DIVA TALK: A Chat with Lauren Kennedy; Audra McDonald's Glorious New CD

News   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Lauren Kennedy; Audra McDonald's Glorious New CD Hello, diva lovers! I'll be on vacation next week, but "Diva Talk" will return with an all-new column on Friday, Sept. 6. But, for now, enjoy the gals!

Hello, diva lovers! I'll be on vacation next week, but "Diva Talk" will return with an all-new column on Friday, Sept. 6. But, for now, enjoy the gals!

LAUREN KENNEDY

I first became aware of Lauren Kennedy's belty voice during the run of the much-too-short-lived musical Side Show, when Kennedy — who covered the role of Daisy Hilton — went on several times for the Tony nominated Emily Skinner. Kennedy starred in the still-Broadway-bound The Rhythm Club and was also a part of the early incarnations of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, playing the role that would be played Off-Broadway by Sherie Renee Scott, when Kennedy crossed the Atlantic to star as Nellie Forbush in the National Theatre's revival of South Pacific. The young actress-singer who is married to Sunset Boulevard's Alan Campbell continues her association with Jason Robert Brown this month. On Aug. 25 she will take part in "An Evening with Jason Robert Brown" at London's Bridewill Theatre, and she is also currently in the process of recording her first solo CD, which will feature both new and older tunes from the Tony-winning Parade composer. I recently had the chance to chat with the up-n-coming performer, who revealed that her new CD will include such Brown tunes as "I'd Give It All for You," "Pretty Music" and "Goodbye Until Tomorrow." The complete Kennedy Q&A follows. For more information, you can access Kennedy's official website at www.laurenkennedy.com.

Question: When did your association with Jason Robert Brown begin?
Lauren Kennedy: I didn't really know much about Jason except that he had written two shows, Songs For a New World and Parade. I had never heard any of his music — except for "Stars and The Moon," which we all know and do at benefits or concerts, and everyone is like, 'What is that great song and can I get the music?' I met him at the audition for The Last Five Years, and he coached for the call back at his house. All the while, his dog was playfully pulling on my skirt and licking my ear, which I loved, of course, and from there grew a beautiful friendship and collaboration.

Q: Were you disappointed that you weren't able to be a part of the Off-Broadway staging of Last Five Years?
LK: I was incredibly disappointed to have been unavailable for the New York run. I was cast in the show way in advance of the Chicago mounting, so I learned some of the songs as he was writing them. It was such an honor to be the first person to have sung some of this incredible material. My heart was very wrapped up in the project. I guess these are the problems to have, choosing between two shows. Nobody is crying me a river . . . but when you've been unemployed for months, you wish that the offers were spread out . . . But, I was cast in South Pacific the first week we were in rehearsals for Last Five Years, so I was pretty sure it would be a conflict for the New York run. Q: What was your experience like in the London production of South Pacific?
LK: It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had onstage. Well, not even just onstage, in life. First of all, living in London was fantastic. And then to be playing such an incredible part for a woman. The character is so risky and brave. It was a wonderful challenge. Everyone thinks of Nellie as just the 'cockeyed optimist,' but there is so much more to her — she learns so much during the course of the show. In effect, I learned so much, as an actor and as a human being. And, working at The National — that was just ridiculous! Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre and Nic Hytner all eating lunch in the canteen, and here I am two tables down from them, just some girl from North Carolina.

Q: Is there any chance of South Pacific coming to Broadway?
LK: God, would I love that! Even though there was talk, my feeling is that [director] Trevor [Nunn] is very tied up with his final year at The National. And I am sure he has many projects awaiting him, so I just don't see how he would have the time. But we did do a cast album that is available over here in the States for anyone who didn't make it over to London.

Q: Tell me about your decision to record an all Jason Robert Brown CD. Was Brown involved with the recording?
LK: Jason writes the way I would if I was any good at writing! He tells wonderful stories and reflects on heartache and the hope that the future holds, and with such a sense of humor. It speaks to me. I just love singing his stuff. It is a wonderful balance of theatre and what you might hear on the radio. I can't even put a finger on the 'bracket' this album fits into, because it is so diverse. You won't believe that all the songs are written by the same guy. He is just the most astounding musician. I trust his every musical instinct. My main purpose in doing this album was to have a really great time. There is nothing like being in the studio with great players and recording great songs. We definitely worked as a team putting this album together. Jason wrote, arranged, music directed, played the piano, everything. I just showed up and sang. I am thrilled he trusted me with his music, and I am debuting a number of songs never recorded, plus a handful of songs from his shows. One of my favorites is a lyrically reworked version of 'Pretty Music' from Parade.

Q: You were part of the recent Allegro reading. How did the that go? Are there any plans for a commercial mounting?
LK: I think it is an interesting show. They say it was Sondheim's favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein show. It looked at storytelling in a new way, especially for its period. I would love to see something happen with it — it is such a nice slice of life, and Joe DiPietro has revised the book and brought a lot of humor to it. So, we will see!

Q: What other projects are you currently involved in?
LK: Well, I don't know about everyone else, but I am still waiting for The Rhythm Club to happen!

Q: I was a huge fan of Side Show and know you went on many times for Emily Skinner. What was that experience like?
LK: I run into people all the time who say, 'I saw you go on in Side Show, which really isn't such a coincidence, because a lot of people saw me go on in Side Show. I have to say it was such a rewarding understudy situation, if that isn't a complete contradiction in terms! Emily Skinner was a great person to cover because I learned a lot from watching her, plus she was very supportive and gracious to me. I think she was relieved because it was such a tough show, vocally and emotionally. But it was after that that I realized that what I really wanted was to create roles and be involved in new projects. So, in those terms I have had a great year!!!

FOR THE RECORD: Audra McDonald's "Happy Songs"
I had to chuckle a bit when I read the song list for "Happy Songs," Audra McDonald's latest solo recording, and noticed the titles "Ill Wind," "More Than You Know" and "He Loves and She Loves" among the tunes. Not exactly songs known as spirit-raisers. But, perhaps, when you've played women who attempt to kill (Ragtime) or succeed in killing (Marie Christine) their own children, these are relatively happy songs. Kidding aside, though, McDonald's latest album for Nonesuch Records — following "How Glory Goes" and "Way Back to Paradise" — is wonderful and my favorite of her three discs to date. The press packet that accompanies the new CD explains that after the birth of her daughter, McDonald decided to focus on songs from the 1930's and 1940's, a time "when music provided the kind of uplift and optimism that people so badly needed."

Although the recording features a few new tunes — Michael John LaChiusa's "See What I Wanna See" and Jay Leonhart's "Beat My Dog" — the majority of the 14 tracks are vintage tunes. McDonald takes an interesting approach to the material. Although best known for song interpretations where her emotions are totally exposed, her renditions here have a happier slant. Even when singing about lost love or love yearned for, there is an optimism that comes through the performance. It's a risky idea but one that McDonald brings off wonderfully.

Highlights of the disc include the opening track, the life-affirming "Ain't It De Truth," which McDonald performs with a palpable sense of joy; "Tess's Torch Song," which displays McDonald's remarkable interpretative skills — listen to her range of vocal colors as she manages to find the perfect way to deliver each lyric; the highly melodic Brazilian song "Bambalele," which McDonald initially sang at the request of Stephen Sondheim; "Supper Time," perhaps the one track delivered in McDonald's heart-on-her-sleeve, heartbreaking manor; "Ill Wind (You're Blowin' Me No Good)," featuring McDonald's beautiful, haunting tones; Jay Leonhart's amusing "Beat My Dog"; a gentle "More Than You Know" that emphasizes great love more than great pain; Michael John LaChiusa's upbeat "See What I Wanna See"; the rarely heard "I Double Dare You"; and a rousing, belty finale, "Lose That Long Face." The exquisitely performed "Happy Songs" — conducted by Ted Sperling — hits stores Sept. 17. McDonald will make her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut, performing songs from the new disc, on Nov. 2.

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Tony Award winner Betty Buckley's newest solo recording, "The Doorway," is tentatively scheduled for a September release on the Fynsworth Alley label. The inimitable Buckley, who will play Feinstein's at the Regency from Oct. 22 through Nov. 9, has written the title track for her new disc, which will also include such tunes as "Autumn Leaves," "Imagine" and a medley of "America the Beautiful" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Pre-orders will be accepted shortly by going to www.fynsworthalley.com . . . Former Jekyll & Hyde star Christiane Noll will appear in two separate stage productions this fall. After an Aug. 31 concert with the Cape Symphony Orchestra at the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, Noll will star as Kathleen in the world premiere of a new musical by Mildred Kayden (score) and Thomas Babe (book) at Primary Stages. Entitled Call the Children Home, the musical mystery will begin performances Sept. 12 and run through Oct. 13. Primary Stages is located in New York City at 354 W. 45th Street; call (212) 333 4052 for tickets and information. And, in November, Noll will head to Goodspeed Opera in Chester, CT, to headline a revised version of Stephen Schwartz's The Baker's Wife. Noll will play Genevieve, the role originated by Patti LuPone, and will get the chance to sing such Schwartz classics as "Where Is the Warmth?," "Gifts of Love" and "Meadowlark." The Baker's Wife will play the Norma Terris Theatre Nov. 7 through Dec. 1. For tickets, call the theatre's box office at (860) 873-8668. The busy actress-singer also has several concert dates scheduled after her Baker's Wife run, including stops in Seattle (Dec. 4-8 with the Seattle Symphony) and Iowa (Dec. 31 with the Des Moines Symphony) . . . Former West End Evita Marti Webb, who premiered Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Tell Me On a Sunday" song cycle, is currently starring in a U.K. tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. Webb stars as Anna Leonowens opposite Ronobir Lahiri's King of Siam in the current tour, which began earlier this month at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, where it will play until Saturday, Aug. 24. Other stops on the tour include The Bristol Hippodrome (Sept. 10-28), The Apollo Oxford (Oct. 1-19), The Sunderland Empire (Oct. 22-Nov. 9), The Liverpool Empire (Nov. 12-30) and The Birmingham Alexandra (Dec. 4, 2002-Jan. 18, 2003) . . . And, finally, Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie and former Baby star Martin Vidnovic will headline the Helen Hayes Theatre Company's production of Jerry Herman's Showtune this fall. The revue, showcasing tunes from such Herman musicals as Hello, Dolly!; Mame; La Cage aux Folles; Mack and Mabel; and Dear World, will play the Hayes from Oct. 12-27. Conceived by Paul Gilger, Showtune will be directed and choreographed by Smokey Joe's Cafe's Joey McKneely with musical direction by James Followell. The Helen Hayes Theatre Company is located at 117 Main Street in Nyack, N.Y.; call (845) 358-6333 for information. For more information, go to www.hhtco.org.

REMINDERS

Betty Buckley in Concert:

Sept. 20 and 21 in Brisbane, Australia
Sept. 28 at the Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora, CA
Oct. 3-6 at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX
Oct. 22-Nov. 9 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY-Purchase in Purchase, NY
Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Liz Callaway in Concert

August 18-23 in workshop of The Mistress Cycle at Barrington Stage Co.
September 1 at U.S. Open Tennis Tournament
September 23 at the 100th Anniversary of Macy's Herald Square in New York, NY
September 30 in the Merrily We Roll Along Reunion Concert in New York, NY
October 5 with the Westchester Philharmonic concert of Richard Rodgers music
May 16, 2003 in "Broadway Showstoppers" with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops in Philadelphia, PA

Barbara Cook in Concert: Now through Aug. 26 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, NY (Mostly Sondheim)
August 14-18 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC
Oct. 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, WA
Nov. 2 at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in Brooklyn, NY
Nov. 17 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN

Linda Eder in Concert

Sept. 19 at Humphrey's By the Bay in San Diego, CA
Sept. 21 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA
Oct. 25 & 26 at the Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, NC
Nov. 1 & 3 at the Kimmel Theatre in the Verizon Center (with Peter Nero and Philly Pops) in Philadelphia, PA
Nov. 2 at the War Memorial (with Peter Nero and Philly Pops) in Trenton, NJ
Nov. 8 at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, RI
Dec. 1 at the Bass Hall in Austin, TX
Dec. 20 & 21 at the Symphony Hall (with Atlanta Symphony) in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 3 & 4 at the Meyeroff Hall (with Baltimore Symphony) in Baltimore, MD

Patti LuPone in Concert

Sept. 14 at the Charles W. Eisemann Center ("An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin") in Richardson, TX
Oct. 4 at the Tillis Center at Long Island University in Greenvale, NY ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
March 27, 2003 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")

Maureen McGovern in Concert:

Sept. 1-2 MDA Jerry Lewis Telethon in Los Angeles, CA
Sept. 20-22 with the Grand Rapids Symphony at DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, MI
Sept. 26 - 29 with the North Carolina Symphony at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC
Oct. 24 at the annual Cabaret Convention in New York, NY
Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at the American Music Therapy Association Conf. in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 2 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 9 at the Landmark Theatre Gala in Port Washington, NY
Nov. 10 at the Hanford Civic Auditorium in Hanford, CA
Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 at the Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL

Bernadette Peters in Concert:

Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at the Morton H. Meyerson Hall in Dallas, TX
Sept. 28 at the Weidner Center in Green Bay, WI
Oct. 5 Sundome Center in Sun City West, AZ
Oct. 24 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, IN
Oct. 26 at the Kleinhans Auditorium in Buffalo, NY

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


—By Andrew Gans