DIVA TALK: Chatting with Passing Strange's Aziza, Davis and Jones Plus Gypsy 2008

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Passing Strange's Aziza, Davis and Jones Plus Gypsy 2008 News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
de'Adre Aziza in Passing Strange.
de'Adre Aziza in Passing Strange. Photo by Carol Rosegg

PASSING STRANGE
Passing Strange, the new musical that blends the raw energy of a rock concert with the storytelling power of the musical theatre, recently opened at Broadway's Belasco Theatre after acclaimed engagements at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Off-Broadway's Public Theater. The production, which was directed and created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, features book and lyrics by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Recently, I posed the same set of questions to the three wonderful female stars of Passing Strange: de'Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis and Rebecca Naomi Jones; their answers follow.

DE'ADRE AZIZA
Question: How did you originally get involved with the Off-Broadway production of Passing Strange?
I first got involved in February 2006 with the workshop production done at Stamford University and was blessed enough to be involved with every stage since!

Question: How has the Broadway experience differed from the Off-Broadway run?
Aziza: Not very much. I think we're all just so comfortable with each other and the world of the piece at this point that it just makes the show even looser and more fun to do every night.

Question: What is your favorite moment in the show (for you as an actor) and why?
Aziza: My favorite moment is during the Church section in the beginning because it gives us a chance to honestly conjure up all of our positive spirits and use that energy for the rest of the play.

Question: Tell me about working with Stew.
Aziza: The best ever. Question: Do you think Passing Strange has a message?
Aziza: There are several messages that one could leave with, but the message I take away from it every night is a quote from the play: "Life is art, but only love is revolutionary."

Question: Tell me a little about your performing background.
Aziza: Well, Passing Strange is my first workshop, Off-Broadway, regional and Broadway show, so my story is really just beginning!

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Aziza: Oh yes, indeed.

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Eisa Davis in Passing Strange.
photo by Carol Rosegg

EISA DAVIS
Question: How did you originally get involved with the Off-Broadway production of Passing Strange?
Davis: I auditioned! I had never heard of Stew or Heidi or Annie Dorsen — but thankfully Annie had heard of me. She really pushed for me to come in and read, even though no one (including myself) thought I was right for the role. Question: How has the Broadway experience differed from the Off-Broadway run?
Davis: The show is an individual and has grown in the same way a person does. Our lives have changed over the year-and-a-half we've worked on it, and the show has become stronger and more mature along with us. When we all had our first run at Berkeley Rep, it was just like the excitement of hanging out with your friends in junior high, the way you do everything together and mean everything to each other. Then at the Public we were back to our lives in New York. The show felt more comfortable and better on our skin, but was filled with the challenges you have when you're striking out on your own, like in your first job after college. We used to play "On Broadway" by George Benson in the Public dressing room, knowing we could get there, and now we're here! I feel like we're all grown up, that we're where we're supposed to be. But the thing is, the heart of this show has never changed. It's still the 11 of us up there rocking out, acting crazy and telling a story we need to tell. The only difference is that now a national audience is being exposed to it, we're meeting more of our heroes who come to see it — everything is on a bigger scale. It's nothing less than a miracle, a dream come true.

Question: What is your favorite moment in the show (for you as an actor) and why?
Davis: My favorite moment is at the very beginning of the play. All of the actors walk on together, sit down, and greet each other, the band, the audience. We know we're about to do something special, and our love for each other and our gratitude is palpable.

Question: Tell me about working with Stew.
Davis: He's a teddy bear with a major roar. We all want to make him happy. He is one of the funniest people I've ever known, and is always interested in what we in the cast are reading, what we think, what he can learn. He's open, brilliant and a great dad. I love watching him with his daughter. We've laughed and cried and screamed and danced together, but before we did all that I knew he was family. He represents me and I'm proud of that.

Question: Do you think Passing Strange has a message?
Davis: The most important thing people seem to take away from this play is a new experience of being in the theatre. When you expose theatrical artifice and use it lovingly and explicitly, you allow the audience members to be more willing and engaged participants in the next two-and-a-half hours of their lives instead of sleeping through them. People don't dissociate and criticize as much; they actually are alive and rocking and compassionate. That's significant, and I think that's what we're up to.

Question: Tell me a little about your performing background.
Davis: I've always been performing, even when I didn't have to. I come from a family of activists, teachers and lawyers, and those are all forms of performance as well. So from making up skits with my neighbors and cousins to do for our parents, or doing my first SAG gig on a kid's television show at age nine, playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit at age ten, performing in dance and piano recitals in junior high, grad school, countless plays, films, TV episodes, singing my original songs, you name it, it's just been a habit I can't break.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Davis: I have an album out, "Something Else," which is on iTunes and CDBaby. It's also distributed in Japan. And, I'm a playwright as well. Angela's Mixtape, a play of mine which just premiered in Atlanta, is going to be produced here in New York next season. I'm working on other plays, new songs, a screenplay. I don't feel healthy unless I'm creating something.

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Rebecca Naomi Jones in Passing Strange.
photo by Carol Rosegg

REBECCA NAOMI JONES
Question: How did you originally get involved with the Off-Broadway production of Passing Strange?
Jones: My agents called me with an audition for a new play called Passing Strange, which was going to be a co-production between the Berkley Rep and the Public Theater. The prospect of working at these theatres really delighted me from the start. And then I read the play. I got the script on a Friday and read it over the weekend in a state of wonder from cover to cover. I had never read or seen theatre that told a coming-of-age-story from the perspective of this unique voice, and it was a voice I had been waiting to hear. I was overwhelmed and moved. I prepared the audition material — which was so much fun! It involved a German accent, a beautiful folk-rock song and also a punk-rock song. During the audition that Monday I felt that everything just clicked. I came back the following day for a callback and then on Wednesday, got the call that I had gotten the job. Question: How has the Broadway experience differed from the Off-Broadway run?
Jones: Everything is bigger. Each moment in the play is bigger, and the story is landing in a bigger way. Even the characters feel bigger. I think this has a lot to do with working now on a proscenium stage, whereas in previous productions we were in a thrust space. Now everything is in your face at all times and nothing gets lost.

Question: What is your favorite moment in the show (for you as an actor) and why?
Jones: One of my favorite moments in the show is when Mr. Franklin and the Youth are alone in the VW bug, and Mr. Franklin turns the Youth's world upside-down when he explains to the Youth that no matter who they think they are and how they think they may appear to the outside world, that in the end they are "just two brothers...passing." This is such a pivotal moment in the play — the jump-off point, really, from which everything that follows has begun. The transition out of this scene is at once both comforting and ominous, as Stew sings "everything's alright" and then Colman joins in, and then we all join in and it propels us into the scenes that follow.

Question: Tell me about working with Stew.
Jones: Working with Stew has been great as an actor because he is a musician. Our rehearsals were like jam sessions, in which everyone was welcome to bring their own voice and opinion to the table while we cooked up this story. Stew is generous as a listener and eager to have our individual textures and aesthetics show up on stage, which has made this process so rewarding and so much fun.

Question: Do you think Passing Strange has a message?
Jones: I think the play is all about the choices we make and the consequences that follow. Throughout this story the main character runs from people in his life in search of something intangible that he thinks will ultimately fulfill him in a way these people cannot. He wrestles between unconditional love and the desire to be understood — through art — and continually chooses the latter of the two until the consequences smack him in the face and he has to finally address himself directly. I don't think the message here lies in the idea that the Youth has made the wrong choices necessarily, but rather in that the choices and mistakes we make are just part of growing up and learning and in defining who we are.

Question: Tell me a little about your performing background.
Jones: It all started with music. My father is a musician, and our home was always flooded with melodies and rhythm. I started singing in the children's chorus of the Metropolitan Opera when I was seven, and was also taking piano lessons and modern dance classes at the time. For years I sang in synagogue choirs and church choirs and choirs at school and then finally got wind of the world of theatre in the sixth grade, and acted in a production of The Jungle Book. I was hooked and continued acting and singing as much as I could throughout middle school and high school. Eventually I chose to go to an acting conservatory for my college career and prepared to work in the professional art world.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Jones: I sing on soundtracks for motion picture films and TV shows, for a music production company called Deetown Entertainment. I am also working on my own music, which I hope to record soon.

[Passing Strange plays the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com. For more information go to www.passingstrangeonbroadway.com.]

Patti LuPone in Gypsy.
photo by Joan Marcus

GYPSY
The great American musical is alive and well and thriving at the St. James Theatre, which recently welcomed the fifth Broadway mounting of Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim's 1959 classic, Gypsy. Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone stars as the indomitable stage mother Rose, a role she first played in a weekend of staged concerts at the Ravinia Festival in 2006 and, more recently, at City Center as the debut production of the Encores! Summer Stars series. LuPone's performance, which was thrilling at both Ravinia and City Center, is now extraordinary. She has managed to combine the joy and humor she first brought to Rose at Ravinia and the pathos and anger she explored at City Center — as well as that trumpet of a voice, which is still as vocally strong and emotionally powerful as ever — into one superb performance. LuPone is funny, charming, touching, shocking and scary, and her interpretations of the showstoppers that end each act are, simply, breathtaking.

When LuPone rips up June's letter toward the end of Act One and spews out a final "everything's coming up roses for me and for you!," it is one of the more powerful moments in an evening of endless powerful moments. And, her "Rose's Turn" must be seen: It is truly a master class in the art of song performance. In fact, the raw emotion that is expressed in four minutes' time is staggering. And, just when your heartbeat settles down, LuPone destroys you again when she falls into Benanti's arms sobbing as Rose realizes Louise wanted exactly the same thing she did: to be noticed.

But it is not only LuPone who shines in this production. From top to bottom, this revival — directed by co-creator Laurents — has been cast to perfection. Especially noteworthy are LuPone's two co-stars, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti.

Perhaps because I first watched Gaines as the college suitor of Valerie Bertinelli on "One Day at a Time" in the early eighties, there is something shocking and surprisingly moving about his first appearance — gray haired and moustached — as the world-weary Herbie. From the moment he initially connects with Rose, however, there is undeniable chemistry between the two that continues to build throughout the entire evening. This Rose and Herbie not only love each other, they seem to really like each other — witness the wonderfully played "You'll Never Get Away From Me" — which makes Herbie's final departure more upsetting than ever; one feels this is the last chance at true love for each.

And, then there is Benanti. Has anyone ever brought more emotion to "Little Lamb"? Her transition from the wallflower Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee is equally wonderful: Benanti is movie-star gorgeous as the late stripper, yet in the final dressing-room scene with Rose she manages to convey both a sense of glamour and the working-class background from which she came. And, when her frustrations with her mother finally overcome her, she explodes with a torrent of emotion. I also appreciated Leigh Ann Larkin's fresh take on Dainty June — part humorous, part grotesque and often brimming with rage; Tony Yazbeck's beautiful song-and-dance, "All I Need Is the Girl"; and the dynamic work of the three strippers. Alison Fraser brings the perfect mix of comedy, despair and longing to the good-natured Tessie Tura, who bonds with Louise while sharing a dressing room. Lenora Nemetz is a riot as the wise-cracking secretary Miss Cratchitt and brings her big Broadway belt to Mazeppa's solos in "Gimmick." And, Marilyn Caskey gives new meaning to the word deadpan in her take on Electra.

This production, however, left me with one disturbing thought. My three favorite musical theatre actresses, Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters and LuPone, have now all played Rose — arguably the most demanding female role in the musical-theatre canon — in Gypsy, and I have been profoundly moved by each of their performances. What's left to look forward to? Guess I'll have to revisit this production a few times before and after LuPone wins the Tony.

[Gypsy plays the St. James Theatre, located in Manhattan at 246 West 44th Street. Tickets, priced $42-$117, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com.]

Lainie Kazan

DIVA TIDBITS
Lainie Kazan, the stage and screen star who was Barbra Streisand's standby in Funny Girl, will return to Feinstein's at Loew's Regency April 8-12. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear Kazan's belty renditions of "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Over the Rainbow," "Here's to Life," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "Smile." It's a busy time for the actress, whose film credits include "Beaches" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding": Kazan will be seen in June in the new Adam Sandler comedy, "You Don't Mess with the Zohan." She can also be heard on her newest CD, "In the Groove," which features pianist David Benoit; visit www.lainiekazan.com. Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit www.ticketweb.com. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center's (NJPAC) 2008-2009 season will feature the New Jersey premiere of the critically acclaimed An Evening with Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin. The LuPone-Patinkin concert will be presented at Prudential Hall March 29, 2009 at 7 PM. The Tony-winning duo — who will perform medleys, duets and solos penned by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Vernon Duke, Stephen Sondheim and more — will be accompanied by Paul Ford on piano and John Beal on bass. The cabaret season in the intimate Chase Room will boast K.T. Sullivan performing Colored Lights Oct. 25, 2008, at 7 and 9:30 PM; Andrea Marcovicci singing the tunes of Rodgers and Hart Jan. 24, 2009, at 7 and 9:30 PM; Paula West backed by the George Mesterhazy Quartet March 28 at 7 and 9:30 PM; and Karen Mason offering Love, Love, Love May 16 at 7 and 9:30 PM. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is located at One Center Street in Newark, NJ. For tickets call (888) 466-5722 or visit www.njpac.org.

Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, the Young Frankenstein star who will portray Princess Fiona in the forthcoming Shrek The Musical, will debut songs from her premiere solo recording April 28 at Joe's Pub. Foster will offer a sneak peek at songs from her debut solo CD, "Wish," which she will soon record. Show time is 11:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $30, are available by calling (212) 967-7555 or by visiting www.joespub.com.

The latest solo recording from theatre and cabaret star Maureen McGovern, "A Long and Winding Road," will arrive in stores on the PS Classics label April 29. PS Classics, the label dedicated to "the heritage of Broadway and American popular song," will begin selling the single CD exclusively on its website (psclassics.com) on April 15. "A Long and Winding Road" is based on McGovern's newest cabaret act, which she co-conceived with director Philip Himberg. McGovern is accompanied on the new disc by music director and arranger Jeff Harris on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, Lou Marini on saxophone, Cenovia Cummins and Suzanne Chaplin on violin, Debra Shufelt-Dine on viola, Dorothy Lawson on cello and Joe Passaro on percussion. Song titles include "All I Want"/"America" (Joni Mitchell/Paul Simon), "The Times They Are a-Changin'" (Bob Dylan), "The Circle Game" (Joni Mitchell), "The 59th Street Bridge Song" (Feelin’ Groovy) (Paul Simon), "Cowboy" (Randy Newman), "The Coming of the Roads" (Billy Edd Wheeler), "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" (Carole King & Gerry Goffin), "Shed a Little Light"/"Carry It On" (James Taylor/Gil Turner), "The Fiddle and the Drum" (Joni Mitchell), "Fire and Rain" (James Taylor), "Rocky Raccoon" (John Lennon & Paul McCartney), "Let It Be" (John Lennon & Paul McCartney), "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (Jimmy Webb), "MacArthur Park" (Jimmy Webb), "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" (Jimmy Webb), "And When I Die" (Laura Nyro), "Imagine" (John Lennon) and "The Long and Winding Road" (John Lennon & Paul McCartney).

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

Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti, and Patti LuPone in Gypsy.
Boyd Gaines, Laura Benanti, and Patti LuPone in Gypsy. Joan Marcus