Kristin Chenoweth, 29, won the Tony in June as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her critically hailed comic performance as the quintessential kindergarten grump Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Now she is back on Broadway as Louise, a motion-picture shepherdess in charge of 3,400 Hollywood extras, in Epic Proportions, a comedy set in the Arizona desert in the 1930’s during the making of a big-screen biblical epic.
“I am honored to be playing an adult, after all those months playing a five year-old,” Chenoweth says with a laugh.
The new play, at the Helen Hayes Theatre, is directed by Jerry Zaks, a four-time Tony winner, whose Broadway credits include Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls. The authors are David Crane, co creator of the hit television comedy “Friends,” and Larry Coen, associate director of the City Stage Company of Boston.
The petite and effervescent Chenoweth has blonde hair and eyes of blue, but when it comes to five-foot-two, she falls three inches short. “I’m four eleven,” she says in her cheerful, rapid-fire voice, which contains more than a trace of the South; “five one with heels and hair.” She’s been in love with music and theatre since she was even smaller. “I grew up singing myself to sleep every night,” she says of her childhood in Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb. Her father, a chemical engineer, and her mother, a homemaker, recognized her talent early, and she soon began singing in church. “I was raised with a strong belief in God,” she says. “I rely on that belief now. I would sing solo in church. I was a sort of prodigy because my voice was way beyond my years. I would be invited to churches all over the state. When I was 12, I sang at the Baptist Convention in front of 40,000 people.”
In those years, she had no formal training. “My parents gave me ballet and piano lessons, but they didn’t give me voice lessons,” she says. “I went to Tulsa University when I was 16 to have a teacher listen to me, and she said I was so advanced -- I was hitting notes you just didn’t hit at that age -- that she wanted to leave me alone so I wouldn’t develop bad habits.” The real training began in college, at Oklahoma City University, where she got a bachelor’s and then a master’s in opera performance. She also studied acting and worked in summer theatre. But it seemed that her future was as a diva, especially when at age 22 she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions and was selected as one of five students to enter the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia for a four-year postgraduate program.
But two weeks before starting, she came to New York to help a friend move in, and she decided to audition for a role in Animal Crackers at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. She got the part.
“I always had the dream of being on Broadway,” she says. “Always. I didn’t want to just sing.”
Animals Crackers led to Scapin at the Roundabout, to Steel Pier on Broadway, to Strike Up the Band at City Center’s Encores! series, and to A New Brain at Lincoln Center. And to Charlie Brown. And now to Epic Proportions.
To Chenoweth, Louise, her character in the new comedy, “is the heart of the show. It’s the middle of the Depression, and people are willing to do whatever’s necessary to make money. Two brothers decide to play extras so they can be fed and housed. Both of them fall for her, so she’s the heart of the triangle. But she’s also funny.” Before starting rehearsals for Epic Proportions, Chenoweth went to Hollywood to make a new television version of Annie, with Kathy Bates and Alan Cumming. She plays Lily St. Regis, the not-too-swift girlfriend of the con artist Rooster Hannigan. It will be shown November 7 on ABC.
There are other roles she would love to play. She expects to take part in a workshop for a Broadway version of the 1967 Julie Andrews and Carol Channing movie "Thoroughly Modern Millie." “And I’d love to do Carnival. And something operetta-ish, like Gilbert and Sullivan. And Candide. Anything where I can combine my voice and comedy.”
Critics and audiences agree -- that voice and her comic ability should give her a career of epic proportions.