DIVA TALK: Hats! Stars Alexander, Braden, Franz, Lyng, Myers, Ralston & Stern PLUS Ripley & Skinner

News   DIVA TALK: Hats! Stars Alexander, Braden, Franz, Lyng, Myers, Ralston & Stern PLUS Ripley & Skinner News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
from top: Alexander, Braden, Franz, Lyng, Myers, Ralston and Stern in Hats!
from top: Alexander, Braden, Franz, Lyng, Myers, Ralston and Stern in Hats! Photo by Dave Harder

THE WOMEN OF HATS!
With Halloween less than a week away and the winter holidays just around the corner, it seemed like a good time to check in with the gals of Hats!, the new musical inspired by The Red Hat Society, which was formed almost a decade ago when five women, dressed in purple clothing and red hats, met for afternoon tea. The organization, which includes women over 50 from all walks of life, meets for one reason: "to have fun."

The new musical, which is currently playing a world-premiere engagement at the New Denver Civic Center, features a score by a mix of acclaimed songwriters, including Henry Krieger, David Friedman, Susan Birkenhead, Melissa Manchester, Amanda McBroom, Carol Hall, Gretchen Cryer, Doug Besterman, Pam Tillis and Kathie Lee Gifford. Directed and choreographed by Lynne-Taylor Corbett, the show, which is billed as a musical for the rest of your life, also boasts a cast of theatre favorites, including Pamela Myers, Teri Ralston, Joy Franz, Nora Mae Lyng, Leslie Alexander, Miche Braden and Cheryl Stern. "Diva Talk" recently asked these talented women to chat about their character(s) in Hats, their most outrageous stage or Halloween costume and a favorite holiday memory.

Leslie Alexander
Leslie Alexander, who has been seen on Broadway in The Boy From Oz and Mamma Mia!, plays the Baroness in Hats. "She's a driven, divorced Texas businesswoman, and yet has insecurities about her personal future," says Alexander, who auditioned for the production "because it was a new show for actresses 'of a certain age' — and I felt there was longevity to the project." Hats also provides Alexander the chance to sing "a great country tune called 'The Older the Fiddle, The Sweeter the Tune,' written by Pam Tillis and Pat Bunch."

Alexander says she wore her most outrageous costume during a Theatre Under the Stars production of The Wizard of Oz several years ago. "I played a cow in the cyclone ballet (picture a black leotard holding a wooden cow on a stick), a poppy (picture a green leotard with my face surrounded by red flower petals), and a Winkie (a soldier for the Wicked Witch of the West - complete with mustache)."

Her favorite holiday memories are Christmas Eves with her parents and siblings. "We'd have our own family program," explains Alexander, "[and] we'd all dress up. Someone would read the Christmas story from the bible — there'd be solos, and we'd sing Christmas carols. Then, we'd all hug and kiss and tell one another we loved them. Next would be a Christmas Eve buffet, and then we'd open presents. It was wonderful!" Miche Braden
Miche Braden, who played and sang "New York State of Mind" in Broadway's Movin' Out, portrays Dutchess de Lovely, "a happily married woman of 63 that knows how to 'keep it hot!'" A 2001 Carbonell Award winner, Braden remembers a 1993 Halloween that fell on a Sunday. "I went to a late afternoon service at church in the Village as Cleopatra Jones," she says, "[complete with a] Norma Kamali cat suit, huge afro wig, thigh-high boots [but] no gun." She adds, "Onstage, in a show called Holiday Cabaret — written for me and Sherri Nichols — in Detroit at the Attic Theater, I wore a camel costume and sang a song about always being cast in the Sunday school Christmas Pageant as the second camel on the right."

Braden, who plays the lead and is also the musical director for The Devil's Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith, says her favorite holiday memory occurred on Jan. 1, 2004, at midnight, when she was married "right after watch night service at my church, UFC New Brunswick, where I serve as Minister of Music."

Joy Franz
Joy Franz, the theatre favorite whose Broadway credits include both the original and revival productions of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, originally thought she would be unable to be part of Hats because "the workshop conflicted with a play I was already cast in called Brutality of Fact by Keith Reddin. But it all worked out, [and] I was able to do both shows because Hats rehearsed from 10 AM to 6 PM, and the play [ran] from 7 to 10 PM. I was gloriously busy."

Franz plays Princess Polly in Hats, a character she describes as "a warm, fun, loving person who celebrates life. Her husband leaves her for a 35-year-old woman, which I sing about in the song 'Just Like Me' by Doug Besterman and David Goldsmith.

"I also have a beautiful monologue about Princess' mother, who died from breast cancer, and also how it feels to be single at this point in her life, which I get to sing about in a beautiful song called 'Invisible' by Melissa Manchester and Sharon Vaughn."

Franz wore her most memorable costume in Into the Woods: "When I was doing [the musical's] premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego" — she created the role of Cinderella’s Step-Mother — "I also played a mother wolf in . . . [a furry] sexy costume, low-cut bodice with ears, tail, the works! I was teaching my baby wolf [Merle Louise] how to huff and puff the Three Little Pigs house down! But it was cut because the show was too long!"

The Stephen Sondheim musical also provided the actress — who will perform Brutality of Fact this spring in Los Angeles — with her favorite holiday memory: "My favorite Christmas memory," she says, "was in 1987 at Stephen Sondheim's home when he told me he had written the role of Cinderella's Step-Mother with me in mind! I was thrilled to pieces — the best Christmas present ever!"

Nora Mae Lyng
"I auditioned [for Hats] in July of 2006," says Nora Mae Lyng, "and was originally submitted for another role, but when I read the breakdown, I just knew I had to play the Contessa. Thanks to a very special skirt and my trusty drop-hoop earrings, I nailed it! Ruby was thrown in on the first day of rehearsal and evolved in the workshop and first production."

The actress, who was in the original cast of Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway, says Contessa is "an innocent sexpot who loves life and cannot lie without telling on herself. She is full of fun and usually chocolate! Ruby is a little Mae West, Glinda and Mom all rolled up in a two-foot-tall puppet with my head!"

Lyng — who has been developing the musicals Writing Arthur; Martha, the unauthorized bio; and Pride & Prejudice with various writers — says she "once went to a Halloween party in a seven-foot dragon costume. It was a surprise for an old high-school chum. I couldn't eat or drink until I was 'unveiled' at midnight. She had no idea it was me!"

Pamela Myers
Pamela Myers, who was Tony-nominated for creating the role of Marta in the original Broadway run of Company, says she was familiar with The Red Hat Society "because we have a whole bunch of them in Ohio, and there's a chapter in my mom's retirement home." Her character in the new musical is the happily married Dame Eliza Doolittle, who "has just sent her youngest child off to school. Her husband has very satisfying work, and she is facing her empty nest. She is very positive with possibly an inner theatrical goofiness. Some how [director] Lynne [Taylor-Corbett] cast me!"

Myers — who will soon be part of a production of The Full Monty at her alma mater, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music — wore quite a memorable costume on the series "Sha Na Na." "We had a sketch," remembers Myers, "where I was dressed in a complete fat pig suit in a dress — nose, too. I was seated at a table loaded with food singing 'Is That All There Is?' — you guessed it —as Miss Piggy Lee. See what my son has had to contend with!"

The singing actress has a few favorite holiday memories: "My dad and I always sang together at church, practically every year until he died — he had a beautiful natural voice. Also, when I was a little girl, I used to search the house for presents. One year I found them and opened them to find the doll I wanted. I did my best re-wrapping, and on Christmas morning I was in tears to find my sister's name on that box. Okay, so she wanted it, too. By the way, I kept my son Max believing in Santa until he was ten. Now that's an actress for you!"

Teri Ralston
"I'm loving it," Teri Ralston says of her experience in Hats, "working with old friends like Pam Myers and Joy Franz. [It] is a great reunion show, celebrating where we are at this time in our life. The Red Hat Society is a joyous organization, and in shows I've done in the past, we were always thrilled when we had Red Hatters in the audience. They are the best. Of course, we're not just playing to Red Hatters, but their enthusiasm is infectious, and it's so rewarding. We're all celebrating the years we've lived and the years ahead."

Ralston, who was part of the original Broadway casts of Company and A Little Night Music, plays the widow Lady Labrador Noi in Hats. "After my [character's] husband passed away," she says, "I heard about a group of widows that were part of the Red Hat Society. I went to what they call a tea party, and it changed my life. I found great comfort, support and laughter with the group. I am the mother of MaryAnne, who is about to turn 50.

"The role was originally written to be an 80 year old," Ralston adds. "When they asked me to read for that role, I was a bit insulted. However, they quickly assured me, they would change the age. I'm having a great time being Cheryl Stern's mom and working with five other terrific dames!"

Ralston remembers one "wardrobe malfunction" that almost occurred when she borrowed a dress from June Wilkenson to wear as Hedy La Rue in a production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. "[June] was well known at that time," Ralston explains, "not only for her acting, but her buxom figure. She was friends with the director, and she loaned me a dress to wear with big holes around the mid area. Well, suffice it to say, she was larger than me in certain areas — even though I did wear three push-up bras — and the holes landed a bit lower . . . not a good thing. The dress was reconstructed for me, and I had a great time playing Hedy."

The actress, who was recently in the workshop of Natural Woman and who is also part of a show entitled Too Old for the Chorus, says, "I love Christmas and New Years. I never wanted to work on these holidays. I'm an only child, and I always spent Christmas with my parents. I dreaded the day I could no longer be with them for the holidays. However, they are both gone now, and the great thing I've found is how wonderful it is to share the holidays with my family of friends and my great family in theatre. I'm not a member of the Red Hat Society, but I guess you could say, my Red Hat Society is the theatre. I will never be alone for the holidays."

Cheryl Stern
Cheryl Stern, who plays 49.9999-year-old MaryAnne in Hats, says prior to her audition for the show she was "days away from approaching one of those birthdays with a zero myself and in a really crummy mood about it. This role was me, and I couldn't believe it! When I went to the audition, I did something no actress ever does. I walked in the room and announced my upcoming birthday! I booked the job!"

MaryAnne, she adds, is also having a difficult time with her impending birthday. "She has a good life," says the actress seen in the Broadway revival of The Women, "[with] a nice husband, 13-year old daughter and a decent career as a third grade teacher, but she hasn't really lived up to her dream of being a great writer. Turning the big five-o is a big marker for her, and she is just freaking out about getting old and feeling invisible, useless and ancient. She's having a midlife meltdown!"

It's a busy time for Stern, who has been spent the past few years working on several writing projects. "The fruits of those labors," she says, "are spreading around right now. As we speak, Normal, written with Yvonne Adrian and my husband, Tom Kochan . . . is being launched as Transport Group's 2006 outreach program in Milwaukee this month. It's a thrilling, new program for highs schools across America called Normal in Schools. The piece deals with a family in crisis over their daughter's eating disorder. Students will perform it at Greendale High School, and a documentary film of the whole process is being made. It will be a school-wide event, and the program will ultimately include lesson plans, study materials and help from experts in the field so that students and teachers everywhere will be able to create this program in their schools.

"I am also doing work on the final draft of Littlest Light on the Christmas Tree, a stage adaptation of the animated feature with Jim Hindman, which will receive a workshop production this January. And, Are We There Yet?, a revue I wrote with Jim Hindman, Ray Roderick and John Glaudini, is also being produced around the U.S."

As for a unique costume experience, she remembers the Broadway engagement of Jackie Mason's Laughing Room Only: "My most terrifying [costume] didn't make it to opening night. A subtle leopard hooker outfit with a 52-inch chest and padded butt complete with very large red hair. I did, however, appear on the Brooks Atkinson stage in a full-out sex kitten, fifties-inspired, green snake suit with red devil sunglasses, six-inch red nails and a long green tail in an Adam and Eve sketch. Adam and Eve, played respectively and respectfully by Darrin Baker and Ruth Gottschall in nude suits! Now that's comedy—at least, now."

When asked whether she has a favorite Christmas or Chanukah memory, Stern answers, "I have a combo! John Znidarsic actually got me to write a song about it several years ago for the Donnell Library Christmas Songbook. [It's called] 'Christmas in Miami.' I've been singing it ever since! When I was around 18, my parents bought a condo in Miami. It was Christmas Eve and being the kind of Jewish girl who was always attracted to the opposite in men, I happened upon a lifeguard boyfriend who decided to take soap bubbles and pour them into the fountain at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Major bubbles, major crowd, major hormones and the grand illusion of snow on Christmas in Miami!" [The New Denver Civic Center Theatre is located at 721 Sante Fe Drive in Denver, CO. Tickets for Hats!, priced at $39.50, are available by calling (303) 309-3773 or by visiting www.ticketswest.com.]

EMILY SKINNER & ALICE RIPLEY SING BROADWAY!
Last Saturday evening at Town Hall, one could not help being struck by the beauty of former Side Show co-stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner: not only their striking physical beauty and their different but equally exhilarating vocal beauty but also by the beauty of their friendship. In fact, their mutual admiration for each other was evident again and again throughout the two-act concert, which was part of the second annual Broadway Cabaret Festival produced and hosted by Scott Siegel.

Although Emily Skinner & Alice Ripley Sing Broadway! featured several duets — including terrific versions of "Two's Company," "Little Me," "Every Day a Little Death," "Sisters"/"Ohio," "Trouble" and "Past My Prime" — it was during the women's solos where Ripley and Skinner had the chance to truly impress and demonstrate how different their personalities and vocal styles are.

Skinner's voice is most beautiful in its upper register, and her delivery of The Robber Bridegroom's "Sleepy Man" and the Into the Woods anthem "No One Is Alone" were two of the concert's highlights. In fact, one could have heard the proverbial pin drop as Skinner lulled the audience into a state of bliss during these two ballads. She also scored with a deliciously evil "Poor Unfortunate Soul" from Disney's The Little Mermaid and did her best Mae West in "Come Up and See Me Sometime."

Ripley's voice is most exciting when she lets her powerful, steely-edged belt soar. And, thankfully, she employed that unique, thrilling sound — coupled with her impassioned delivery — several times throughout the evening, offering little-known tunes from forthcoming musicals, including "Last Smoker in America" (from the musical of the same name) "I Miss the Mountains" (from Feeling Electric) and "You Have to Be There" (from Kristina). Ripley also displayed her kooky sense of humor in a wonderful version of Stephen Sondheim's "Broadway Baby" that built to a stunning climax.

A Ripley-Skinner evening, however, could not be complete without songs from Side Show, the short-lived Bill Russell-Henry Krieger musical that brought both actresses a legion of new fans. And, thankfully, the audience was offered three: "She's Gone," a song cut from the Broadway production, and the musical's two powerhouse ballads: "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You."

Thankfully, the evening — featuring musical director Ross Patterson at the piano, Shannon Ford on drums, Randy Landau on bass and Jack Bashkow on woodwinds — was recorded for future release on the Kritzerland label. I look forward to enjoying Skinner and Ripley's work once again.

DIVA TIDBITS
Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, who continues to tour the country in her acclaimed concert act, will make a special guest appearance on "Law & Order: SVU" in November. The celebrated singing actress will play a lawyer on the hit NBC series, defending a client played by Chris Sarandon. The episode is currently scheduled to air Nov. 28 at 10 PM ET; check local listings. For more information visit www.nbc.com.

WLIW New York, the PBS station that airs in the metropolitan area on Channel 21, will present the exclusive premiere of "Sarah Brightman: Diva – The Video Collection" on Oct. 28. The 7:30 PM program will feature Brightman music videos accompanied by the singer's personal comments as well as an interview with the star filmed for the broadcast. The program will begin airing on PBS stations nationwide Nov. 25. The Brightman evening will include her performances of "Pie Jesu," "Phantom of the Opera," "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," "Amigos Para Siempre" (with José Carreras), "Time to Say Goodbye" (with Andrea Bocelli), "Just Show Me How to Love You," "Who Wants to Live Forever," "Nella Fantasia" and "A Whiter Shade of Pale." For more information visit www.wliw.org.

Cabaret favorite Andrea Marcovicci, who will return to the Algonquin Hotel in November for a two-month engagement, will offer a solo evening at New York's Town Hall in 2007. On Feb. 23, 2007, the acclaimed chanteuse will present her most-requested concert act, I'll Be Seeing You. . . Love Songs of WWII. Marcovicci's two-act program will feature the actress backed by a chamber orchestra. Show time is 8 PM. The idea for I'll Be Seeing You — which features such classic tunes as "Sentimental Journey," "We'll Meet Again," "The White Cliffs of Dover," "Skylark" and "Berkeley Square" — was originally suggested to the cabaret veteran by long-time family friend Walter Cronkite. Marcovicci recently revised the acclaimed show to include "As Time Goes By," "Heart and Soul," "Say It (Over and Over Again)" and "Lili Marlene." Town Hall is located at 123 W. 43rd Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues). For tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org.

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

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