There is something completely welcoming about Jennifer Barnhart's smile — it's not a huge, toothy grin, but a warm, friendly smile that immediately puts one at ease. That smile is indicative of her personality and also translates into an onstage warmth that is completely appealing. Barnhart, who is currently making her Broadway debut in Avenue Q, plays an assortment of characters in the Tony-winning musical, including a morally challenged Bad Idea Bear and the ultra-strict kindergarten teacher Mrs. Thistletwat. Barnhart also joins forces with co-star Rick Lyon to gracefully man the two-handed, green-faced puppet Nicky. This week, Barnhart had the chance to demonstrate the wider range of her acting and puppeteering skills when she filled in for the Tony-nominated Stephanie D'Abruzzo, playing the lead roles of Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. I had the chance to catch Barnhart this past Tuesday night at the Golden Theatre, and I'm happy to report that she offered a virtually flawless performance — funny, sweet and touching — in the Marx-Lopez-Whitty musical that remains one of the best evenings Broadway has to offer. Diva lovers can catch Barnhart's Kate and Lucy Sept. 10 at 8 PM and Sept. 12 at 2 and 7 PM. The wonderful D'Abruzzo returns to the Avenue Q gang Sept. 14. . . On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of chatting with Barnhart; that discussion follows:
Question: Congratulations on your performance last night. I thought you were terrific.
Jennifer Barnhart: Oh, thank you so much. I had a good time. At first it was a little like, "Wow, I haven't done this in months! Well okay. . ." [Laughs.] But I was able to relax and have some fun with it, which I was glad for. And tonight I'll feel much better about things!
Q: How many times had you gone on as Kate/Lucy before last night?
JB: Two-and-a-half times.
Q: Do you remember the first time?
JB: The first time I went on was planned, so that was fine. [Stephanie D'Abruzzo] went out to do 'Pyramid,' so I knew that was happening. She went out to California and missed the first show of the week, and that was the only show she was going to miss. I knew about a week in advance, and pretty much called all of my friends and family and I said, "Okay, this is probably the only chance this will ever happen so you'd better come now" because Stephanie doesn't ever miss a show. She's performed sick — she has this incredible work ethic, which is wonderful. That was the first time I went on, then another couple months went by, and then in the middle of a Saturday matinee, her voice started to give out, and she finished Act I and said [that she couldn't continue]. So I went on for Act II and then did that same evening's show. Those are the only other times I've gone on. Q: Since you're also in the show nightly, how much rehearsal time do you get for covering the other roles?
JB: Once you have your "put-in," you're expected to, at a moment's notice when you have to, to go on. They had actually scheduled a run-through for me before going on this week. Unfortunately, I didn't get the memo because I was on vacation and I was in rehearsal for John Tartaglia's Joe's Pub appearance, one of the back-up singers. I didn't get the memo, and I missed the rehearsal entirely, and I felt dreadful.
Q: That's amazing, then, because you were wonderful last night.
JB: Thank you. It helps because I've been with the show since the beginning — having done it Off-Broadway, and I see it every night. The only times I have little momentary spasms in my brain is when I'm on the other side, speaking for both Lucy and Kate.
Q: I was actually going to ask you that — whether it's stranger playing the scenes that you're usually in, but now doing the other role.
JB: Yes, it is! [Laughs.] There are occasional moments when I'm looking at things, thinking, "Wow, that's how it looks from here. Why isn't she saying anything? Because I'm not saying anything! Oh, God!" [Laughs.] Sometimes those moments I feel like I'm a little stilted, but I'm working on trying to make them a little smoother.
Q: How did you become part of Avenue Q originally? When did you join the show?
JB: I was the only puppeteer who actually had to audition — the other three puppeteers had been with it since the workshops. When they were moving to Off-Broadway, they decided to recast the role of the other person who was doing my role. They were already [thinking], if this is going to Broadway, we want somebody in this role who can understudy. They had auditions, and [mine] was somewhat of a by-invitation only [audition]. I got a call from Rick [Lyon], who I've worked with forever. As a matter of fact, he pointed out in a talkback we were having recently that this coming October we will have known each other and been working together for ten years.
Q: When did you first work with him?
JB: Right out of college, I worked on an industrial in Las Vegas that he was also working on, and we met and started working together. He did his own live shows, and he needed a tall female puppeteer, so we've been working together for a very long time.
Q: How difficult is it manning the puppets that require both you and Rick?
JB: He refers to us as the Fred and Ginger of puppetry, which is very sweet. Part of it is that our legs are almost the same length, which helps a lot. I've got my hand on the small of his back. It's sort of like a ballroom dancing couple, where all the work really tends to rest on the guy — the girl just has to kinda smile and is directed. He's an excellent leader — through his breaths and with little preparatory movements letting me know when he's going to move before he does. And there are very subtle little clues. Also, as far as emotional [clues], he [makes] little guttural sounds — "what, mmm..." — these are things that never get picked up on the mic, but they clue me in to what's happening with the character emotionally, because I can't always see his face out of the corner of my eye to see what's happening, and his voice is always so clearly indicative as well, which helps. These are all different little things that help me know how to engage in an emotional sense with what's happening in the scene.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show — either as one of your characters or the show in general?
JB: The show in general — I was thinking about this this morning. I am the luckiest girl on Broadway, first of all, because I get to be in this show, and in my normal track I get to puppeteer all the characters. There's only one character that I do not get to puppeteer at one point — the newcomer at the end of the show. And, I also get to go and do this great tour de force whenever Stephanie isn't [performing], which isn't often. [Laughs.] But, I get to do it all, and I'm so happy, and I just feel so lucky to be a part of this show that makes people feel so good and is an incredible piece.
Q: Do you leave on a high every night?
JB: Yeah. [Laughs.] People at the stage door are always saying, "Oh my gosh, you guys are so sweet to talk to us and sign our programs." I say, "Are you kidding? Your sweet to stick around and say hi and tell us how much you enjoy our work." An actor loves nothing more than that; how wonderful is that? It's really incredible. Even if I go [into the theatre] feeling down, just the course of doing the show makes me happy. Periodically, if there's something on my mind, I'll find myself in the course of show, going, "You know what, the show is absolutely right. Everything in life is only for now, and this isn't the biggest problem. I can overcome this." It's amazing the philosophy of this show. . . . There are people who come to the show once a month and say, "Well, it's cheaper than therapy every week!" [Laughs.]
Q: How has audience reaction changed throughout the run — from Off-Broadway to Broadway and after winning the Tony?
JB: From Off-Broadway to Broadway, it was interesting, there were some things that didn't translate. I'm trying to think of something specific . . . There's a visual joke that doesn't play in the Broadway house. During "Fantasies Come True," Rod is singing to Nicky and he gets out of bed, and he stands perpendicular to the bed. In the Off-Broadway house, which was very narrow and very small, the [audience] got instantly from the "camera's point of view," this is being shot from their ceiling, and we're looking down on them. So when he gets out of bed, he would get out of bed that way, and that's how it would look. So that's a visual joke that worked solely in the Off-Broadway production . . . Having to find different timings for the laughter for certain things was a bit of a challenge for us at first [on Broadway] — "Wow, that's a much bigger response!" And, during Tony season and right after the Tonys, it would be like a rock concert. It was unbelievable. The first show after the Tonys, everyone got entrance applause. There was screaming and cheering. It was incredible — I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it. [Laughs.]
Q: Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and when did you decide to become a performer?
JB: I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, which is just north of New Haven, and it was basically just my older brother, me and my mom. My folks split by the time I was five, and my brother was a ragtime piano player. My mother was very encouraging of that. She would drive him to his piano bar gigs and sit there and have a ginger ale. So, I want to say my family has always been very supportive, and that made me feel like I could explore this [field]. I was always interested in puppetry — I was a huge fan of the Muppets, and the movie "The Dark Crystal" changed my life, which is the biggest puppet confession. I'm such a puppet geek. [Laughs.] I was sitting in the theatre at eight year's old, and I was watching that movie and I thought, "Okay, the Muppets are funny, but puppets can do that? I want to do that." And, then, I sort of put it aside because I had no idea how someone becomes a puppeteer, so I started pursuing what I now call "human theatre," acting. I started doing that in junior high school and high school and decided in college I was going to pursue it. I went to the only university I could afford, which was my home state university, University of Connecticut, and I didn't find out until after I got there that it was the only university in the country, and still is, that offers accredited degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate, in puppetry.
Q: So it was fate!
JB: Absolutely. I went, "This is obviously what I'm meant to be doing." I went through the program, and I took as many [puppetry] classes as I could. I couldn't afford to stay there — it would have required me to be there for five years to do the double major. I knew I wanted to major in acting, and I thought I could double major, but there were too many design classes [required]. So, I took all the classes I could, graduated and didn't work for a long time. [Laughs.] I did some smaller, live puppet stuff. I did a television show in '97 for a then-fledgling channel called Animal Planet, and they wanted to have their own original programming. They had done this show called "Once Upon a Tree," and they had these woodland characters. One of the guys I had gone to college with was working on it, and he recommended that they see me for auditions. I auditioned, I got the part and went out and did it in Minneapolis. I came back and approached Henson and said, "I've arrived. I'm back. I've done this." And they said, "So what?" [Laughs.] I went back to the office and worked as a copywriter for an ad agency for awhile and got my performance fixes on the side, did my Equity showcases. Then, the same friend recommended me to audition for "Between the Lions," a show on PBS. It's about a family of lions who live in a public library, and the show helps teach kids how to read. I auditioned for that, and I got cast in that as the mama lioness. That was in '99, and I've been doing puppetry full time and supporting myself full time as a puppeteer ever since . . . It's been pretty incredible. It's led from one show to the next. I finally started working on "Sesame Street" about three seasons ago. I always hoped I would get there, but if anyone had ever told me this form of puppetry is going to take me to Broadway, I would have laughed.
Q: If the opportunity should arise, would you like to take over the roles of Kate and Lucy at some point?
JB: I'd be happy either way in all honesty. It's funny because a friend of mine told me that a director who works at the American Globe Theatre was going to come see Avenue Q, and she thought he was going to see it last week, and I was like, "Tell him to come next week when I'm on in the lead." And then I called her right back and I said, "You know what? Don't. If he can see all seven of us, that's really the ideal way to see it." And I'm so proud of the work that I do in my normal track, and I'm so happy to be out there and be Rick's dance partner every night. Sure, I'd be thrilled to get to do Kate and Lucy more often, and if they offered it to me, I would love to do it. But if they didn't offer it to me, and I kept doing what I'm doing, either way I win.
Q: How about Las Vegas — are you interested in playing there when Avenue Q starts its run?
JB: What the hay? If it was the right set of circumstances: if it wasn't for too long — I don't think I would want to leave New York for a terribly long period of time, three to six months. Just to go and open it with a big splash would be a lot of fun.
Q: What was it like performing without the puppets in the Empty Handed concerts?
JB: It was great. It was the first time I've done it in awhile. I was feeling a little without-a-net there. I had done straight plays somewhat recently, so that aspect of it didn't bother me. But singing — it was the first time I've done it in that kind of a setting without a puppet. I challenged myself with it. It was one of those "feel the fear and do it anyway things." I thought that I'm going to be really happy when I get to the other side of this, and I am. And, now, that's given me more confidence to be able to do some other things like when I was singing with Johnny [Tartaglia] at Joe's Pub. Somebody came up to me [after] and said, "When's your one-woman show?" And I said, "Well, I'm going to start working on it?" [Laughs.]
Q: Are you going to?
JB: Yeah, it's something I've been casually gathering material for. I don't have a venue, but just for my own development and growth as an artist, I want to start putting some brain cells to it. I have some people who are willing to collaborate with me, which is great.
Q: Are you involved in any other projects?
JB: That's it for right now, now that Johnny's concert is over. We're hoping that becomes a recurring thing at Joe's Pub . . . It's been busy, and the "Sesame Street" season starts up soon.
Q: One final question: Should George Bush lose the election, do you know whether the lyric will be changed in "For Now"?
JB: God, I hope so. [Laughs.] I'm sure they're going to have to, and I think we're all hoping that that happens. [Laughs.]
Some shows go out with a bang — Aida went out with a flash! During the final scene of the long-running Disney musical — as Radames (Adam Pascal) and Aida (Deborah Cox) were descending into the sand for eternity — what seemed like dozens of cameras sent flashes lighting up the Palace Theatre. Pascal even turned to the audience to offer a "what-in- the-world-is-happening" glance, which reminded me of an early Sunset Boulevard preview when Glenn Close stopped the show after being blinded by flashes as she descended the lengthy mansion staircase. The Tony-winning actress, in full Norma Desmond garb, said to the audience, "We can continue with the show or we can have a press conference." The crowd burst into applause, and the flashes ceased . . . As for Aida's final performance, all of the actors were in top form: Pascal's rock-edged voice remains a wonder, Lisa Brescia provided a well-sung and nuanced Amneris, and Cox — who I admit I had never seen nor heard of before she took on the role — impressed as the ill-fated Nubian princess. If she doesn't possess quite the powerhouse voice of the role's creator, Heather Headley, I found her acting more subtle and, ultimately, more affecting. I was also impressed by the beauty of Eric LaJuan Summers' voice, who plays Mereb and joined Cox for one of the show's best songs, "How I Know You." Other highlights: Brescia's belty "My Strongest Suit," Cox's terrific "Dance of the Robe," the Cox-Pascal duet "Written in the Stars" and the first-act finale "The Gods Love Nubia."
Ellen Greene, of Little Shop of Horrors fame, will bring her acclaimed evening of Torch — featuring pianist/musical director Christian Klikovits — to L.A. and then back to New York again next month. The thrilling performer will offer shows at L.A.’s Cinegrill Oct. 20 and 21 before heading to New York’s Joe’s Pub Oct. 24. The shows will celebrate the release of her new solo recording, the superb “In His Eyes,” which is currently available at www.ellengreene.com. The Cinegrill is located within the Roosevelt Hotel at 7000 Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles, CA; call (800) 950-7667 for reservations. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street; call (212) 539-8778 for reservations.
One of this column's very favorite gals will be part of the upcoming Feinstein's at the Regency fall season. Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone, who scored raves for her work last season in the Encores! mounting of Can-Can, plays the New York nightspot Nov. 8 20. Two other names of interest on the schedule: Grammy Award winner Melissa Manchester — of "Don't Cry Out Loud" fame — will take centerstage at Feinstein's Oct. 26-Nov. 5, and Karen Mason, most recently on Broadway in Mamma Mia!, will perform two shows only on Nov. 13 at 8:30 and 11 PM.
Six Broadway belters will lend their voices to "A Celebration of the Leading Ladies of Broadway," the Sept. 17 cabaret evening that opens the Second Annual New York AIDS Film Festival. Hairspray's Laura Bell Bundy, Mamma Mia!'s Karen Mason, Caroline, or Change's Anika Noni Rose, Aida's Felicia Finley, The Boy From Oz's Isabel Keating and Cabaret's Kate Shindle are all scheduled to perform at "The Red Ball." The concert kicks off the week-long Film Festival at the Hudson Hotel, which will include screenings of 17 films focusing on "the challenges and triumphs of people with AIDS around the world." Directed by Stephen DeAngelis, the starry event will be held at New York's Hudson Hotel, 356 West 58th Street; show time is 8 PM. Tickets for "The Red Ball" range from $200 $1,000 and can be purchased by calling (212) 592-1950. Visit www.newyorkaidsfilmfestival for more information.
And, finally, Vanessa Williams, most recently on Broadway in a Tony-nominated turn in Into the Woods, will head to the Palace Theatre in December. Williams will promote her upcoming recording, "Silver & Gold," with seven shows at the famed Broadway theatre Dec. 1-5. She will also promote her new recording, a Christmas set, on QVC Sept. 14. "Silver & Gold" will be released on the Lava Records label Oct. 12; the label will also release a second album by Williams in February 2005. That disc will feature classic love songs from the seventies.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Next week: a chat with Wicked's Jennifer Laura Thompson.
(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)