Las Vegas may have scooped up Avenue Q and Spamalot, but Wicked is taking the entire country by storm. In fact, Glindas and Elphabas (or should that be Glindi and Elphabi?) are popping up throughout the land with a sit-down production in Chicago and a national tour crossing the country. The tour, which is currently playing Denver's Buell Theatre, is headed by The Boy From Oz's Stephanie J. Block as Elphaba and Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda.
Kassebaum — whose Broadway credits include Rent and the Tony-winning revival of Assassins — has received glowing notices for her performance in the role created on Broadway by Kristin Chenoweth. Some of the bouquets tossed at the actress: "Kassebaum, like her fellow witch, has an amazing voice and a disarming sass that reduces Glinda's self-absorption from an annoying character flaw to a charming eccentricity. . . . This may be Elphaba's story but it's Kassebaum's Glinda, a spastic goofball of a spoiled little rich girl, who steals the show, with the kicky makeover anthem 'Popular.' . . . Both actresses bring a yielding sense of possibilities to their roles. Kassebaum brings a shade of self-doubt, a distinct flicker of needy sadness in Glinda, even when she's manically flirting with a new dreamboat student or twitchily coaching Elphaba on how to be 'popular.'"
I recently had the chance to speak with Kassebaum during the San Francisco engagement of Wicked, which featured Eden Espinosa filling in for an injured Block as the green-faced witch. That brief chat follows:
Question: How did you originally become involved with Wicked?
Kendra Kassebaum: I auditioned when they first started mounting the show. It was so long ago I can't remember the exact details, but I was hired to cover Kristin [Chenoweth], and at the time, I just didn't think it was right for me. Doing Assassins brought the project around again, and [director] Joe Mantello told me, "Why don't you go back in?" I did, and then I got the call to do the tour. Q: Had you ever toured before?
Kassebaum: I've done small tours, but [Wicked] is my first national tour.
Q: What's it like traveling from city to city?
Kassebaum: It's been great. We're in the rock-star phase of the tour. We're just being welcomed [and] everyone's waiting for us. We sit down for a long time, and you just get taken care of. We're in the sweet end of the deal! [Laughs.]
Q: You've had the chance to work with a few different Elphabas so far. Tell me about working with Stephanie J. Block and now Eden Espinosa.
Kassebaum: That part's been trippy. You don't realize how different takes on the role can change the whole relationship between the two women. They're both beautiful relationships, but they have definitely been different. It teaches you as an actor to be open — that's for sure. [Laughs.] I am going to miss Eden terribly, though, when she leaves. She leaves us here in San Francisco.
Q: Glinda is such a demanding role vocally. How are you finding doing eight shows a week?
Kassebaum: It's fine. It definitely is a challenge because I came to Glinda through more of an acting standpoint. I never really trained to be an opera singer or anything like that, so that's been definitely a challenge. But right now I'm at the point where I feel really good in the tour. I'm having fun. I'm not having to think about the [singing] technique. [Laughs.] Now it's fun — six months into it.
Q: Do you have any rituals or warm-ups you do before a performance?
Kassebaum: I was finding that [I would] get obsessed in the beginning [of the tour]. I was doing these 40-minute warm-ups, just giving myself a workout, and I came across a wonderful speech pathologist in Chicago, and she was like, "Kendra, just warm it up a little. Save it for the stage." [Laughs.] Mentally, I always thought that singers spent all this time [warming up], and some of them do because it's what [they] have to do, but I found for me, I just have to check if everything's there and then just go out and do it.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment or scene in Wicked for Glinda?
Kassebaum: I think probably the favorite moment is when the stage is silent and [Glinda and Elphaba] do that dance together. I love that Elphaba dance. I think it's just a nice moment. I remember seeing the show [in New York]. I saw it once, and that one five-second [moment] is the thing I carried away with me from the show.
Q: Did you see the original cast?
Kassebaum: Yeah, I did. I saw it with Kristin [Chenoweth] and Idina [Menzel]. I saw a matinee and had no clue how the hell they were doing that! I marveled at it because the show's a beast from the audience [view point] — it's huge. I didn't understand how their bodies and their voices were doing that at two in the afternoon!
Q: How long are you contracted with the tour?
Kassebaum: The majority of us are contracted a year, but I'll be heading out in February.
Q: Any chance you might go to the New York company?
Kassebaum: Well, that would be great. [Laughs.] Who knows? There are a lot of good Glindas out there I'm finding, but I definitely would welcome the idea.
Q: Tell me about your experience in Assassins.
Kassebaum: That was probably one of the highlights of my career, coming to work and seeing Stephen Sondheim standing there. It was such a small, intimate gig. You felt like you were doing something really important, especially during the time of the election. You felt like you were part of something a little bit bigger, contributing something. That's the best way I can explain it. It didn't seem like a commercial musical theatre moment. It felt more artistic.
Q: Back-tracking a bit, where were you born and raised, and when did you start performing.
Kassebaum: [I was born and raised in] St. Louis, Missouri, which we're going to hit [on the tour], which will be so much fun. I started performing probably like 15 years ago — getting paid at least.
Q: When do you think you knew it would be your career?
Kassebaum: I think I started knowing when I went on a non-Equity tour. I did study [theatre] in school. I got a degree, but I always thought I would take the theatre arts therapy [route], working with children, using it in that way. Then I went on a non-Equity tour and met some people from New York, and then I kind of knew — the typical get-off-the-bus with some money and see what happens. And, I've been very lucky.
Q: What was your first professional gig in New York?
Kassebaum: Soon after I got to New York, I got my Equity card doing Chorus Line in Bridgeport. That's where I got my card, and then I just worked around. I worked at a lot of regional [theatres], and then I started working with Rent, my second home. [Laughs.]
Q: Are you involved in any other projects at the moment?
Kassebaum: Right now, no. There was a Richard Maltby project that's still in the running called The Sixties Project that's very dear to him and his wife. I had been involved with that since the beginning, but I don't know if that's still happening. It's actually a beautiful show — using the music from that time period and telling the stories of the struggles in the sixties. Young men going off to war. [In the show I'm] involved in an interracial relationship, which was quite a scandal then. . . . We had done two or three readings. It's Richard Maltby and his wife's [project], and Richard was directing.
Q: One last question: Why do you think Wicked is so popular?
Kassebaum: I think it's universal with humans that sometimes you just don't quite fit into the mold of what people or society wants you to be. I think anytime you see an underdog, you want to root for that person. And I think that's why it's huge with a lot of young women.
[Wicked plays Denver's Buell Theatre Sept. 16-Oct. 2. For tickets, call (303) 893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.]
Those wishing to study with Tony Award winner Betty Buckley can do so this month! There are still a small number of spaces open for Buckley's master classes at the T. Schreiber Studios. A long-time instructor at the Schreiber Studio, Buckley will offer classes in Song Interpretation Sept. 19, 21, 23, 25, 28 and 29. The 7 PM classes will begin with a lecture/demonstration focusing on Buckley's tools, philosophy and relaxation-meditation techniques. Subsequent classes will begin with meditation and then focus on individual work; an accompanist will be provided. Auditors are also welcome at a reduced fee. Established in 1969, the T. Schreiber Studio is recognized as one of the foremost acting schools and professional theatre labs in New York City and is located at 151 W. 26th Street on the 7th floor. Those interested in studying with the star of Cats, Sunset Boulevard and Triumph of Love should call (212) 741-0209.
Marin Mazzie has joined the cast of the upcoming City Center Encores! presentation of Kismet, which will feature her frequent co-star, Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell. Lonny Price will direct the musical, which will play Feb. 9-12, 2006. Mazzie, who will play Lalume, and Mitchell, who will play the Poet, have previously appeared together on Broadway in Ragtime, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate. For more information, visit www.citycenter.org.
The company members of Broadway's Wicked are producing a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which will be held Sept. 25 at the Gershwin Theatre. The 8:30 PM concert will feature the talents of Ben Vereen, Liza Minnelli, Bebe Neuwirth, Bryan Batt, Shoshana Bean, Victoria Clark, Charlotte d'Amboise, Jill Eikenberry, Raul Esparza, Shuler Hensley, Megan Hilty, Bill Irwin, Brian d'Arcy James, Isabelle Keating, Adriane Lenox, Terrence Mann, Rue McClanahan, Michael McElroy, Julia Murney, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelli O'Hara, Denis O'Hare, David Hyde Pierce, Carole Shelley, Christopher Sieber, Michael Tucker, Frederick Weller and The Broadway Inspirational Voices. The evening will also boast performances from the casts of The Light in the Piazza, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, All Shook Up, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Wicked. Profits from Broadway's Celebrity Benefit for Hurricane Relief will go directly to America's Second Harvest and Quilts for Kids, two organizations working directly with the Katrina victims. Tickets for the concert are priced $100 and $300 and are available by visiting the Gershwin Theatre box office, by calling (212) 307-4100 or by logging on to www.ticketmaster.com. The Gershwin Theatre is located at 222 West 51st Street.
With songs by Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward, Elaine Stritch opened her brand-new cabaret act, At Home at the Carlyle, earlier this week to rave reviews. The Tony and Emmy Award-winning performer will play the famed Carlyle through Oct. 29. Featuring musical direction by Rob Bowman, Stritch is backed by a six-piece band comprising Bowman on piano, Lou Bruno on bass, Dave Gale on trumpet, Jack Gale on trombone, Paul Pizzuti on drums and Les Scott on reeds. Jonathan Tunick penned the arrangements and Tony winner Jules Fisher has designed the lights for Stritch's show. I thought you'd be interested to see Stritch's set list, which includes "Yes, I Can," "Perfectly Marvelous," "I Think I Like You," "I Wanna Get Married," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Why Him," "I Went to a Marvelous Party," "He Was Too Good to Me," "That's Him," "I've Been Alone Too Long," "Fifty Percent," "Dear World," "You're the Pop (You're the Top)," "Could I Leave You?," "Heart" and "It Amazes Me." The Café Carlyle is located within the Carlyle Hotel at Madison Avenue and 76th Street. Cover charge is $105 Tuesday-Thursday evenings and $125 Friday and Saturday nights. For reservations call (212) 744-1600 or log on to www.thecarlyle.com.
Mamma Mia!'s Karen Mason has an especially busy fall schedule. After starring as Dorothy Parker in the New York Music Theatre Festival's production of You Might As Well Live (Sept. 22-Oct. 2 at the 45th Street Theatre), Mason will release her latest solo recording. Entitled "The Sweetest of Nights," the CD features musical direction by Christopher Denny and will hit stores in the beginning of October on Zevely Records Inc. Song titles include "A Whole New World," "You and I," "Watch What Happens"/"I Will Wait for You," "Almost Like Being in Love," "My Foolish Heart," "He's Got a Way," "Everything"/"Married," "What's Wrong With This Picture," "Cold Enough to Cross," "The Winner Takes It All," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "People" and "The Sweetest of Nights." Mason will then celebrate the release of her fifth solo recording with a two-week engagement at the new Manhattan cabaret space, The Encore. The singer-actress will play the intimate venue Oct. 27-Nov. 7. Performances are Thursday-Monday evenings; cover charge is $30. The Encore is located at 226 West 47th Street; call (212) 221-3960 for reservations. (For tickets to You Might As Well Live, visit www.nymf.org.)
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.