DIVA TALK: Chats with Encores! Stars Patti LuPone, Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole & Donna Murphy

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chats with Encores! Stars Patti LuPone, Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole & Donna Murphy
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Patti LuPone in the Encores! production of Gypsy.
Patti LuPone in the Encores! production of Gypsy. Photo by Joan Marcus

CITY CENTER ENCORES!
This week four Tony-winning actresses who have starred in a multitude of City Center Encores! productions — Patti LuPone, Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole and Donna Murphy — reflect on their roles in the acclaimed series, which kicks off its 15th season Feb. 7-10 with Applause (starring Ebersole, Erin Davie, Kate Burton, Mario Cantone, Tom Hewitt, Michael Park, Megan Sikora and Chip Zien). The upcoming season of the hit series — which gave birth to the long-running, Tony-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago — will also include Juno (March 27-30 with Clark, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Michael Arden and Conrad John Schuck) and No, No, Nanette (May 8-12 with Beth Leavel, Rosie O'Donnell, Sandy Duncan, Fred Willard, Shonn Wiley and Mara Davi).

Christine Ebersole

Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole has been involved with the City Center Encores! series — which presents a mix of rare and classic American musicals in semi-staged concert form — since its inception in 1994. In fact, Ebersole starred in two of the three musicals offered that first season: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro and Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Moss Hart's Lady in the Dark. One of the trademarks of the series — currently headed by artistic director Jack Viertel and music director Rob Berman — is having a large orchestra, often boasting more than 30 players, situated onstage with the actors. "It's very powerful," Ebersole says of sharing the stage with the numerous musicians. "You're right there with them . . . and it creates a different kind of sensation." Donna Murphy, who starred in the Encores! productions of Wonderful Town — the show later transferred to Broadway with Murphy nabbing a Tony nomination for her work as Ruth Sherwood — and Follies, agrees. "It is unspeakably glorious. . . The music is another character or another collection of characters that you are experiencing in that setting. . . It is so exciting to just have that music either flowing over the footlights toward you or surrounding you. It's really quite heavenly."

Victoria Clark, who co-starred with Murphy in the Encores! Follies — Clark was a heartbreaking, deluded Sally to Murphy's regal, forthright Phyllis — and was also seen as Mrs. MacAfee in the Encores! Bye Bye Birdie, concurs. "Thrilling! Thrilling!," Clark says about working onstage while surrounded by the lush sounds of the orchestra. "For musical actors, the entire subtext is in the music." And, Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone, who triumphed in the Encores! stagings of Pal Joey, Can-Can and Gypsy (the latter begins an open-ended run at Broadway's St. James Theatre March 3), says that although having the orchestra onstage makes it difficult to see the conductor, she loves working on the vast stage of the 2,753-seat house. "It's one of the better-built theatres," says LuPone, "because it's deep and it's high. Ultimately it becomes an intimate space because it's well built. It's not too wide, and it's high [and] the audience [seems] closer [to the stage]."

Victoria Clark and Victor Garber in the Encores! Follies
photo by Joan Marcus

Unlike a Broadway opening, which is usually preceded by a six-week rehearsal process and a few weeks of previews, Encores! productions are up and running and presented to the New York critics within two weeks. "I think there's always a sort of level of denial leading up to [the start of rehearsals]," says Ebersole. "You don't really understand the reality until you're in it, and then you [think], 'Oh my God, this is really happening!' There's something thrilling about that as well because it keeps you very present. You don't have a lot of time to think and plod." Murphy — who won Tonys for her performances in Passion and The King and I — admits she was a bit overwhelmed during rehearsals for her first Encores! experience in Wonderful Town. "I will say that the first two days [of rehearsal] are a blast, but the third day you're kind of going, 'Holy God, what have I done?' I did make that call to my theatre agent at the time and I just said, 'I think I made the biggest mistake of my life,'" she laughs. "He said, 'Look everybody calls me right around this time and says, 'What the hell have I done?'"

Clark says she doesn't worry too much about the fact that critics will judge her work after only one or two performances. "If you say yes to an Encores! production, part of what you're accepting is that the critics are going to be coming ten days after you start rehearsal. That's just the way it is," she explains. "I want to be good, and I want to make the storytelling clear, but that's just the nature of the beast." LuPone's solution is to prepare as much as possible before rehearsals actually begin. "You have to be prepared," she says. "There's so much work to be done — scene work, blocking — so you have to go in knowing your part."

Donna Murphy in the Encores! Follies
photo by Joan Marcus

Although the rehearsal process may be fast and furious, all four women agree that the Encores! experience is ultimately a wonderfully exciting and rewarding one. In fact, for Ebersole —who will soon star in her fifth Encores!, Applause — the Encores! production of Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 was a life-changing experience. "That was pivotal for me," she says, "because that was one of the things that got me back to New York. After performing at City Center, I realized that this was where I wanted to be. It was about four months after [Ziegfeld] that we left [Los Angeles]." For Murphy, the Encores! productions allowed her the rare chance to dance onstage and to play two choice roles. "Phyllis and Ruth were quite different ladies," Murphy says. "They were smart and could be caustic in their own ways, but thank God Ruth was a lot more open to things changing in her life. . . They're on different kinds of journeys, but journeys, [and] to get to play women who take journeys is the best." Follies gave Clark — who will return to the Encores! series next month in Juno — the chance to inhabit a role she had hoped she would someday play. "The funny thing with Follies," Clark says, "is that I thought I was too young to do it. I thought Sally would be in another ten years. It's absolutely age appropriate to me right now, but in my head, since I've worked on it since college days, it was always the 'someday' role. And that's what the show is about. Sally's the one who is really deluded about where she is. It's sort of hard for her to think realistically and pragmatically about things, so it was a nice kind of connection that I had with that character." And, for LuPone, each of her Encores! outings brought different treasures: Pal Joey rekindled her working relationship with Lonny Price, who had acted with LuPone in a TV pilot years earlier ("It was great being in the room with Lonny again. That was the beginning of our [working] relationship."); Can-Can gave her the chance to wrap her powerful vocals around another Cole Porter score (LuPone was Tony-nominated for her Reno Sweeney in the Anything Goes revival); and Gypsy, which launched the Encores! Summer Stars series, allowed LuPone the chance to play one of the choicest roles in the musical theatre canon while being directed by one of the show's creators, librettist Arthur Laurents ("It's a great part [and] there's not that many written for women that have everything in it—it's got comedy and tragedy and great songs. At the sitzprobe — [to have lyricist] Steve Sondheim, [original orchestrator] Sid Ramin and Arthur Laurents there was just amazing.")

Probably none of the women would disagree with Murphy, who concludes, "As hard as it is and as scary as it is, I don't think I've experienced anything more joyful onstage and exciting and invigorating as those [Encores!] experiences — the adrenaline rush and that sense of 'Oh my God, we're all in this together!'"

[For ticket information visit www.nycitycenter.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Liz McCartney — of Broadway's Taboo and Mamma Mia! — will debut a new cabaret act Feb. 25 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. McCartney will celebrate the life and music of the late "girl singer" Rosemary Clooney in her new show, which is titled Rosemary and Time. Show time is 9:30 PM. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Café at 407 West 42nd Street at Ninth Avenue. There is a $15 cover charge and a $15 food/drink minimum. For reservations call (212) 695-6909. An initial list of guest artists has been announced for the 2008-2009 New York Pops season at Carnegie Hall. The series — featuring the famed orchestra — will kick off Oct. 17 at 8 PM with The Bernstein Songbook. Part of the Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds tribute, the evening will feature Jekyll & Hyde's Christiane Noll with Constantine Kitsopoulos conducting the orchestra. New York Songs: A Love Letter to the City is the title of the Nov. 7 concert, which will feature Vinnie Falcone and Eric Stern as conductors. Guest vocalists will include former Hairspray co-stars Laura Bell Bundy and Linda Hart as well as Jack Jones and Clint Holmes. The concert will include classic songs about New York as well as Kenneth Laub's original tunes about the city. The New York Pops will welcome the King's Singers Dec. 19 and 20 at 8 PM. The King's Singers Holiday will boast a program of holiday favorites; Rob Fisher will be the evening's musical director. On March 6, 2009, the Pops will present an evening of tunes from the James Bond films. The Music of James Bond will include songs from 1962's "Dr. No" through 2006's "Casino Royal." Carl Davis will conduct the concert, which begins at 8 PM. And, the Pops will celebrate the music of Charles Strouse April 3 in an evening titled Once Upon a Time and Tomorrow: The Best of Charles Strouse. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from Annie, Applause, Bye Bye Birdie and more. Martin Yates will conduct the 8 PM performance. For more information visit www.carnegiehall.org.

Two-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera will be honored at the Boston Youth Moves' annual fundraising gala, Swellegance. Rivera will be honored with the eighth annual Boston Youth Moves Lifetime Achievement Award at the March 8 gala, which will be held at the Sheraton Boston Hotel. Past recipients of the award include Donald McKayle, Marge Champion and Gwen Verdon. Those scheduled to be part of this year's evening include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bebe Neuwirth and Rob Marshall — all Chicago veterans. Rivera created the role of Velma Kelly in the original Broadway production of Chicago; Neuwirth earned a Tony for her work as that merry murderess in the show's long-running revival; and Zeta-Jones played the role to Oscar-winning effect in the "Chicago" film, which was directed and choreographed by the Academy Award-nominated Marshall. The evening at the Sheraton will begin at 6:30 PM and will feature dancing, a performance by the BYM students, complimentary champagne, a dinner buffet, a silent auction and music by the Soul City Band. WCVB-TV (Channel 5) personality JC Monahan will host the event. The Sheraton Boston Hotel is located at 39 Dalton Street in Boston, MA. Tickets, priced $150, will be available at the door. For tickets or more information call the Jeannette Neill Dance Studio at (617) 523-1355 or visit www.bostonyouthmoves.org.

Judy Kuhn, who recently concluded a stint as Fantine in the now-closed Broadway revival of Les Misérables, has extended her engagement at the Iridium Jazz Club through Feb. 28. After playing an acclaimed engagement at Joe's Pub, Kuhn brought her Serious Playground - The Songs of Laura Nyro program to the Iridium Jan. 10. Originally scheduled to play Thursdays at 7 PM through Jan. 31, Kuhn will now offer that same schedule through Feb. 28. The Iridium Jazz Club is located in Manhattan at 1650 Broadway at 51st Street. There is a $35 cover and a $10 minimum. Call (212) 582-2121 for reservations.

Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, who both won Tony Awards for their performances in the Tony-nominated musical Grey Gardens, will reunite this summer for concert performances of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music. Ebersole told me last week that she will be playing Desiree Armfeldt with Wilson as Madame Armfeldt. "We're reuniting on all sorts of fronts, which is wonderful," Ebersole said. The Boston Pops season has yet to be announced, although the Tanglewood A Little Night Music concert has been scheduled for July 8 at 8:30 PM. Keith Lockhart will conduct the Boston Pops orchestra for both concerts. For more information visit www.bso.org or www.tanglewood.org.

And, finally, Les Misérables in Concert is scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 10 at 7:30 PM. Neither casting nor a creative team has been announced for the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg musical, although the Bowl website says, "An all-star cast and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra will bring you this sweeping story of love, passion and redemption."

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

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