Sympathy for the Diva: Christine Ebersole Is Back on 42nd Street, in 42nd Street

Sympathy for the Diva: Christine Ebersole Is Back on 42nd Street, in 42nd Street 42nd Street, eight times a week at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts directly on 42nd Street, taps out the merry little message that has kept the revolving door of show biz perpetually awhirl with chorines. This is the one about the "raw kid from the chorus" (Allentown's own Peggy Sawyer) who goes out there a youngster and comes back a star.

42nd Street, eight times a week at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts directly on 42nd Street, taps out the merry little message that has kept the revolving door of show biz perpetually awhirl with chorines. This is the one about the "raw kid from the chorus" (Allentown's own Peggy Sawyer) who goes out there a youngster and comes back a star.

But what about the broken heart replaced by that bright light? What about the fallen star dislodged by this lucky upstart, left adrift in the firmament she called home? What about Dorothy Brock?

Chipping away at the old Brock has always been the business of seasoned divas — from Bebe Daniels in the orgasmic, Busby Berkeley-choreographed film musical of 1933 to Tammy Grimes in David Merrick's splashy stage re-creation of it in 1980. Neither star exactly went at the job with a pickax (lest their makeup get mussed), but now the task has been taken up by a certified cut-up who finds some ferocious fun in the plight of an ego driven star in eclipse.

Christine Ebersole also found the Tony as last season's Best Actress in a Musical. Hers was one of two Tonys unwon by The Producers. (The other? Best Musical Revival, which The Producers didn't qualify for but which 42nd Street did — and, of course, won.)

Ebersole's achievement is all the more remarkable for the fact that all the arrows in the show are pointing to Allentown's Own — and away from the established, entrenched star. If anything, her role has anti-sympathy. Dorothy Brock is an aging, therefore grasping and scrapping, actress who solidifies her star-tripping by cozying up to the enamored money-bags who is producing the show while cheating on him with her True Love and generally making life difficult for the once-great director hoping for one redemptive last hurrah. "Some would say Dorothy is egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered, foul tempered and just plain mean," Ebersole concedes before sweetly rendering her verdict: "I think she's misunderstood." That kinder-and gentler view allows her a lot of latitude to play her trump card — comedy, something that bubbles quite easily to the surface for her. "My family was really funny," she says. "I take my work seriously but not me. I see the folly in life."

But she doesn't have much space in which to operate. Brock is felled by a mishap in the first-act finale, then wheeled — literally wheeled — back onstage for a small scene and song ("About a Quarter To Nine") in Act II, peptalking her understudy into a star-making turn. Which means she must make every number count in the first act, but what numbers they are: "Shadow Waltz," "You're Getting To Be a Habit With Me," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Getting Out of Town" and a fraction of "42nd Street" at the end of the first act.

Believe it or not, this is the first time she has sung and danced on Broadway since the five performances of Harrigan 'n Hart in 1985, making hers the quietest comeback of the year and indeed a suitable cause for Tonying. It's hard to believe because she has been across the river and into the woods in Millburn, NJ, for two Paper Mill Playhouse productions (Paper Moon and Mame), and she has had more featured roles in City Center's Encores! than anyone (Lady in the Dark, Allegro, A Connecticut Yankee and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936).

"Ebersole is the only person I know who can play Hello, Dolly! on Monday and Lady Macbeth on Tuesday," says Jay Binder, who, with his constant Encores! casting, at last chiseled her out of California, where she retreated to do film/TV after Harrigan 'n Hart.

"I was living on 13th Street in a six-floor walkup, and I thought, 'I'm not spending the rest of my life going out of town doing shows so I can come back and walk up six flights of stairs. There has to be something better than this.'"

L.A. filled that bill up till about a year and a half ago when Broadway withdrawal set in. She remembers where and when. She was in town doing Ziegfeld Follies, and her husband, musical director Bill Moloney, had come in to see her do it. "We were sitting in our room at the Warwick, and we knew our lives were at a crossroads. Bill said, 'You have to move back to New York because people don't appreciate your talent in L.A. People appreciate you here. You gotta come where you're appreciated.' And the moment we made that decision — I mean, literally, instantaneously like that — the phone rang. It was Angelo Del Rossi. He had seen Ziegfeld Follies and wanted me to do Mame.

"I hit the ground running in 1999, and I haven't had a break since we've landed," she says. "I did Mame, then the TV movie 'Mary and Rhoda,' then a straight play at Manhattan Theatre Club [Current Events] and another straight play on Broadway [The Best Man]. Then I went out to L.A. and did an episode of 'Will and Grace,' and I came back and did A Connecticut Yankee at City Center, and then went right into 42nd Street."

The dust — the Tony dust — has settled some since, prompting her of late to spend a couple of months of Mondays (her night off) at Arci's Place doing a club act. Cabaret, she says, is her favorite venue — which, coming from the girl who can do everything, is something.

— Harry Haun