DIVA TALK: Catching up with Stephanie D'Abruzzo Plus News of Buckley, LuPone and McDonald

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching up with Stephanie D'Abruzzo Plus News of Buckley, LuPone and McDonald News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo and David A. Austin in I Love You Because and D'Abruzzo and Farah Alvin in Because.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo and David A. Austin in I Love You Because and D'Abruzzo and Farah Alvin in Because. Photo by Joan Marcus

STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO

Stephanie D'Abruzzo, the celebrated performer who scored a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, is back onstage. D'Abruzzo has left behind the puppets that endeared her to a legion of theatregoers and proves herself, once again, a fine comedic actress in the new Off-Broadway musical I Love You Because, which is currently playing the Village Theatre. D'Abruzzo, whose honors also include a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk nomination, plays best friend and all-knowing romantic adviser Diana Bingley in the Daniel Kutner-directed show, which is billed as "a modern day musical love story." It's great fun to watch D'Abruzzo strut her stuff as the no-nonsense Bingley, tossing off a host of comic zingers. She is particularly wonderful in "The Actuary Song," a tongue-twisting tune that applies a mathematical formula to dating and rebound time, as well as in "We're Just Friends," her delightful duet with co-star David Austin. I recently had the chance to catch up with the always-charming D'Abruzzo, who spoke about her final night in Avenue Q as well as her new stage role. That interview follows.

Question: How did the role of Diana come about for you?
Stephanie D'Abruzzo: One day I was having a phone conversation with Michael-Leon Wooley, who was in Little Shop of Horrors, who I had worked with when we did Skitch Henderson's New Voices of 2004 at Carnegie Hall. He was telling me about this score he had gotten from [I Love You Because composers] Josh [Salzman] and Ryan [Cunningham] . . . and he said, "It's great, and you'd be great for this show. Why don't I have them send you a CD?" They sent me the sampler . . . really catchy stuff, six or seven tracks, and I just didn't have the time to contact Ryan or Josh. It was a crazy time with Avenue Q - this was fall of 2004, so it was still a little crazy post-Tonys and doing a lot of extra-curricular stuff. One day out of the blue I got a call from Josh, saying that [Michael-Leon] had told them about me and that they were doing a reading at the Donnell Library in January . . . Interestingly enough - it wasn't a full reading, it was an hour-long presentation - I played Marcy [the role now being played by Farah Alvin]. I believe it was because Lisa Howard [who had recorded the songs for the demo] was not available because they were either rehearsing or doing Spelling Bee Off-Broadway at the time. I had no grand illusions about doing the reading, but it was a lot of fun, and I had a good time, and that's when I met Colin Hanlon, [who plays Austin in the show]. Michael-Leon Wooley was playing New York City Man. . . .

My husband had come to see that reading, which was on a Tuesday, and it was from six to seven, so I had to book it to the [Golden] Theatre [for Avenue Q]. He called me on my cell phone right as I was heading to the theatre. And I'm like, "What'd you think? What'd you think?" and he said, "You were great, but I think you'd be better as the friend." Which I instantly took as an insult [laughs], even though deep down I knew he was right. Of course, you want to feel like you can do anything . . . but deep down I think I also knew that I was better as the friend character.

Then, nothing happens, nothing happens. Around April or May, Josh gave me a call and said that they were doing Bound for Broadway at Merkin Hall, and he said, "We would like you to learn 'The Actuary Song' and play the Diana role." And it was funny because I told him what Craig, my husband, had said, and I thought, "Okay, well fine, I'll learn it." "The Actuary Song" is a fun song to learn, and I'm really glad that I had been able to hear somebody else perform it before I had to learn it because I was able to sit down by myself and learn it since I had those rhythms already in my head. Q: That was actually one of my questions. How difficult was it to learn that song and how difficult is it to perform?
D'Abruzzo: Once you learn it, it's there. The only times I've ever had problems with it was when my tongue decided not to work! There have just been a couple of times. One was this past week when I was on antihistamines, and it was just literally my tongue tripping over a word, and that was the same thing that happened before. . . . It's funny because I feel like I could do 80 more verses of "The Actuary Song." Once it's in you, it's just engraved in your brain. Although maybe I should be knocking on wood and not talking too soon, since we've only had about 17 performances and 30 previews! [Laughs.]

Q: You're also dancing in this musical.
D'Abruzzo: I love that. God, [choreographer] Chris Gattelli! Can I just spend a couple hours talking about how wonderful Chris Gattelli is? Even before I had met him, I had seen Altar Boyz and some other things he had worked on, I just knew he was destined to be the next legend of choreography, and now I am even more convinced of it after having worked with him.

Q: In terms of stamina and energy required, how would you compare the demands of I Love You Because to Avenue Q?
D'Abruzzo: It's kind of like a vacation [as compared to] Avenue Q in many ways. First of all, just vocally, I sing in my mix maybe five times the whole show. I'm doing a lot of alto. In fact, I'm singing in the basement. David Austin sings higher than me half the time. [Laughs.] I love singing alto, but you can get lazy if you do it too much, so I find the need to warm up with songs that are not my own, with things I don't do in the show, so I don't lose the top [of my voice] because you can let it get away from you. As far as stage time and the physical requirement of the puppet not being there and not having to think about that, it's a much breezier time. That said, I'm still tired, I'm still exhausted. I don't care how big or small your role is, eight [shows] a week is still hard to do. It just feels a little breezier though.

Q: I know in the past you've talked about how difficult it is to be taken seriously as an actress once you've worked as a puppeteer. I would think that being cast in this show and also the reviews you received must be particularly gratifying.
D'Abruzzo: It's been lovely. It is funny, though, how many people will make interesting comments. My mother-in-law called me one day and said she'd been listening to WOR . . . Apparently, the guy who does the morning show [about] theatre, all he could talk about was how he kept expecting me to pull out a puppet. That just seemed a little odd to me because I thought, "Well, what about this show makes it seem like that would be something I would do?" I would think that as soon as you see the opening number, it would be clear that there are no puppets involved. [Laughs.] . . . Again, it's difficult because I really appreciate how much people enjoyed Avenue Q, and I know when they say that it has to do with the affinity or the affection they have for those characters. I do try to take that end of it as a compliment, and when people associate me so closely with Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, it is a very wonderful thing. At the same time I'm often puzzled as to why it's hard for people to let me move on. The nature of being an actor, I think, is people do different things. . . . It really makes me realize now more than ever, though, what a wonderful impact Avenue Q has had on so many people. Yet, there are still things I can't get seen for. I know it's going to take some time. I'm sort of making peace with the fact that my career will be one where I'm going to have to show people [what I can do].

Q: And, in a way, being in a new show is almost auditioning for your next show because other people will see what you're doing now.
D'Abruzzo: And that is everywhere. I felt that way when I was at Muppets. Every job is your audition for the next job. But at the same time, I'm having a blast being able to do this role in this show. There's a freedom [with this role]. I love doing that opening number. It sounds silly, but when I'm doing that opening number and I'm dancing and singing, there's just this feeling of, "Yeah, this is what I want. This is what I want to do." . . . It's a very joyful feeling. There's nothing like doing a production number. And, in Avenue Q, there really weren't production numbers. I didn't feel that feeling that they say you're supposed to feel until we did the opening number at the Tonys. Oh my God, I was shaking when I got off the stage, and it was because it finally felt the way it was supposed to feel. I think it's just that production number thing.

Q: You also have that great duet, "We're Just Friends."
D'Abruzzo: I love that number, and that's all [choreographer] Chris [Gattelli]. David [Austin] and I had such a wonderful time rehearsing that and staging that. It's one of my favorite moments in the show.

Q: How do you view Diana? Did you base her on anyone you know?
D'Abruzzo: I didn't really base her on anybody. I know that she exists in that sort of wisecracking, best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern vein. I knew from where to approach it. There's a no-nonsense part of her that I really like digging into because it's something I didn't get to play in the last roles. I love the fact that Diana is sort of in between the Kates and Lucys. There are so many parts of her that did not exist in either character. There's a ballsy element to her, there's a straightforwardness to her, and then there's the confidence. There's not one whiff of insecurity until she finds herself falling in love, and I like playing the turn. I like that realization. I like the fact that you see the other side. For me her personality is split by the act. In Act One she's very different than she is in Act Two because of the things that happen.

Q: How do you find performing on the Village Theatre stage? It's so different - almost like a runway.
D'Abruzzo: It's very intimate. When we had our dress rehearsal, it was not an invited dress, so it wasn't full. So I did not get a sense of what it was going to be like until the first preview when it felt like the walls were closing in on me - because people are so close to the stage and on both sides of you. There's never a moment where you can't see the audience out of your peripheral vision, which can be distracting depending how full the house is. Sometimes there will be a little section that's empty, but there will be one person there, and that one person will be out of the corner of your eye. I never like to look at faces when I'm doing a show because Murphy's Law, with me, I'll find that one person who's not having a good time. That happened all the time at Avenue Q. I'd find the one person not smiling, or worse, the one person sleeping. And that face would be burned in my brain for the entire show, and you'd spend the entire show trying to make that one person love you who isn't going to love you. [Laughs.] . . . What we offer at this show is you can [buy] a table for two with wine service, and those tables are right next to the stage. And there's a moment in the song "But I Do" where I have to hit a very specific mark for lighting, and when there is a table there, I am right on top of that table. And, I know it's got to be distracting for the people at the table, and I know it's distracting for me. It can be a little claustrophobic, but it is an intimate show, and when you're doing the intimate scenes, it's nice to know that you don't have to do any false projection and you can keep it small and keep it intimate and you can keep it on that friendly, small-cast level.

Q: Going back to Avenue Q a bit. What was your final night like in the show?
D'Abruzzo: First of all, I wanted the last show to be this perfect, idyllic experience. And, of course, I knew that it couldn't be because it's Avenue Q, and the nature of Avenue Q is that nothing is ever idyllic or perfect. [Laughs.] . . . Jen Barnhart was out sick, and I felt bad that we didn't get to have a last show together. Little things [went] wrong, but it was fine. I was actually having a really good time. Mark Hartman, who was conducting, asked me before the show, "Is there any way you can look at a monitor before 'Fine, Fine Line'?" I said, "I don't normally, but I'll try to." And I'm expecting something - I was close with the band. I would always go down at five minutes before curtain and say hi to the band, and it's a ritual that I've been trying to keep happening with I Love You Because. . . . So, I figured the band would be doing something. I took a quick glance over and didn't see anything, so I continued on with "Fine, Fine Line," and right in the last verse, as I was singing, "You have to go after the things you want while you're still in your prime," I look at the monitor and I'm thinking, "Mark Hartman's hair looks, like, lighter. Wait a minute . . . Oh my God!" Gary Adler, who was playing over at Chita Rivera, who was our original conductor, came over during Chita's intermission to play "Fine, Fine Line" for me. I'm praying I don't get him in any trouble, but I'll play any fine they might impose on him. I could not believe Gary Adler's there playing "Fine, Fine Line" for me. Tears start forming in my eyes. . . . It was one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me. It was such a beautiful memory. It was emotional that last show, but at the same time I did feel this incredible sense of relief and release. It was good to have a closing chapter. It was good to be able to end that part of it. . . .

I do miss the people. Going to Ann [Harada]'s goodbye party and Jordan [Gelber]'s goodbye party last month was incredibly emotional for me because you really realize just how much you adore these people and you lived with them for so long and you miss them. Not seeing certain people on a daily basis is very hard. But, at the same time, I've got wonderful new people to work with.

[I Love You Because plays the Village Theatre, 158 Bleecker Street. Visit www.ILoveYouBecauseTheMusical.com for more information.]

DIVA TIDBITS

Tony Award winner Betty Buckley will be among the honorees at the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs' 20th Annual Awards Show, which will be held April 17 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Buckley, who regularly performs in cabarets around the country, will receive MAC's Lifetime Achievement Award. Lifetime Achievement Awards will also be given to Mabel Mercer Foundation founder Donald Smith and jazz legend Sheila Jordan. Phoebe Snow will receive MAC's Board of Directors Award. Buckley, Snow and Jordan will all perform during the show, which will be hosted by Lee Roy Reams. Others set to appear include Karen Mason, Carol Hall, Rocky Carroll and Ben Taylor. Show time is 7:30 PM. Tickets, priced $45, $75, $125 and $160, are available by calling The Tribeca PAC box office at (212) 220-1460. The theatre is located at 199 Chambers Street. Details for this summer's Ravinia Festival in Chicago were announced earlier this week. As previously discussed in this column, Patti LuPone, who is currently starring in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, will head the cast of a concert version of Gypsy. LuPone will join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for three performances of the classic Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents musical Aug. 11-13. The Tony and Olivier Award-winning actress will star as the indomitable Mama Rose; Lonny Price will direct the Chicago production, and Paul Gemignani will conduct the famed orchestra. . . . The Ravinia Festival's July 15 benefit is titled Gershwin Gala: Rhapsody in Blue and More and will feature performances from Tony winners and former Ragtime co-stars Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Hershey Felder will oversee the benefit, and he will also offer one performance of his Monsieur Chopin show in the Ravinia's Martin Theatre. . . . The Life Tony winner Lillias White will star in the Ravinia's musical theatre workshop production, The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea. Karole Foreman and Andrew Chukerman's musical is a soulful retelling of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale. Black-Eyed Pea will be presented Sept. 15 and 16. . . . And, the Ravinia's cabaret series, Martinis at the Martin, will feature performances by jazz favorite Jane Monheit (June 5), a double-bill with Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder (July 18 in the Pavilion), Tony and Emmy winner Elaine Stritch (Aug. 1), the Tierney Sutton Band (Aug. 21) and four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald (Sept. 10). For more information about the Ravinia Festival, visit www.ravinia.org.

A host of cabaret and theatre favorites will be part of the McCarter Theatre's 2006-2007 Cabaret Series. Mary Cleere Haran will kick off the New Jersey theatre's Cabaret Series, playing Oct. 21 at 7:30 PM in the Berlind Theatre. Karen Mason, who was most recently on Broadway in the original cast of Mamma Mia!, will play the Berlind Dec. 16 at 7:30 PM. Theatre couple Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley will bring their concert act, "Opposite You," to the Berlind Jan. 27, 2007, at 7:30 PM. And, the McCarter's cabaret season will end with legendary performer Barbara Cook, who is scheduled for an April 21 concert in the Matthews Theatre at 8 PM. The McCarter Theatre is located in Princeton, NJ, at 91 University Place. Theatre subscriptions are available by calling (609) 258-2787. For more information visit www.mccarter.org.

The New York Singing Teachers' Association, Inc. will celebrate its 100th anniversary April 28 with a gala evening at the Kosziusko Foundation. The 6-10 PM evening, which will feature singing teachers, coaches, professional and aspiring artists and lovers of the singing voice, will honor two acclaimed artists: Tony Award winner Victoria Clark, who is currently starring on Broadway in The Light in the Piazza, and acclaimed operatic soprano Aprile Millo. Both Clark and Millo will be interviewed at the gala: Clark by actor-voice teacher David Sabella-Mills and Millo by director-writer Ira Siff. Both Sabella-Mills and Siff are members of the Teachers' Association. The evening will also include a concert of art songs performed by winners of the David Adams Song Competition. The Kosziusko Foundation is located in Manhattan at 15 East 65th Street. Tickets for the event, priced $75, are available by calling (212) 874-0832. For more information about the New York Singing Teachers' Association, Inc. visit www.nyst.org.

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