I hadn't played Florence Lacey's highlights recording of Evita for quite awhile, but a few weeks ago I decided to bring the CD with me to the gym for treadmill listening. I had remembered the power of her wide-ranging alto — just listen to Lacey belt the high sections of "A New Argentina" or her tremendous sound on "Rainbow High" — but I had forgotten the true beauty of her tones on such Lloyd Webber gems as "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."
Lacey, one of my favorite performers and people, is currently lending that magnificent voice to a new production at Off-Broadway's Zipper Theatre. Entitled Under the Bridge, the musical by lyricist-librettist Kathie Lee Gifford and composer David Pomeranz is based on Natalie Savage Carlson's Newbery Award-winning book "The Family Under the Bridge." Earlier this week I spoke with Lacey, who began previews Dec. 1 in the new piece about a poor family who live under a bridge along the Seine. "Previews are going really well," said the multi-talented actress. "We're getting nice audiences. It's such a charming piece — it's very heartwarming, the kind of [show] that I think people really enjoy at this time of year."
Lacey became involved with Bridge because of her previous associations with both director Eric Schaeffer and lyricist Gifford. "This is my sixth project with [Eric]," explained Lacey. "We've done a lot of shows together over the last few years, and I had also done a reading for Kathie Lee of another project of hers called Hurricane Aimee, so I had connections from both angles." About working with the former morning talk-show host, Lacey said, "[Kathie Lee] is so dear. She's just one of the nicest, most sincere, down-to-earth people I have ever met. I was concerned that she might be so in love with her interpretation of the project that she wouldn't be able to make the changes that were necessary, [but] she's been more than cooperative with all that. She's been just so good about responding to what we needed to [do] to propel the piece."
Lacey also has nothing but praise for director Schaeffer, "a genius" who has created "a whole world" on the Zipper's small stage. "It's really funky and fun, but it's also hysterical backstage because [when] we exit the stage, we have to stoop way down to get under things to get off the stage. It's really treacherous back there!" Lacey's earlier projects with Schaeffer include an acclaimed production of Follies at Virginia's Signature Theatre that cast her as former showgirl Sally Durant. "I had always wanted to play Sally," Lacey revealed, "and it was thrilling because Stephen Sondheim came down to see it, and he was very complimentary. . . [Eric] had a wonderful concept about the ghosts — instead of being beautiful, he had all of the ghosts be sort of ratty and worn out and tired with mascara running down their faces — they were very sad about this theatre being torn down. It was really quite beautiful. I didn't get to see much of it because Sally's onstage so much, but all of my friends who saw it said it was very haunting. It's such a fabulous score, and I was so excited to sing all those songs." Lacey's newest venture casts her as a gypsy woman named Mireli. Although the character was part of the original book, the role has been greatly expanded for the stage musical. "Kathie Lee really developed this character," Lacey said. "She's an old gypsy woman who predicts that something amazing is going to happen to this old tramp. Kathie Lee has written it so that they're old friends [who] had a little romance. Life took them separate ways because the gypsy woman was always leaving Paris in the spring and coming back to Paris for the winter." Under the Bridge also provides Lacey the chance to wrap her distinctive Broadway belt around five songs: "They're terrific songs. They're very rangy — some are very tender, almost spiritual, to very upbeat and fun. I've got everything to sing!"
When asked whether the show might have a second life after its Zipper run (the limited engagement is scheduled to end Feb. 20), Lacey said with a laugh, "Well, there are always hopes! You never know with these things, but, yes, of course, they would love to move it to a bigger theatre depending on what the reaction is to it. It's always a toss of the dice, but we'll see what happens."
As for other projects, the singer-actress said, "At the moment, I'm just concentrating on this one. I actually just finished a wonderful show [again for director Schaeffer] down at the Signature called One Red Flower. That was based on a book, 'Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,' and it was composed and written by Paris Barclay. It was about six boys in Vietnam, and I played the mother of one of them. It was the actual words of the boys from these letters. We read the letters, and songs were wrapped around them. In fact, most of the songs were based on the exact words of the letters. It was very powerful, very moving." Lacey also enjoyed working on the Susan H. Schulman-directed Heartland last January at Dallas' Majestic Theatre. "I played a woman on a farm in Iowa dying of cancer with three grown daughters. She asks her daughters to come back to visit her. She wants to have this party, [but] she doesn't want them to know that she's sick. It was about sibling rivalry and [whether] you can go home again. That was a wonderful role.
"I've been playing such interesting women since I have become a certain age," Lacey laughed. "I was always sort of afraid to grow old, but as I'm getting older, I'm finding there's stuff out there that's even more interesting than playing the ingenues and leading ladies that I used to play."
And, of course, I couldn't resist asking about one of those earlier roles, Eva Peron. Lacey, it should be noted, holds the record for playing the titular role in Evita more than any other actress. In fact, she starred in the Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical on Broadway, in its national tour and throughout Europe.
Does any performance of Evita particularly stand out for the actress? "Our opening night in Zurich in 1987. It was the first time I had ever been to Europe, so I was very excited, and we played the Zurich Opera House, which is a beautiful old theatre, probably the most excitingly beautiful theatre I'd ever played at that point. The response, because they really treated it like an opera, was incredible. I took 12 curtain calls . . . They really treated [the opening] with such respect. That was a thrill for me. I just kept going out and bowing again, and they kept throwing flowers. It was just an amazing experience!"
[Under the Bridge plays the Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street. Tickets, priced at $55, are available by calling (212) 239-6200. A concept album of Bridge — featuring Lacey — is available at www.kathieleegifford.com and in the Zipper lobby; proceeds benefit the Association to Benefit Children.]
Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie, who is currently starring in the Goodspeed Musicals production of Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel, will bring her latest solo show to Manhattan this spring. McKechnie, who premiered Gypsy in My Soul in London, is set to bring that act to New York's Le Jazz Au Bar April 19-May 1, 2005. Le Jazz Au Bar's 2005 schedule will also include Shirley Horn (Dec. 30-Jan. 9), Wesla Whitfield (Jan. 10-23), Marlena Shaw (Jan. 24-30), Ruth Brown (Feb. 1-27), Ledisi (March 22- April 3) and Dee Dee Bridgewater (April 5 17). Le Jazz Au Bar is located in Manhattan at 41 East 58th Street; call (212) 308-9455 for reservations. Tony Award winner Lillias White will play Bloody Mary in the star studded concert of South Pacific June 9, 2005, at Carnegie Hall. White recently joined the cast of the staged concert, which will co-star the previously announced Reba McEntire as Nellie Forbush and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile de Becque. Walter Bobbie will direct the 1949 musical, which will play in Carnegie Hall's Isaac Stern Auditorium. Patrick Summers will conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's for the 8 PM performance. For more information, visit the Carnegie Hall website at www.carnegiehall.org.
A host of Broadway's leading ladies will join forces Dec. 22 for a concert to benefit the Actors' Fund of America's Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative. The one-night-only event will be held at 9:30 PM at Joe's Pub and will feature the talents of Alice Ripley, Christiane Noll, Kathy Brier, Kim Cea, Donna Lynne Champlin, Julie Danao, Susan Derry, Natascia Diaz, Celia Keenan-Bolger and more to be announced. All the singers will be performing the music of Juilliard graduate Lance Horne with lyrics by Horne, Kate Rigg, Mark Campbell, Lorin Latarro, Josh Rhodes and David Zippel. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $20, can be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200. Visit www.joespub.com for more information.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)