DIVA TALK: Brenda Braxton, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Mandy Gonzalez, Kenita Miller, Lynne Wintersteller On New Musicals, Revival Roles, Upcoming Projects

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Brenda Braxton
Brenda Braxton

This week's column spotlights five of the women featured in the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival, which runs July 7-27 at various venues around the city. Diva Talk posed the same set of questions to each talented artist; their answers, via email, follow. For ticket information visit  nymf.org.

Brenda Braxton
Wikimusical
PTC Performance Space
July 18 at 8 PM, July 19 at 5 PM, July 20 at 8 PM, July 22 at 5 PM and July 26 at 9 PM

Question: How did you get involved in this production?
Braxton: I became involved in Wikimusical in an interesting way. I interviewed with Richard Hinds for a Smokey Joe's Café he was working on. While that didn't work out, a few weeks later he offered me the role of Spam King. I'm looking forward to working with him as director/choreographer.

Tell me a little bit about the show and the character you are playing.
Braxton: Since I've only read the script once so far, the only way I would describe it is a modern-day Alice in Wonderland! The character I play, Spam King, was originally written for a man, so it should be interesting to see the adjustments that will be made for a female actress. "Alice in Wonderland" is one of my favorite stories. I even performed in a version years ago called Alice starring Debbie Allen, directed by Vinnette Carrol, choreographed by Talley Beattyl and produced by Mike Nichols.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of, or is this your first?
Braxton: I'm happy to say I have been a part of two NYMF productions. Travlin' in 2010 and Plagued in 2009. If you could star in a Broadway revival of any play or musical, which show and role would you choose and why?
Braxton: I would love to do Victor/Victoria in the title role, of course!! It's a role that allows an actress to show so many levels. It has also never been performed by an African American woman. Now that would be fierce!!

Why do you think NYMF is so important? 
Braxton: I believe NYMF is important because it's one of the few ways new bodies of work can be seen in a full production form.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Braxton: Yes! I'm developing a reality TV show and writing a book on women starting over after 50! I've had several "setbacks" in the past few years and I never thought I would feel like I'm having to start over at this point in my career and personal life. I realize there are millions of women feeling this same thing. I want them to know that it's ok and they're not alone. I want to be an example for them to be the Leading Lady of their new lives!! 

Stephanie D'Abruzzo
Photo by Meredith Zinner

Stephanie D'Abruzzo
Academia Nuts
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center
July 9 at 8 PM, July 10 at 1 PM, July 11 at 9 PM, July 12 at 5 PM, July 13 at 8 PM

Question: How did you get involved in this production?
D'Abruzzo: Ah, it's a tale as old as time: I got a call to audition for it and so I did. And I was lucky enough to book it.

Tell me a little bit about the show and the character you are playing.
D'Abruzzo:  Academia Nuts is the story of two very different groups of kids competing in a Quiz Bowl Championship. I play Sgt. Tina, the enigmatic coach of the Walla Walla Walruses. I don’t want to give too much away about Sarge, but I will say two things: One, based on her character’s description in the audition breakdown, I was convinced that I would never get this part; and two: I am so glad I got this part because it’s unlike anything I have ever done before, and I love that.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of, or is this your first?
D'Abruzzo: The only other NYMF production I’ve done is Austentatious back in 2007. There were other NYMF shows in other years that I was asked to do but couldn’t for one reason or another, or that inquired about my interest and availability and even though I said “yes” went and cast someone else, or that I auditioned for but didn’t get. So I’m glad to be back in the festival this year.

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
D'Abruzzo: I think NYMF is a wonderful opportunity for creators to have a venue in which to present full productions of new work that can be seen by wider audiences thanks to the built-in publicity, excitement and support that NYMF provides. It’s hard to get any show off the ground, and NYMF provides more than a little lift. Even shows that don’t have lives beyond the festival can benefit from the truer audience response than what you can get from a reading or workshop. And it’s great for audiences as well, who get to witness the births of brand-new musicals at reasonable ticket prices. Plus, it seems that now NYMF has become a bit of a party, now that it has a home at the Signature where people can meet, mingle and just gorge themselves on summer theatre. It’s truly a festival in every sense of the word.

If you could star in a Broadway revival of any play or musical, which show and role would you choose and why?
D'Abruzzo: I get asked this a lot, so maybe this is a fun time for me to share a ridiculous impossibility: that if I had my whole life to live over again as a man, I would make it my goal to play every role in 1776 throughout my career, starting it as the Courier and ending it as Caesar Rodney. It’s a character actor’s dream show.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
D'Abruzzo: Not right now, but then again, the phone might ring tomorrow...

Mandy Gonzalez

Mandy Gonzalez
Sing Me Home
Laurie Beechman Theatre
July 20 at 8 PM and July 21 at 1 PM

Question: How did you get involved in this production?
Gonzalez: I got involved with the production of Sing Me Home after producer Amber Cassell sent the music to my managers. I completely fell in love with the music written by Kristy Hanson, and I knew I had to be part of this show at NYMF.

Tell me a little bit about the show and the character you are playing.
Gonzalez: I play the character Lexi Angel, who is a former teen pop idol making her way back to the spotlight after taking a break for a few years. The play starts on the stage of her first concert after years away. We are doing the show in concert form, so it is only music, and we are ready to rock!!

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of, or is this your first? …Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Gonzalez: This is my first NYMF show, and I think the festival is so important for artists and for NYC! It's a place for all artists to have a voice and to try new things. What better place than NYC!

If you could star in a Broadway revival of any play or musical, which show and role would you choose and why?
Gonzalez: I look for work that is challenging and inspiring to me. Whether that happens in a new show or a revival only time will tell.

Kenita Miller

Kenita Miller
Propaganda! The Musical
PTC Performance Space
July 23 at 8 PM, July 24 at 1 PM, July 25 at 9 PM, July 26 at 5:30 PM and July 27 at noon

Question: How did you get involved in this production?
Miller: I was called in to audition for the role of Agent X by Nikki Grillos, Joy Dewing Casting.

Tell me a little bit about the show and the character you are playing.
Miller: Propaganda! is about a young man named Rookie who is left with the responsibility of running the family business, which happens to be the business of covering up political scandals. My character is the evil Agent X. She loves to hate. Evil, and other people's misfortune, bring her great pleasure. She is determined to see Rookie fail so she can take control of the agency.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of, or is this your first?
Miller: This is my second time with NYMF. The first show was Frog Kiss, book and lyrics by Charles Leipart and music by Eric Schorr. I played a Tao Master and various characters. So excited to be participating this year!!!

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Miller: I think NYMF is important because of the support and exposure it gives to new works. It is such a gratifying feeling, once the production you're a part of comes to life. And, you as an actor have met the challenge of helping to create something brand new. It's exhilarating! If you could star in a Broadway revival of any play or musical, which show and role would you choose and why?
Miller: Honestly, I mostly think about roles and people I'd like to originate or portray. But, if I could star in any Broadway revival of a play, it would be anything August Wilson. For a Broadway revival of a musical I would say... Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Dorothy in The Wiz. Eliza's arc seems like a yummy challenge. And, what girl/woman wouldn't want to play Dorothy???

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Miller: I am currently working on an experimental opera piece called Makandal with Harlem Stages. Book by Carl Hancock Rux and music by Yosvany Terry. Directed by Lars Jan. I have also been working on creating a piece influenced by Eartha Kitt.

Lynne Wintersteller

Lynne Wintersteller
Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade
PTC Performance Space
July 17 at 8 PM, July 19 at 1 PM, July 20 at noon, July 21 at 1 PM and July 24 at 9 PM

Question: How did you get involved in this production?
Wintersteller: An offer from Stephanie Klapper Casting Office was sent to my manager, who forwarded it to me. Immediately I listened to the entire demo and read the script that was attached. I re-listened to certain selections, then, I just trusted my gut. A role either speaks to me or it doesn’t. The fact that one person can make such a difference by shear courage of conviction, along with trying to make a historical figure come to life, was appealing. So I said “yes.”

Tell me a little bit about the show and the character you are playing?
Wintersteller: Mary Harris Jones (aka Mother Jones) was a fearless fighter for workers’ rights at the turn of the century. Way ahead of her time, she was a colorful, fiery orator and organizer known as “the most dangerous woman in America.” She used stature, feminism, jail (sent numerous times), bullying, shrewd tactics to grab national headlines to shed public awareness for workers’ rights. At a time when unions were extremely unpopular and new, Mother Jones was able to organize and better working/salary conditions for railway workers, coal miners, textile workers, dress makers and especially the working children in our country. To attract attention to the cause of abolishing child labor all together, in 1903 Mother Jones concocted the idea and led a children’s march from the textile mills of Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island summer home. Thus Mother Jones & the Children’s Crusade.

What other NYMF productions have you been a part of, or is this your first?
Wintersteller: Mother Jones & the Children’s Crusade will be my fifth NYMF production. Castle Walk (Richard Stafford/Milton Granger - NYMF 2014 “Outstanding Performance”); Such Good Friends, NYMF 2007 (Noel Katz/ Marc Bruni); The Mistress Cycle, NYMF 2005 (Jenny Giering/Beth Blatt – Joe Calarco); Richard Cory ( Ed Dixon/Jim Brennan – NYMF 2005 “Best Actress”).

Why do you think NYMF is so important?
Wintersteller: I’m repeating myself, but NYMF provides an avenue for young writers to produce fully realized productions in New York City, while exposing their work, names, as well as their talents to the New York theatre community. Energy flows from there! If you could star in a Broadway revival of any play or musical, which show and role would you choose and why?
Wintersteller: My wish list would have to include Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music; Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd; Auntie Mame in Mame; Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter; Sister Aloysius in Doubt; Jean Brody in The Prime of Jean Brody for the sheer magnitude and diversity of all these roles.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
Wintersteller: Immediately after Mother Jones closes, I start memorizing for Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie for The Pittsburgh Public Theatre this September. I feel extremely grateful and honored to be able to work on a brand-new musical like Mother Jones and then switch gears to a Tennessee Williams classic play. I am beyond blessed!

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.