By Marc Acito
03 Jun 2013
Photo by Matthew Murphy
It was during the Wicked tour that she flew back to New York and auditioned for the ditziest Delta Nu in Legally Blonde, a role that required she have extended conversations with a live chihuahua. "We had to believe that she could understand what the dog was saying," says director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell. "I kept saying, 'I need a Goldie Hawn' and there was Annaleigh. She's the new Goldie Hawn."
Ashford finally got to perform in Wicked on Broadway when she took over as the sixth Glinda. Following a tradition begun by Glinda originator Kristin Chenoweth, Ashford's predecessor, Kendra Kassebaum, left a good-luck note for her to discover in the fly space as she climbed into the bubble for her first descent.
A turning point came in 2009 with a high-profile flop. Famous clown David Shiner cast her in Cirque du Soleil's nouveau-vaudeville show, Banana Shpeel. "I did clown training for months," Ashford says. "Tap-dancing en pointe while playing a ukulele in an Albert Einstein fright wig." The show proved a rare failure for Cirque, but the experience made an impression on her. "I really owned being a clown."
That comic inventiveness is what attracted Jerry Mitchell to Ashford for Kinky Boots. "[Annaleigh] takes a different off-ramp than anyone else," he says. In that regard, Ashford is an ideal progeny of the musical marriage of quirky iconoclasts playwright Harvey Fierstein and composer-lyricist Cyndi Lauper.
In a big show marked by high octane crowd pleasers, Ashford's big number is a stand-out, a star-making turn that propels the audience to sit up and say, "Who is that girl?" Not bad for an actress who thinks she did everything wrong.