Wig Fitted and Costumes Adjusted, Stand-In Steps in for Goldberg at Legends!

By Kenneth Jones
24 Mar 2009

Lisa Estridge
Lisa Estridge

An ill Whoopi Goldberg had to bow out of the nearly sold-out March 24 benefit staged reading of James Kirkwood's Legends!, also starring Lypsinka and Charles Busch, but a stand-in stood in and saved the night at New York City's Town Hall.

Actress Lisa Estridge had been engaged to be just the stand-in for Goldberg while Busch and Lypsinka (aka John Epperson) rehearsed for the comedy about two dueling divas. (Due to Goldberg's intensely busy schedule, she wasn't able to attend every rehearsal, so the creative team hired Estridge as her proxy.)

No one expected Estridge to go on, but when it was learned that Goldberg was too ill to do the March 24 morning episode of TV's "The View," Legends! director Mark Waldrop told Estridge that she should be ready for anything, just in case. By Monday afternoon it was clear that Goldberg would not be playing Aretha, the sassy maid, in Legends! The wardrobe department went to Code Red — or Code Sequins.

Former Seattle actress Estridge (5th Avenue Theatre's Into the Woods) got a huge ovation when she appeared on stage in Legends! — in Goldberg's wig and hastily-altered costumes. It helped that the presentation was always meant to be a concert staged reading (albeit with sets and costumes) rather than a memorized full production. The audience had already been primed by special guest Christine Ebersole, who introduced the evening and told the crowd that Goldberg was absent. Welcome to the thrill of live theatre.

The evening also included appearances by NY-1 "On Stage" theatre reporters Roma Torre and Donna Karger, who offered notes about the play's history, recapped Act One and pretended to have their own local-TV diva rivalry. The special material was written by John Epperson.



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The comedy about showbiz divas, was freshly dragged off the shelf and adapted by John Epperson.

The was the first-ever New York City presentation of the bitchy comedy that first starred Mary Martin and Carol Channing (in a 1986 tour that never made it to Broadway).

The Epperson rewrite updates the story to 2009, beefs up the role of Aretha the maid and includes nips, tucks — and a new ending.

The presentation was a benefit for Friends in Deed - The Crisis Center for Life-Threatening Illness.

Tony-nominated and Drama Desk Award-winning actor, writer, director and drag legend Charles Busch (star of the film adaptation of his play Die Mommie Die and author of Broadway's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife) took on the role of former film fatale, Sylvia Glenn.

Award-winning actor, writer, fashionista and lip-synching pioneer Lypsinka (I Could Go On Lip-Synching!, The Passion of the Crawford, and his recent Medea-based play My Deah) played the "seemingly-saintly" Leatrice Monsee.

This Legends! also starred Bryan Batt ("Mad Men") as Martin Klemmer, the producer scheming to get the two film stars to work together, and had narration by deadpan writer-actress Fran Lebowitz. Also featured were Dashaun Young (currently playing Simba in The Lion King) as stripper Boom-Boom Johnson and Todd DuBail (national tours of Joseph… and Grease) as the policeman.

Kirkwood is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning writer of A Chorus Line and "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead."

Here's how the organizers billed the event: "A hilarious comedy about two glamorous, Hollywood has-beens and arch-rivals forced to consider working together on a new project to resuscitate their careers, Legends! is one of the most notorious theatrical properties ever written — notably for what happened behind-the-scenes. Originally presented in a 1986 year-long, pre-Broadway tour starring Carol Channing and Mary Martin, it closed on the road before making it to New York. The juicy on and off-stage antics were chronicled and immortalized in playwright James Kirkwood's own non-fiction account, 'Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.' In 2007, the play was again presented as a pre-Broadway national tour, this time helmed by 'Dynasty' co-stars Joan Collins and Linda Evans. Also failing to make it to New York, the production had its backstage wars chronicled in lurid detail by Ms. Collins in a two-part series in London's Daily Mail."

Batt plays closeted art director Salvatore Romano on TV's "Mad Men." His Broadway credits include La Cage aux Folles, Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and the Beast. He created the role of Darius in the stage and film versions of Jeffrey.

The production team includes set designer and three-time Emmy Award winner Ray Clause, costume designer Fabio Toblini, lighting and sound consultant Matt Berman, lighting designer Rocky Noel, choreographer Josh Rhodes. Hairstyles are by Katherine Carr and Gerard Kelly.

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Founded by Mike Nichols and Cynthia O'Neal in 1991, Friends in Deed – The Crisis Center for Life-Threatening Illness "has helped transform many thousands of lives through a wide array of free programs and services. It provides emotional and spiritual support for anyone diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life-threatening physical illnesses. Support is also available for family, friends, and caregivers of those who are ill, and anyone dealing with grief and bereavement. Friends In Deed also runs an HIV prevention program for teens in New York City public schools, having already reached over 100,000 at-risk students. All services are free of charge." For more information, visit www.friendsindeed.org or call (212) 925-2009.