It’s a Tuesday night at the Cafe Carlyle, and Melissa Errico, in a sleeveless black satin dress, is making eye contact. As she sings a set of numbers ranging from Kern and Weill to Randy Newman and Oleta Adams, she connects visually with each person, her eyes gliding from table to table, measure by measure. Although it’s her first time doing cabaret, she’s clearly enjoying it, seating herself on the grand piano for the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash "That’s Him" from One Touch of Venus, and lacing her songs with personal background. She brings a girl-next-door charm to the work as well as to post-cabaret table-hopping to chat with eager, middle-aged fans.
During a telephone conversation a few days later, she’s equally zesty and forthcoming. "I had no plans to do this," she says, "but I got a phone call, and my agent said to me, ‘Well here’s another thing you’ve never done, so I bet you’re going to say yes.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘The Cafe Carlyle is inviting you to come and sing.’ So it was a little out of the blue." But, while living in L.A. on and off for the last two to three years, she had been working with jazz pianist Alan Pasqua.
"I’ve spent a lot of time with him just singing music out of the context of theatre and roles and shows," she says, "taking my theatre songs and reinventing them in a way that’s untraditional to the show—not singing the original arrangement. It’s very freeing and very enjoyable. So when I got offered this, I said, ‘Well, maybe Alan has started to tap into something in me, and I’ll give it a go.’"
At 31, Errico has given just about everything a go. She spent a season on the prime-time soap "Central Park West." She has been in movies, from "Frequency" with Dennis Quaid to "Life or Something Like It" with Angelina Jolie, which is due in theatres April 27. In it, she plays a journalist and girlfriend of Jolie. She’s working on a pop album and has recorded two show music albums that have yet to be released. One is a version of One Touch of Venus with Kim Criswell, Brent Barrett, Ron Raines and the London National Symphony. The other is Sadie Thompson, a 1944 Vernon Duke musical based on Rain, in which she and Davis Gaines have the bulk of the songs. She might be riding an elephant in the circus today, if she hadn’t been turned down at her audition. Game as she is, though, she’s canny enough to back off some projects. At a reading for the film "Blair Witch 2," while speaking the line, "I’m going to rip your innards out and drape them around your neck," she quickly decided she didn’t want the part.
One part she does want is Dot, in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. And it’s one she’s got, at the Kennedy Center celebration of the composer this summer, opposite Raul Esparza’s George. She hasn’t yet met the hot star of tick, tick…boom and Cabaret, because she’s been conserving her voice during the Carlyle run, but "I just got his phone number," she says excitedly. "So I’m going to call him, because I think we should get together and we should go out to lunch. I love the social aspects of being in the theatre." The chance to play Dot arose during her involvement in a Michael Legrand musical, Le Passe Muraille (The Man Who Walked Through Walls), a Parisian hit that Jeremy Sams has translated into English (now redubbed Amour) for a mid-October opening at the Music Box. Errico will play Isabelle, a dreamer trapped in a loveless marriage. "We did a workshop of it with James Lapine for the Shuberts this past fall," she says. "Michel is very good friends with Stephen Sondheim, so Sondheim came to see it, and that’s how I got Dot."
That part is, for her, "my first choice of anyone’s musicals." It’s also one for which she has some affinity. "I majored in art history at Yale," she explains. "My mother’s a professional painter, and a lot of friends were in the painting world. I love painters and people who see like that and want to create something out of nothing." Theatre is different, she points out: "I get an idea, I’ve got a writer, then this guy wrote music, and there’s the dancer and choreographer. It’s like we’re a whole mishmash of people who combust."
Combustibility hasn’t always been a hallmark of her shows. "I’ve never been in a Broadway musical that, all in all, really worked," she admits. After building steadily on work in Les Miz (at 18), My Fair Lady, and the 1996 Encores! One Touch of Venus, she seemed poised for long-running success in High Society in 1998. Its pedigree was solid: Based on Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, it had a Cole Porter score and had received good notices in San Francisco. But East Coast decisions mangled the West Coast success.
"In San Francisco," Errico says, "the opening number, which established my character's nature and personality, was one in which I was standing on a pedestal with the bridesmaids at my feet, sewing the hem on my wedding gown, for a final fitting. I was standing up there, looking very in control and cool, and singing in a light voice ‘I Am Love.’ It really set up the ‘ice goddess’ of Barry's description in the original text—aloof, smug even. Then when we came to Broadway, the whole producer team and directors wanted to give it a super-high-energy opening. They had me come bounding out in riding gear, as if I had just got off my horse, breathless and happy, into a spotlight alone and sing ‘Ridin’ High.’ It was very exciting, but it set up my character as a bundle of fun."
In addition to song and costume changes, the director and choreographer were fired ten days before the opening. "We were in rehearsals from 10 to 6—sometimes I was rehearsing until 7:30—and then we did the show at night," she says. "And no one told the press, so we were reviewed as if we had known our show and our choreography for at least a month. No! Maybe an hour! It was grueling."
Life has turned around for her now. She’s been married four years to Patrick McEnroe, the sports commentator and captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. They had attended nursery school together, but met again as adults. "Patrick is the light of my life," says Errico. Though they were unfamiliar with each other’s worlds, "he has turned out to be a great help in my work because he is an amazing listener." Her Carlyle engagement, falling during the Davis Cup tournament, has broken her string of appearances there, where she sings the national anthem and hangs out with their buddy Jim Currier. But she’s following this year’s match closely. "Andy Roddick is really shining like a new penny," she says. "And the secret hope is that Andre Agassi will join the U.S. against France."
Now, during the final week of her Carlyle engagement, her father, Michael Errico, a physician and accomplished pianist, accompanies her on her encores nightly, as he has frequently done. "I have never been happier," she says. She’s been putting it all together, bit by bit. And it works.
—By Edward Karam