman on reeds, Peter Sachon on cello, Brian Koonin on guitar, Dave Phillips on bass and Dave Ratajczak on drums. The June 8 and 10 performances will be recorded for future broadcast on National Public Radio. Anger will be represented by Michael John LaChiusa's "The Christian Thing to Do"; envy by Ricky Ian Gordon's "Can You Look Me in the Eyes?"; gluttony by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' "I Eat"; greed by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey's "The Greedy Tadpole"; lust by Steve Marzullo and Mark Campbell's "Burning the Sauce"; sloth by Jeff Blumenkrantz's "My Book"; and vanity by Jake Heggie's "Blah, Blah, Me." Concertgoers can also expect to hear McDonald's renditions of "Unexpressed," "Stars and the Moon," "I Must Have that Man," "A Tragic Story," "I Won't Mind," "New Words," "Come Down from the Tree" and "The Light in the Piazza." Tickets, priced $48-$62, are available by calling (212) 247-7800 For more information about Carnegie Hall, visit www.carnegiehall.org. . . . Additional casting has been announced for the all-star concert performance of Mame Aug. 1 at the Hollywood Bowl. Joining the previously announced Michele Lee (Mame Dennis) and John Schneider (Beauregard Jackson Picket Burnside) will be Jean Smart as Vera Charles, Allyce Beasley as Agnes Gooch, Ben Platt as Patrick Dennis (age 10), Eric Sorenson as Patrick Dennis (age 19-29), Fred Willard as M. Lindsay Woosley, Michael Lee as Ito, Robert Picardo as Dwight Babcock, Lauri Johnson as Madame Branislowski/Mrs. Burnside, Cliff Bemis as Uncle Jeff, Monica Lee Gradischek as Cousin Fan, Tracy Powell as Sally Cato, Richard Israel as Junior Babcock, Susan Sullivan as Mrs. Upson, Alan Thicke as Mr. Upson, Jennifer Hall as Gloria Upson, Sarah Jane Nelson as Pegeen Ryan and the Mitch Hanlon Singers. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra will be conducted by John Mauceri; show time is 7:30 PM. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. Tickets for Mame are available by calling (323) 850-2000. Go to www.hollywoodbowl.org for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

John Dossett, Bernadette Peters (center), and Tammy Blanchard in <i>Gypsy</i>
John Dossett, Bernadette Peters (center), and Tammy Blanchard in Gypsy Photo by Joan Marcus
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