With so many shows comprising the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, it's a bit hard to decide which ones to attend. There is, however, a gentle buzz around one of them, The Big Time, which begins performances Sept. 16 at the Lion Theatre on West 42nd Street.
That excitement probably has more than a little to do with its creators and cast. The new musical comedy, which is billed as "one part Anything Goes, one part 'Under Siege,' a little Ealing comedy and a whole lot of heart," boasts a book by As Bees in Honey Drown's Douglas Carter Beane, a score by No Way to Treat a Lady's Douglas J. Cohen and direction by All Shook Up's Christopher Ashley. And, the cast features a host of Broadway talent, including Hairspray's Jackie Hoffman, Jane Eyre's Bradley Dean, A Class Act's Patrick Quinn, The Full Monty's Sal Viviano and Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte.
Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the good-humored Gravitte, who has been involved with The Big Time since its first workshop in 2001. "I was lucky enough that they called me from the beginning," says the Tony-winning Jerome Robbins' Broadway star. "The last time we did a reading, Mark Brokaw had directed it, and John Carrafa had choreographed, and we did a semi-staged reading in summer 2001. There was a lot of interest, but then 9/11 came, and no one wanted to touch anything that had the word terrorist in it, which I understand.
"It's a story about how show business saves the world," Gravitte continues. "That's really the gist of it. There's a confusion because my [character's] partner [played by Sal Viviano] and I are not really married. Our names are Donna and Tony Stevenitti. We are really trying to salvage our career and relationship, so my 'husbandish' gets us booked on a gay cruise. What happens is we don't go on the gay cruise, we get on a United Nations cruise where we are mistaken for Steve [Lawrence] and Eydie [Gorme]. The ship is taken over by a bunch of Dreggish terrorists, and, basically, we save the world through show business."
Gravitte, who is married to The Light in the Piazza's Beau Gravitte, says the musical is extremely funny but not campy. "[The characters] all really believe what they're doing," Gravitte says, "and it's a lot of fun plus [there are] great people in the cast — funny, funny people." When asked what it's like to work with comedic actress Jackie Hoffman, Gravitte exclaims, "She's fantastic! She's one of those people who just opens her mouth — it's probably a lot of pressure on her — and you just laugh." She also has high praise for Cohen's score, explaining, "Doug knows how to write for singers. And, because it's a little bit of a show-biz musical, there's everything in there." Although the limited engagement ends Sept. 28, there are hopes for The Big Time beyond the NYMF run. "I've been around enough now and done enough to know that I think that this should have a life and deserves a life," says Gravitte. "Where it does I don't know. Is it a big Broadway show? I don't know."
Gravitte, who thrills with her clarion Broadway belt, was most recently on Broadway as Matron "Mama" Morton in the Tony-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago. She admits, with a laugh, that "I sorta really didn't like [the experience]." "It didn't have to do with the show," Gravitte insists. "I still think the show is one of the greatest shows ever, and I loved everybody there. It's just [that] it wasn't really the role I wanted to do, and it wreaked havoc on my family and my life because their days off are Wednesdays, and I have three kids [a 13-year old son and ten-year-old twins]. Every year that they get older, though, my career gets back to where it's going to be easier to be doing things — even now, because [Chicago] was a year ago. You forget how when you do the theatre, the time commitment we make."
The multi-talented performer, however, has enjoyed her work in several City Center Encores! productions, including Tenderloin, Carnival and Rodgers and Hart's The Boys From Syracuse. It was during the latter where Gravitte, Rebecca Luker and Sarah Uriarte Berry provided one of the highlights of the entire Encores! series, a delicious, show-stopping rendition of "Sing for Your Supper." About that performance, The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote at the time, "Just listen to the ecstatic roar that emerges from the audience after three comely young women finish stepping their perfectly synchronized way (and with close vocal harmonies to match) through a number called 'Sing for Your Supper.' There's both a giddy, sensual looseness and a mathematical precision in what the performers deliver here."
"I loved doing [the Encores shows]," says Gravitte. "It's like two weeks! What you learn after doing them is rehearsal actually starts two weeks before for you, so that when you walk in you're ready. . . . It's not that they expect you to [know the script], but if you want to save your ass onstage you better know it!" she adds with a laugh. "I remember talking to Donna Murphy about that because she called me before [she did Wonderful Town], and I said, 'You better know what you're doing.'"
For anyone who has ever seen Gravitte perform, it is evident that she possesses one of the more exuberant stage personalities, infusing songs with a genuine sense of excitement that is completely contagious. Between Broadway shows, Gravitte has the chance to share that zest with concert audiences across the country. "I love [doing the concerts]," she says, "[but] what do I really want to do? I want to be starring on Broadway in a fabulous show, but in the meantime concerts give me the opportunity to [perform]. I'm basically just gone weekends singing incredible music. I'm singing Thoroughly Modern Millie. Is anybody going to hire me as Millie? No, but I get to go be Millie. I get to go be all these [characters] and perform with symphony orchestras."
Gravitte is also at work on a new show entitled Big Band Broadway that she's creating with Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell. "It's a live show with 17 pieces, and we're hoping to get it up somewhere in some theatre with special guests. That's still in the works. . . It's concertish right now, but we're developing it. It's a 17-piece big band, so you don't want to get in the way of those incredible musicians. I'm doing it up here, in my town, Richfield, Connecticut, so we'll see. It's at the beginning stages."
And, in November, the singing actress, who names Lena Horne, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney as vocal influences, will release her latest solo recording. "Defying Gravity" — on the Jay Records label — follows her acclaimed discs, "The MGM Album" and "Part of Your World: Debbie Shapiro Gravitte Sings Alan Menken." "I recorded [the CD] with the London symphony," says Gravitte. "I'm really excited about it because I've done eight Broadway shows, and seven of the eight shows are represented on the CD. I did Mama Morton's song; "I Still Believe in Love" from They're Playing Our Song; "Blues in the Night" from Blues in the Night; I sing "Only Love" from Zorba, which is a really beautiful song; I re-recorded "Mr. Monotony" for the first time; "Junk Man" from Perfectly Frank, which I've wanted to record for years; and "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables."
While her many fans await that new recording, they have the chance to catch Gravitte live in The Big Time, which is being presented by the Drama Dept. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.nymf.org or www.dramadept.org.
EVITA: THE REVIVAL
Thanks for all the responses to last week's item about who should star in the upcoming London revival of Evita, which is scheduled for some time during 2006. I had suggested either Alice Ripley or Eden Espinosa for the title role. Here are just a few of the ideas from "Diva Talk" readers:
Shephard writes, "I think Alice would make a wonderful Evita. I'd also love to see Shoshana Bean as Evita. I think she'd be full of energy and personality, and her voice is so full of color and variety. And, of course, I think Kristin Chenoweth would make a real spitfire Evita."
Aaron writes, "I don't know what Kerry Butler is up to, I know she's busy, but I think she should be considered for the role. She has that big voice/big personality in a little person quality called for by the role."
Rashad writes, "I recently read your thoughts on Evita. The only person that is missing from your list is Julia Murney. She would be a great Evita."
JP says, "I believe that Rachel York would make an unbelievable Eva Peron. Classy, sexy and dignified." David says, "A few names I think they should consider are Jane Krakowski, Laura Michelle-Kelly from Mary Poppins, and how about the wonderful Linda Eder?"
A host of top stars from the musical theatre and country music worlds will take part in Broadway Meets Country Nov. 12 at the Allen Room in the Frederick P. Rose Hall in Manhattan. The one-night-only event will raise funds for both the Actors' Fund of America and the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Among the Broadway stars who will be lending their talents to the evening are Tony Award winners Bernadette Peters, Idina Menzel and Brian Stokes Mitchell and two-time Tony nominee Patrick Wilson. The country portion of the evening will be led by Trace Adkins, Raul Malo, Lee Ann Womack and Trisha Yearwood. The Allen Room is located within the Frederick P. Rose Hall at the Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center on Broadway at 60th Street. Ticket information will be announced shortly.
A starry company has been assembled for a benefit for The Acting Company on Oct. 10 at the Brentwood Theatre in Los Angeles. The 7 PM event will feature a staged reading of This Is On Me: An Evening of Dorothy Parker, which was adapted by Tom Fontana. The cast will include Angela Lansbury, Victor Garber, Frances Conroy, Lisa Banes and Harriet Harris. Tickets for the evening are available by calling (213) 365-3500 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.
Reprise! Broadway's Best will present a staged reading of the musical Working Sept. 26 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. The 8 PM reading is part of the new Reprise! "Marvelous Musical Monday" series. Working, which is based on the Studs Terkel book, will be directed by David Lee and Kevin Chamberlin with musical direction by Michael Orland. The cast will feature Orson Bean, Wilson Cruz, Dan Finnerty, Chris Fitzgerald, Ricki Lake, Camryn Manheim, Armelia McQueen, Kathy Najimy and Steven Weber. The "Marvelous Musical Monday" series will continue Jan. 30, 2006, with Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years and May 8 with Oh What a Beautiful Evening: The Songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Tickets, priced at $60, are available by calling (310) 825-2101. Visit www.reprise.org for more information.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.