DIVA TALK: Catching Up with South Pacific's Laura Osnes Plus News of Espinosa and McDonald

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with South Pacific's Laura Osnes Plus News of Espinosa and McDonald News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Laura Osnes
Laura Osnes

LAURA OSNES
Laura Osnes is so bubbly and upbeat in her conversation, one can't help but feel uplifted after speaking to her. And, truthfully, why shouldn't she be so cheerful and enthusiastic? Within the past two years, the singing actress won a TV reality casting competition — the first of its kind on U.S. television — got married, made her Broadway debut as Sandy Dumbrowski in the Kathleen Marshall-directed and choreographed revival of Grease and, recently, landed her second leading Broadway role: Ensign Nellie Forbush in the Tony Award-winning revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Osnes is temporarily filling in for Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, who created the role for the revival and is currently out of the show on maternity leave through early October. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the golden-voiced Osnes, who spoke about her final night in Grease, her auditions for South Pacific and how it feels to sing the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score on the vast stage of Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater eight times a week; that interview follows.

Question: When we last spoke, you had just gotten married and were in rehearsals for Grease. What was it like making your Broadway debut? How did the experience live up to what you thought it would be?
Laura Osnes: I seriously tell people that it was everything I ever hoped and dreamed it would be. I couldn't have planned it better, never guessed I would make it to Broadway this soon in my life and through a reality TV show! I was completely thrilled by the experience. The Broadway community was so welcoming and supportive and lovely. The whole experience of Grease — with the fans and [reality TV winner] Max [Crumm] and I getting to do it together — it was just such an amazing open door. My first Broadway experience was everything I hoped it would be.

Question: The night I went to Grease, it was like a rock concert, the way the audience responded to you and Max.
Osnes: That's very much what it was like. Just to have the support of friends and family and fans that watched us on TV, I couldn't have asked for more. It was really special.

Question: What was it like playing your final performance in Grease? Was it emotional?
Osnes: Definitely. I actually started getting emotional about three weeks before my final show. That's when I started comprehending that it was almost going to be over. It kind of helped that, by the last show, I had already been gearing myself up emotionally, mentally, physically, everything, to get to that last performance. It was so special, and I'm really glad that Max and I got to have our last show together. It was actually Matt Saldivar's last performance as well — he played Kenickie — so the three of us got to leave together. It was super special, taking that final bow and just really enjoying it and taking it in. It was amazing — exactly one year from the day that we started previews.

Laura Osnes (with Max Crumm) in Grease
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How did you find doing the same show eight times a week? I imagine that was probably the longest run of a show you had ever done.
Osnes: Yes it was, and I loved it! [Laughs.] Yes, there's the challenge that comes with it, of having the endurance to make it eight times a week and really learning to take care of yourself and pacing yourself throughout the week. But the cast was so great, and it taught me how to live out each performance to the fullest and make it new and fresh everyday. It helped me grow as an actor to have to do it eight times a week for a year. A year in, people are still paying $120 to see the same performance you gave on opening night, but it definitely grew from opening night. It wasn't the same show. It got better and better, and we got more and more comfortable, and we discovered new, exciting things every week. And when understudies go on, things like that, that always helps keep you on your toes. It was fun. I enjoyed doing it for a year. I can't say that I ever got sick of it. Question: You also had guest stars come in, so that probably helped too, I would think, to keep things fresh.
Osnes: Yeah, ["American Idol" winner] Taylor Hicks came in and brought a new rush of fans, which was great, a new excitement to the show.

Question: Are you still in touch with Max?
Osnes: Yes, we probably text every couple days, and we call at least once a month. . . . He moved back to L.A. ten days after we left [Grease] last summer. I know he's in a band with some of his friends over there. He did a play called Killing Diaz that I think he just finished. He's auditioning. He has since changed managers and is, I think, enjoying L.A. life. He liked New York, but I think he was definitely ready to get back to his L.A. life.

Question: Didn't you two have some sort of option with NBC?
Osnes: When we signed our Grease contracts, there was a separate contract that came with it that [said that] NBC owned us for the year after we finished Grease. But, to be honest, I never heard from NBC again. I think they did that for their safety in case there was something they wanted us for — they would have first priority for us, they would have first pick, but I never heard from them again. I think that was just a precaution for them if "Grease: You're the One That I Want" did a reunion show or something like that. [Laughs.] They would have first pick of us.

Question: You were also recently part of the Three Generations concerts at Kennedy Center. What was it like playing that theatre?
Osnes: Oh my gosh, that was fabulous! It was a short little one-month gig in DC, but it was during the early fall, so the weather was beautiful. There were still flowers blooming. It seemed so much warmer than New York. It was kind of fun to get out of the city for a short amount of time. The cast of that was phenomenal, probably the most star-studded cast I had been a part of up to that point. Lonny Price was the director, and he was simply fantastic. He's such an actor's director. He really is good at encouraging actors and lifting them up in the midst of giving them constructive criticism. I almost wish it could have lasted longer. We only did five performances. We had two weeks of rehearsal and put together this pretty amazing show in such a short time.

Question: You were in the Bye Bye Birdie section, right?
Osnes: Yes, I played Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. Actually, there was a big tap number in Girl Crazy, and one of the girls had injured her ankle a week before we were supposed to start. The dance captain said, "Laura, you can tap, right?" And I was like, "Uh, yeah?" [Laughs.] So I learned her part, and they plugged me into the tap number. I learned it in a few days and went on. [Laughs.] So I got to be in that, too, which was fun.

Laura Osnes in South Pacific
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Getting to South Pacific, how did this role come about?
Osnes: Oh my goodness. My husband just did South Pacific at a theatre on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina over Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I was down there watching him do the show. We went on vacation in January to Florida, and I got the call while I was in Florida. My agent [said], "Laura, Kelli O'Hara is pregnant, and they are interested in seeing you for the role of Nellie in South Pacific." And I [thought], "Oh my gosh, how ironic." . . . . That was [also] the first time I had heard [that Kelli was pregnant] . . . . It was pretty exciting, so I came back and I had my audition. I think it was either end of January or early February. It went well, but I literally was ten years younger than a lot of the girls there. I was kind of like, "Well that's nice of Telsey to bring me in," but I didn't go into it thinking I had a chance . . . [and] I was shocked to hear that I got a callback. I went in for the callback and Bartlett Sher, the director, really worked with me for 45 minutes at my callback. It felt like a rehearsal and a work session. That was really nice, because I thought, "Great, they're kind of giving me a chance. They're letting me work, they're giving me notes. It's really nice." [The callback] was three songs from the show and two big scenes. We worked on that at my callback, and then I got another call saying they wanted me to come back and sing for the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, which is basically the daughters of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Alice and Mary. . . . they have to approve whoever is cast. By that point I had heard it was down to three girls. So I was like, "Wow, they're really considering me for this! Okay!" [Laughs.] I was all excited, of course, but it was nerve-wracking, so I went in and sang for them. That was my second callback then. By that point it was almost two weeks later, from my initial audition, and I was [thinking], "Okay, I hope this is over!" [Laughs.] And I got a call that night from my agent, saying, "Laura they want you to go through one more round. They want to do a chemistry test with [co-star] Paulo [Szot]." So that was my final callback. A couple days later Paulo came in, and we read two of the scenes together. The director had called after my Rodgers and Hammerstein audition and said, "Laura, we want you to go through one more round. We're going to bring you in with Paulo. We didn't think we would go with someone this young, and we just want to make sure that this is going to work." So I was honored [and thought], "Wow, that basically means that if all goes well with Paulo, this role gets to be mine!" [Laughs.] Everything went great with Paulo. It was so great to meet him, and he was incredibly gracious and friendly and wonderful and easy to work with even though it was new and awkward for me. And then I got the call that afternoon from my agent. He said, "How would you like to wash your hair eight times a week?" And I just about died!

Question: So it was a pretty lengthy audition process, although I guess not as long as it was on TV for Grease.
Osnes: Right. It was spread over two weeks, but it was my initial audition and then three callbacks. It was a lot but not quite as extensive as the reality show.

Question: I would think, after the Grease casting show, no audition really stresses you that much.
Osnes: That's true! [Laughs.] I've probably survived through the worst of it.

Question: I know when an actor replaces in a role, there often isn't that much rehearsal time. What was the rehearsal experience like for this?
Osnes: I got three weeks, which was really nice. It was mostly with the stage manager Mike [Brunner] and the dance captain Wendi [Bergamini, who also plays one of the nurses in South Pacific]. I was learning all what I had to do, and then a week-and-a-half in, I got a rehearsal with the understudies. The understudies came in, and we kind of did a stumble through, which was incredibly helpful. And then David Pittsinger, who is playing my Emile for my first month — Paulo is out on an opera gig until April 12 — so I'm going on with David. David and I started last Wednesday together, so we had about a week before I started performances, which was very helpful as well. I got a few days to work with him and work out our little moments and figure out what we wanted to do. Bartlett came in one or two times for rehearsal the week before to kind of polish things up and continue adding layers, and then I had my put-in on Friday [March 6] and then I went on on Tuesday [March 10].

Question: What was the first performance like onstage?
Osnes: Oh my gosh, it was unreal. My heart was definitely fluttering the whole time, but I eased into it. As the show kept going, every scene got a little easier and a little easier. My first performance felt very safe. I just felt, "I'm gonna do what I need to do and go where I need to go and make sure that I get everything done that I need to get done." Even by Wednesday, I felt much more relaxed and much more at ease and was able to enjoy it a lot more.

Question: Did you get to talk to Kelli O'Hara at all? Did she have any advice about the role?
Osnes: I did trail her a week before I went on, which was really great. She was so cute and so funny. She was like, "All of this will be different for you because I'm pregnant and you're not, and we've had to change a lot of things." [Laughs.] She was so cute and so nice and friendly and wonderful. It was really great to get to meet her and work with her a little bit. There wasn't really advice she was passing off, but I remember at her closing party I gave her a hug goodbye and she said, "Knock 'em dead!" And I was like, "I will! I'll do it justice." So that was really sweet. She was wonderful.

Question: How is it like playing that vast stage?
Osnes: Oh my gosh, the stage is enormous! I feel like it's a mile from one end to the other. [Laughs.] The theatre is 1,047 seats or something like that, which is slightly smaller than the Brooks Atkinson where Grease was. So the house is about the same size or slightly smaller, but the stage is massive. It's incredible. It's really cool to play on the thrust stage. It really affects the staging. We play a lot on diagonals, and the audience is right there. The front row is right there. There's the temptation to make it really intimate, but you also have to remember that there's a balcony of people that are like two stories above you, and you have to remember to play to them, too. But it's a beautiful house, and I think the set is so well-designed that it really brings you into that world without really trying. And that sand dune up in the back into the beach… it's gorgeous. It's really, really fun.

Laura Osnes in South Pacific
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How would you describe Nellie?
Osnes: Nellie is probably the most complicated, intricate role I have ever played. [Laughs.] But she's so fun. She's strong, and there's this feisty side to her, but she's also a young nurse experiencing war for the first time. She's a little girl from Arkansas that left everything she knew to see the world and meet new kinds of people. She has this adventurous side that longs to be loved and experience romance, but she's never experienced anything like that before. She's stuck on this island with a bunch of Seabees and meets this exotic French planter that really excites her, but she just doesn't know what to do about it, and her mom doesn't think it's a good thing. She does a lot of growing up from the first scene to the last scene. By the end she's mothering Emile's children and… it's great. It was so fun going through the rehearsal process and figuring out what she's doing in each scene and the relationships she develops with all the people. ...It's so complex, and the whole cast has been great at playing with me with that and helping me find that. The stage manager, Mike Brunner, and [director] Bartlett Sher were both amazing at helping me discover all of those aspects, too. I had a history lesson my first rehearsal. I sat down and learned about World War II. It's a whole different time period. As fun as the show is to do, there's this layer of World War II that has to cover every single scene — they're going through a war time, even though it's on this beautiful island and this lovely plantation. And I'm definitely still finding all of that. My performance isn't perfect yet. I know that it's going to keep growing and the layers are going to keep adding. It's a lot to put together in three weeks, but that's the joy of getting to do it for six months that I will keep on finding new things. Question: What is it like having to wash your hair onstage eight times a week?
Osnes: [Laughs.] It's so fun! That was initially probably the scariest part. I was like, "I'm going to get cold, I'm going to get wet, there's going to be soap all over, I'm gonna slip and fall!" It's been going well so far, and actually they heat the water a little bit, so that's nice. . . . I wear a wig for the show, which is great that I don't have to style my own hair. So the first wig gets wet, and by the next scene, I have a new wig that looks exactly like the other one. We just take it off and start again. It's definitely fun and unlike anything I've done onstage before.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show yet?
Osnes: I do think "Wash That Man" is one of my favorites now because it's so fun! All the girls are onstage, and we get to jump around and play. I also like "Honey Bun." The end of the show is always really magical, too. That's the moment where, when I saw it, I started crying. The hand hold under the table… it's the iconic image of South Pacific, and it's just special to get to be a part of it.

Question: Coming from singing the '50s-inspired Grease songs, how do you find singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein score?
Osnes: It's great. It's so fun to do something legit and classical. Everybody knows the Grease songs, too, but this is … just simple and easy. You don't have to try very hard. If you start trying too hard, it takes you out of the world of the music and the world of the show. I've already been given notes: "Laura, don't back-phrase and don't try to make it more than what it is because it's best when it's just simple." And it's like, "Oh, I don't have to try to make it this big thing because it works the best when it's just as it's written because it's written so beautifully and perfectly just the way it is." It's been interesting exploring that. She gets to sing a lot, which is really fun. It's a different side of my voice, and I'm not having to belt all of these high notes. I just get to sing right in the middle of my range, and it's lovely.

Question: How long are you with the show?
Osnes: I am signed on, right now, for six months. I think Oct. 4 is my last performance, but it's kind of flexible depending on if Kelli is ready to come back or if she decides she wants another week or two. But that's kind of the deal right now. I get to go all summer.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or just focusing on South Pacific for now?
Osnes: I'm just focusing on this. There are a couple of things this fall. I've done a couple of readings that maybe something might happen with in the fall, but it's kind of too far out to really tell. There was the Pride and Prejudice project that I did, the workshop of that, that's maybe scheduled or hoping to hit Broadway spring of 2010. And then I did a reading of Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde. There's talk of maybe an out-of-town tryout this fall, but that's not certain. All of this is kind of up in the air. They have talked to me about doing the South Pacific tour, which I may or may not do. There's a couple irons in the fire, but it's kind of too early to tell what path I want to take as of now. [South Pacific plays the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street. For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com or www.southpacificmusical.com.]

Eden Espinosa

DIVA TIDBITS
Eden Espinosa, whose Broadway credits include Rent, Brooklyn and Wicked, will perform in concert at Joe's Pub March 22-24. Espinosa's special guest for her concerts — entitled Eden Espinosa — Me — will be Katie Thompson, the singer-songwriter who will be seen in the new Michael John LaChiusa musical Giant this spring at the Signature Theatre in Virginia. Concertgoers can expect to hear Espinosa's renditions of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," Eva Cassidy's "I Know You By Heart," Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," Paula Cole's "Me," Sara Bareilles' "Love Song" and Stephen Schwartz's "Defying Gravity," among others. Broadway actor Billy Porter will direct the evenings with musical direction by James Sampliner. Show times are March 22 at 2 and 9:30 PM and March 23 and 24 at 9:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are $30 and are available by visiting www.joespub.com or by calling (212) 539-8778. A host of leading women in the arts will take part in the Kennedy Center Spring Gala, which will be held May 3 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Currently scheduled to be part of the 8:30 PM event are Lisa Brescia, Stockard Channing, Jenn Colella, Suzanne Farrell, Judith Jamison, Patti LaBelle, k.d. lang, Annie Leibovitz, Audra McDonald, Reba McEntire, Veronika Part, Amy Poehler, Dianne Reeves, LeAnn Rimes, Chita Rivera, Kathleen Turner, and members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The evening, according to press notes, will "highlight the achievements and contributions of women from a wide range of artistic genres. The impressive line-up of women has each advanced the cause of equality for women in the arts, through performances, photography, songwriting, choreography, or advocacy." Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman will host the event along with Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. For Gala ticket information visit kennedy-center.org/gala or call (202) 416-8338. Concert-only tickets, priced $35-$125, are on sale now by calling (202) 467-4600 or by visiting kennedy-center.org.

Kate Shindle, most recently on Broadway in Legally Blonde: The Musical, will host the March 30 Monday Nights, New Voices concert at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre. The evening, which begins at 7 PM, will celebrate the work of songwriters Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond. Vocalists will include Mathew Burrow, Natalie Elise Hall, Darius Harper, Danny McNie and Amy Toporek. Kooman and Dimond, who recently participated in the Kennedy Center's Broadway Today & Tomorrow series, will both be on hand to discuss the creation of their songs and accompany the performers on piano. Barbara Anselmi will be the evening's musical director. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located in Manhattan at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $12 music charge and a two-drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 255-5438 or visit theduplex.com.

The work of composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver, a 2009 Jonathan Larson Grant recipient, will be explored May 4 at Joe's Pub. Currently scheduled to appear are composer Oliver as well as Alex Brightman (Wicked), Morgan Karr (Spring Awakening), Jay Johnson (Hair), Natalie Weiss (Wicked) and Lindsay Mendez (Grease). Show time is 11:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. For more information visit www.joespub.com.

Pal Joey's Martha Plimpton and Shrek the Musical's Daniel Breaker will co-host the 54th Annual Village Voice Obie Awards. The awards, which celebrate the 2008-2009 Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway seasons, will be held May 18 at Webster Hall in Manhattan. Presented by the Village Voice, the annual event will be produced and directed by Eileen Phelan. For more information visit www.villiagevoice.com/obies.

Julia Migenes
photo by Michael Putland - Retna

Opera and theatre star Julia Migenes (Carnival!, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof) will perform her solo show, Diva on the Verge, April 26 at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. Show time at the Walt Whitman Theatre is 2 PM. In Diva on the Verge, press notes state, "Migenes puts her daring wit and audacious humor to their best use . . . combining stunning and often hilarious interpretations of some of the world's best-known arias with anecdotes about the rigid world of opera. Part Barbra Streisand, part Maria Callas, and part Lucille Ball, she effortlessly portrays all of the great heroines, from the murderous Tosca to the delicate Juliette to the consumptive Mimi." Written by Migenes in 1998, Diva on the Verge was first performed in 1999 in France. For tickets, priced $25, visit BrooklynCenterOnline.org or call (718) 951-4500. The acclaimed Songbook series — hosted and directed by John F. Znidarsic — will continue March 30 with an evening dedicated to the songs of composer-lyricist Bobby Cronin. The free concert will feature the vocal talents of Anne Brummel, Andrew C. Call, Kristy Cates, Michael Kadin Craig, Jenny DiNoia, Janine Divita, John Treacy Egan, Brian Gallagher, Jared Gertner, Michael Hunsaker, Marcus Paul James, Eric Krop, Robyn Lee, Paul Lessard, Carrie Manolakos, Tracy McDowell, Kate Pazakis and Katie Thompson with Auri Marcus, Jenna Noel, Larkin Bogan and Jacob Richard. Show time is 6 PM. The evening, produced by Erica Ruff, will feature musical direction by Michael Gacetta. Now in its 18th season, the Songbook series is held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Bruno Walter Auditorium, which is located at 111 Amsterdam Avenue, south of 65th Street. For more information call (212) 870-1630.

Several theatre actors will join songwriter Georgia Stitt for Georgia Stitt & Friends March 30 at Birdland. The 9 PM concert, part of the Broadway at Birdland series, will feature Stitt as well as guest stars Julia Murney, Tituss Burgess, Kate Baldwin, Graham Rowat, Laura Osnes, Kathleen Monteleone, Kevin Greene and newcomer Ashley Marks. Cabaretgoers can expect tunes from Stitt's CD "This Ordinary Thursday" and her musical revue Sing Me A Happy Song. The evening will feature Shannon Ford on drums, Randy Landau on bass and Christian Hebel on violin. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $25 cover and a $10 food-drink minimum. For reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit www.BirdlandJazz.com.

Initial casting has been announced for the Hollywood Bowl's upcoming summer presentation of the classic Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls. As previously announced, Richard Jay-Alexander, who helmed last summer's acclaimed Les Misérables in Concert at the Bowl, will direct. Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie will choreograph the production, which will play the famed venue July 31-Aug. 2. Kevin Stites will be the musical director. The cast will be headed by Jessica Biel (as Sarah Brown), Scott Bakula (Nathan Detroit), John Mahoney (Arvide Abernathy), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Sky Masterson), Ken Page (Nicely-Nicely Johnson) and Ruth Williamson (General Matilda Cartwright). Show times at the Bowl will be 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.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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Natasha Richardson
photo by Aubrey Reuben

This week's column is dedicated to the elegant, charming, good-humored and supremely talented actress Natasha Richardson, who died March 18 following a tragic skiing accident in Montreal. Although I never had the pleasure of interviewing the Tony-winning artist, she was one for whom I had a special fondness: There was something about Richardson's stage work that drew an audience to her. In fact, she seemed to possess a special, almost ethereal warmth that filled any theatre in which she performed. And, of the many Sally Bowles I caught during the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Cabaret, Richardson's was the only one who, to me, was wholly believable in the role. It was a thrilling performance, one that was edgy, amusing, dramatic, heartbreakingly vulnerable and utterly moving. Her death is a devastating loss to the theatre community but even more so to her family.