DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Guys and Dolls' Ellen Greene Plus Pedi and D'Abruzzo Chats

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Guys and Dolls' Ellen Greene Plus Pedi and D'Abruzzo Chats
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Ellen Greene in rehearsal for Guys and Dolls in Concert.
Ellen Greene in rehearsal for Guys and Dolls in Concert. Photo by Ed Krieger

ELLEN GREENE
I have to admit that when I first heard Ellen Greene would play the long-suffering Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl — July 31-Aug. 2 — I thought it the most genius casting of the year. Greene, who originated the role of Audrey in the original Off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors and subsequently re-created her simultaneously humorous and touching performance on screen, possesses every ounce of charm, vulnerability, comic timing and vocal prowess that one needs to play the role in the classic Frank Loesser musical. Add to that her brilliance as an actress, and it's the perfect fit of the season.

The casting was the idea of director Richard Jay-Alexander, who last season also helmed the critically hailed Les Misérables in Concert at the famed California venue. "Richard called me up at two o'clock in the morning," Greene told me earlier this week, "and said, 'Would you be interested in playing Adelaide in Guys and Dolls?' It's the quickest I ever accepted [a part], and I just said, 'Yes!'"

"To be honest," Greene continues, "I did this show in high school. There were two Skys. My brother played one Sky, and I was the part of Agatha. I never got lead roles in high school!"

That unfathomable bit of trivia has thankfully been rectified, and Greene now leads a starry cast that also boasts film actress Jessica Biel (Sarah Brown), stage and screen star Scott Bakula (Nathan Detroit), Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Sky Masterson), theatre veteran Ken Page (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Emmy Award winner Beau Bridges (Arvide Abernathy) and Broadway favorite Ruth Williamson (General Matilda Cartwright) as well as Herschel Sparber (Big Jule), Jason Graae (Benny Southstreet), Bill Lewis (Harry the Horse), Danny Stiles (Rusty Charlie), Amir Talai (Angie the Ox/Joey Biltmore), Jody Ashworth (Lt. Brannigan), Cindy Benson (Agatha) and Grace Wall (Martha) with Sandahl Bergman, Valarie Pettiford, Jane Lanier, Kathryn Wright, Jillana Laufer and Tracy Powell as The Hot Box Girls.

 

Scott Bakula (l.) and Ken Page in Guys and Dolls rehearsal
photo by Ed Krieger

Greene, whose last musical-theatre outing was The First Picture Show in 2001, said the first day of Guys and Dolls rehearsal — a read through and sing through of the entire show and score — was, for her, an emotional one. "I was sitting there crying all during our first read-through. Richard has been there in very pivotal times of my life. He knows me so well, and he knows my career. So to have him sitting there was so surreal and so wonderful."

The stage and screen star, most recently seen in the boundary-breaking TV series "Pushing Daisies," also has nothing but praise for the entire Guys and Dolls cast: "Jessie [Biel] is disarmingly innocent as Sarah . . . She's earnest as the first-act Sarah and really, really wants to change [Sky's] life. And then in 'If I Were a Bell,' she became this free spirit belting. She is delightful! I mean, it's wonderful working with her. She's really sweet, really lovely. Scott Bakula, wow! We did 'Sue Me,' the first song together. It was great! He's warm and dear. … And, Brian Stokes Mitchell — he opens his mouth, and I get weak. His voice is so beautiful. And Ken Page, we've wanted to work together for years. Beau Bridges is so touching. When he sang to Jessica, it was so endearing. And the Hot Box Girls, one after another, a legend. Valarie Pettiford — I worked with her in Weird Romance. She is an actress in her own right and a singer and a dancer. And Sandahl, I saw her onstage in Pippin with the legs that go up to the ceiling. Jane Lanier, Katherine Wright — well, they're all fabulous."

Greene is equally excited to be working with A Chorus Line Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who is choreographing the production, and musical director Kevin Stites. "Donna had given me . . . the blocking to 'Take Back Your Mink.' [During the read through], I'd do a gesture and they'd laugh, and I'd go, 'Donna!' I keep singing, and I'd do another gesture, and they'd laugh, and I'd go, 'Donna!' It was like four times, so I went over to Donna and said, 'Did you see how fabulous your choreography is?' And, that's just her blocking! It's not overdone — it's right to the point. And James Kinney, the associate choreographer, has been so wonderful." About Stites Greene says, "Kevin is such a wonderful conductor. I found myself watching him when I should have been watching the actors for a moment here and there. He really is a wonderful, wonderful conductor with such great phrasing."

 

(l.-r.) Richard Jay-Alexander, Kevin Stites and Donna McKechnie
 

But her most lavish praise is for director Jay-Alexander. "The vision that he has for the show is spectacular," Greene says. "To work with him feels like working with a Ziegfeld. He goes into a spiel and you think, 'I'm a believer! I believe you! I'll follow you, sir!' He's a master showman. When he describes how to sing a song — he was talking to Jessica Biel — I was in awe. He's quite brilliant. A lot of those things — I don't even think about how you do it, it's all by instincts, but he was describing with these words, and I went, 'Wow!' And showing! The soprano voice that came out of his mouth was shocking, so it was a wonderful first day."

Greene's latest director returns the compliment. "Ellen Greene should never not be on a stage somewhere," Jay-Alexander says. "She is so special and so unique, and I am really flattered that she agreed to be in Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl. That said, she is surrounded by an amazing cast, with formidable acting partners. At the end of a feverishly paced first day of music rehearsal, using every room available to us, we did a full 'read/sing-through,' and my jaw dropped at least a dozen times. There were also plenty of laughs and tears to go around the room. Having Ellen play Miss Adelaide is sort of a no-brainer. Ellen makes me laugh every day and loves the process but, in this situation, it all has to happen very quickly. She's thorough and diligent and really cares. And, oh yeah, can that girl deliver a line! She and Scott Bakula are already creating sparks on stage and since 'chemistry' is in the delicious script and score, I think we've got it here! Fingers crossed!"

The aforementioned first day of rehearsal also gave Greene the chance to perform "Adelaide's Lament" for her co-stars. "It was exciting," she says, "because I really started seeing my character… [When I'm creating a role] it's like I have no face. I become somebody else. We're now working with the wigs and the costumes and the makeup design — I'm starting to see her become someone unto herself. When I start with a role, I have no clue about the character. I'm letting myself loose, and sometimes a really wonderful thing comes out if I can get free enough and out of my own way, somebody emerges, with the help of everybody involved, of course."

And, how does Greene view Adelaide, the perennial bride-to-be?

"My spin is I'm making her hopefully dear and very accessible," explains Greene. "I don't want to make her ballsy. All she cares about is getting married. She's wanted to get married since the minute she met this man. She loves this man. Funnily in the script, they say, 'How long have you been engaged?' She says, '14 years.' 'How long have you known her?' '14 years!' So they must have gotten engaged the minute they met, which I find very funny. They've been married, in letters, for 12 years. So she's been fibbing to both her mother and Nathan for 12 years, making up this whole counter-story.

"The Adelaide I think I've created revolves all around Nathan. She leads with her heart. She wears her heart on her sleeve. Nathan's her world, and her world is Nathan. I wouldn't say she's the smartest peg, but she's really gentle."

Ellen Greene in "Pushing Daisies"
photo by ABC

Greene admits that Guys and Dolls couldn't have come at a better time, adding that she was quite blue following the cancellation of "Pushing Daisies." "It was my family," Greene explains about the ABC series, which also featured fellow theatre stars Kristin Chenoweth and Swoosie Kurtz. "I loved these characters. I loved living inside [creator] Bryan Fuller's brain. I loved these actors, and not just the actors — the set designers, the makeup, the hair, everybody. It was such a collaborative group of people. Everyone was proud of his or her mark. Everyone together, the cumulative creation stemming from Bryan's vision… it was just amazing. . . It was so creative from the beginning to the end. And I loved my family, and I haven't been able to say goodbye to them. Certain stories you want to go on."

"I feel like God decided," Greene continues, "'Okay, now you've waited. You're gonna get something.' Whether I'm good or bad, I don't know. That's up to everybody else. The thing is, am I thrilled, am I unbelievably grateful [about playing Adelaide]? Did I come into my house last night, and get down on my knees and say, 'Thank you God.' . . .I love the process of creating. I love being an artist. . . . I'm just beside myself. I am in a great musical with a great book with a great arc."

[Guys and Dolls in Concert with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra will be presented July 31 and Aug. 1 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 2 at 7:30 PM. The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. For tickets call (323) 850-2000. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.com for more information.]

 

Christine Pedi
 

** The following two items I posted earlier this week on the new PlayBlog, which is updated throughout the week. Check it out at PlayBlog.

THE LADY IS A TROMP!
Last month singer, actress and all-around funny gal Christine Pedi presented a nearly month-long run of her one-woman show Great Dames at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London.

"The past year I've [also] been to South Africa doing Great Dames three times," Pedi recently told me. "If I do the math, my pianist Matthew Ward and I have spent something like seven-and-a-half days in cabs, trains or planes getting to and from South Africa. It's a travel day (door to door) of over 30 hours each way! Going to London's Jermyn Street Theatre after that was like hopping on the Times Square shuttle by comparison."

Pedi said she had a wonderful time performing for London audiences and was also thrilled to be part of the free theatre festival West End Live while she was abroad. "I went on right after the blockbuster Thriller — Live's performance — this was the Sunday before [Michael Jackson] passed away. I was impressed and intimidated by the various and assorted singer/dancers re-creating Michael Jackson routines from 'I Want You Back' to 'Billy Jean.' They had booming tracks, and the Leicester Square audience was rocking out. Then I tiptoe on with my little electric piano accompaniment — no crazy lights or smoke, thumping bass or infectious drum machine. Just l'il ole me and a few show tunes, but the audience was awesome! When I sang 'Lady Is a Tramp,' I got to 'won't dish the dirt with the rest of the girls...that's why the lady is...' and decided to point the mike to the crowd indicating that they should finish the line. They did so right on cue, but I forgot that they talk funny over there, so what my American ears heard was a thousand voices singing, 'a tromp!'"

Pedi, who will perform a solo concert Sept. 28 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre — part of the "Voices of the Great White Way" series — will also return to that West 42nd Street venue in December with her acclaimed Holly Jolly Christmas Folly show. And, for now, she adds, "I'm totally enjoying the fact that I have no travel plans on the horizon for a change."

 

Stephanie D'Abruzzo
photo by Meredith Zinner

ON Q
With the recent announcement that Avenue Q will end its Tony-winning run at the Golden Theatre in September, I thought it a good time to check in with Stephanie D'Abruzzo, the singing actress who was Tony-nominated for creating the roles of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut. "It's staggering to think that the show opened an entire first-grader's life ago," D'Abruzzo says. "The show has had a great run — about six years longer than most people thought it would have had — and certainly this closing is hardly the end. I am sure that we'll soon be seeing regional and college productions, and it's an honor to know we got that ball rolling so very many years ago."

About whether she had thought about returning to the show for its closing weeks, the actress and puppeteer said, "There were rumors of reuniting the original cast to close the show, but apparently they turned out to be just that, rumors. I never heard anything directly. It would have been great to bookend the run, but I'm really happy to be back at 59E59 this August doing the 'Summer Shorts' again. I had an absolute blast last year, and this year I actually get to do something where I don't have to sing! John [McCormack] and J.J. [Kandel] are great at gathering exceptional artists and quality people by creating these two rotating evenings. The piece I am in is incredibly short, perhaps ten minutes, and while I haven't met the playwright or the director, and I don't even know who my acting partner is yet, I trust the team and know it will be another fun summer."

As for future plans, D'Abruzzo said that "in September it looks like I'll be part of a developmental reading for a new children's musical at the Kennedy Center based on Mo Willems' 'Knuffle Bunny' book."

Well, that's all for now. "Diva Talk" will be on vacation next week and will return Aug. 7. E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(l.-r.) Jane Lanier, Kathryn Wright,Valarie Pettiford, Ellen Greene, Donna McKechnie, Sandahl Berman, Tracy Powell and Chelsea Fields.
(l.-r.) Jane Lanier, Kathryn Wright,Valarie Pettiford, Ellen Greene, Donna McKechnie, Sandahl Berman, Tracy Powell and Chelsea Fields. Photo by Ed Krieger
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