There is something completely welcoming about Jennifer Barnhart's smile — it's not a huge, toothy grin, but a warm, friendly smile that immediately puts one at ease. That smile is indicative of her personality and also translates into an onstage warmth that is completely appealing. Barnhart, who is currently making her Broadway debut in Avenue Q, plays an assortment of characters in the Tony-winning musical, including a morally challenged Bad Idea Bear and the ultra-strict kindergarten teacher Mrs. Thistletwat. Barnhart also joins forces with co-star Rick Lyon to gracefully man the two-handed, green-faced puppet Nicky. This week, Barnhart had the chance to demonstrate the wider range of her acting and puppeteering skills when she filled in for the Tony-nominated Stephanie D'Abruzzo, playing the lead roles of Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. I had the chance to catch Barnhart this past Tuesday night at the Golden Theatre, and I'm happy to report that she offered a virtually flawless performance — funny, sweet and touching — in the Marx-Lopez-Whitty musical that remains one of the best evenings Broadway has to offer. Diva lovers can catch Barnhart's Kate and Lucy Sept. 10 at 8 PM and Sept. 12 at 2 and 7 PM. The wonderful D'Abruzzo returns to the Avenue Q gang Sept. 14. . . On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of chatting with Barnhart; that discussion follows:
Question: Congratulations on your performance last night. I thought you were terrific.
Jennifer Barnhart: Oh, thank you so much. I had a good time. At first it was a little like, "Wow, I haven't done this in months! Well okay. . ." [Laughs.] But I was able to relax and have some fun with it, which I was glad for. And tonight I'll feel much better about things!
Q: How many times had you gone on as Kate/Lucy before last night?
JB: Two-and-a-half times.
Q: Do you remember the first time?
JB: The first time I went on was planned, so that was fine. [Stephanie D'Abruzzo] went out to do 'Pyramid,' so I knew that was happening. She went out to California and missed the first show of the week, and that was the only show she was going to miss. I knew about a week in advance, and pretty much called all of my friends and family and I said, "Okay, this is probably the only chance this will ever happen so you'd better come now" because Stephanie doesn't ever miss a show. She's performed sick — she has this incredible work ethic, which is wonderful. That was the first time I went on, then another couple months went by, and then in the middle of a Saturday matinee, her voice started to give out, and she finished Act I and said [that she couldn't continue]. So I went on for Act II and then did that same evening's show. Those are the only other times I've gone on.
Q: Since you're also in the show nightly, how much rehearsal time do you get for covering the other roles?
JB: Once you have your "put-in," you're expected to, at a moment's notice when you have to, to go on. They had actually scheduled a run-through for me before going on this week. Unfortunately, I didn't get the memo because I was on vacation and I was in rehearsal for John Tartaglia's Joe's Pub appearance, one of the back-up singers. I didn't get the memo, and I missed the rehearsal entirely, and I felt dreadful.
Q: That's amazing, then, because you were wonderful last night.
JB: Thank you. It helps because I've been with the show since the beginning — having done it Off-Broadway, and I see it every night. The only times I have little momentary spasms in my brain is when I'm on the other side, speaking for both Lucy and Kate.
Q: I was actually going to ask you that — whether it's stranger playing the scenes that you're usually in, but now doing the other role.
JB: Yes, it is! [Laughs.] There are occasional moments when I'm looking at things, thinking, "Wow, that's how it looks from here. Why isn't she saying anything? Because I'm not saying anything! Oh, God!" [Laughs.] Sometimes those moments I feel like I'm a little stilted, but I'm working on trying to make them a little smoother.
Q: How did you become part of Avenue Q originally? When did you join the show?
JB: I was the only puppeteer who actually had to audition — the other three puppeteers had been with it since the workshops. When they were moving to Off-Broadway, they decided to recast the role of the other person who was doing my role. They were already [thinking], if this is going to Broadway, we want somebody in this role who can understudy. They had auditions, and [mine] was somewhat of a by-invitation only [audition]. I got a call from Rick [Lyon], who I've worked with forever. As a matter of fact, he pointed out in a talkback we were having recently that this coming October we will have known each other and been working together for ten years.
Q: When did you first work with him?
JB: Right out of college, I worked on an industrial in Las Vegas that he was also working on, and we met and started working together. He did his own live shows, and he needed a tall female puppeteer, so we've been working together for a very long time.
Q: How difficult is it manning the puppets that require both you and Rick?
JB: He refers to us as the Fred and Ginger of puppetry, which is very sweet. Part of it is that our legs are almost the same length, which helps a lot. I've got my hand on the small of his back. It's sort of like a ballroom dancing couple, where all the work really tends to rest on the guy — the girl just has to kinda smile and is directed. He's an excellent leader — through his breaths and with little preparatory movements letting me know when he's going to move before he does. And there are very subtle little clues. Also, as far as emotional [clues], he [makes] little guttural sounds — "what, mmm..." — these are things that never get picked up on the mic, but they clue me in to what's happening with the character emotionally, because I can't always see his face out of the corner of my eye to see what's happening, and his voice is always so clearly indicative as well, which helps. These are all different little things that help me know how to engage in an emotional sense with what's happening in the scene.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show — either as one of your characters or the show in general?
JB: The show in general — I was thinking about this this morning. I am the luckiest girl on Broadway, first of all, because I get to be in this show, and in my normal track I get to puppeteer all the characters. There's only one character that I do not get to puppeteer at one point — the newcomer at the end of the show. And, I also get to go and do this great tour de force whenever Stephanie isn't [performing], which isn't often. [Laughs.] But, I get to do it all, and I'm so happy, and I just feel so lucky to be a part of this show that makes people feel so good and is an incredible piece.
Q: Do you leave on a high every night?
JB: Yeah. [Laughs.] People at the stage door are always saying, "Oh my gosh, you guys are so sweet to talk to us and sign our programs." I say, "Are you kidding? Your sweet to stick around and say hi and tell us how much you enjoy our work." An actor loves nothing more than that; how wonderful is that? It's really incredible. Even if I go [into the theatre] feeling down, just the course of doing the show makes me happy. Periodically, if there's something on my mind, I'll find myself in the course of show, going, "You know what, the show is absolutely right. Everything in life is only for now, and this isn't the biggest problem. I can overcome this." It's amazing the philosophy of this show. . . . There are people who come to the show once a month and say, "Well, it's cheaper than therapy every week!" [Laughs.]
Q: How has audience reaction changed throughout the run — from Off-Broadway to Broadway and after winning the Tony?
JB: From Off-Broadway to Broadway, it was interesting, there were some things that didn't translate. I'm trying to think of something specific . . . There's a visual joke that doesn't play in the Broadway house. During "Fantasies Come True," Rod is singing to Nicky and he gets out of bed, and he stands perpendicular to the bed. In the Off-Broadway house, which was very narrow and very small, the [audience] got instantly from the "camera's point of view," this is being shot from their ceiling, and we're looking down on them. So when he gets out of bed, he would get out of bed that way, and that's how it would look. So that's a visual joke that worked solely in the Off-Broadway production . . . Having to find different timings for the laughter for certain things was a bit of a challenge for us at first [on Broadway] — "Wow, that's a much bigger response!" And, during Tony season and right after the Tonys, it would be like a rock concert. It was unbelievable. The first show after the Tonys, everyone got entrance applause. There was screaming and cheering. It was incredible — I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it. [Laughs.]
Q: Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and when did you decide to become a performer?
JB: I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, which is just north of New Haven, and it was basically just my older brother, me and my mom. My folks split by the time I was five, and my brother was a ragtime piano player. My mother was very encouraging of that. She would drive him to his piano bar gigs and sit there and have a ginger ale. So, I want to say my family has always been very supportive, and that made me feel like I could explore this [field]. I was always interested in puppetry — I was a huge fan of the Muppets, and the movie "The Dark Crystal" changed my life, which is the biggest puppet confession. I'm such a puppet geek. [Laughs.] I was sitting in the theatre at eight year's old, and I was watching that movie and I thought, "Okay, the Muppets are funny, but puppets can do that? I want to do that." And, then, I sort of put it aside because I had no idea how someone becomes a puppeteer, so I started pursuing what I now call "human theatre," acting. I started doing that in junior high school and high school and decided in college I was going to pursue it. I went to the only university I could afford, which was my home state university, University of Connecticut, and I didn't find out until after I got there that it was the only university in the country, and still is, that offers accredited degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate, in puppetry.
Q: So it was fate!
JB: Absolutely. I went, "This is obviously what I'm meant to be doing." I went through the program, and I took as many [puppetry] classes as I could. I couldn't afford to stay there — it would have required me to be there for five years to do the double major. I knew I wanted to major in acting, and I thought I could double major, but there were too many design classes [required]. So, I took all the classes I could, graduated and didn't work for a long time. [Laughs.] I did some smaller, live puppet stuff. I did a television show in '97 for a then-fledgling channel called Animal Planet, and they wanted to have their own original programming. They had done this show called "Once Upon a Tree," and they had these woodland characters. One of the guys I had gone to college with was working on it, and he recommended that they see me for auditions. I auditioned, I got the part and went out and did it in Minneapolis. I came back and approached Henson and said, "I've arrived. I'm back. I've done this." And they said, "So what?" [Laughs.] I went back to the office and worked as a copywriter for an ad agency for awhile and got my performance fixes on the side, did my Equity showcases. Then, the same friend recommended me to audition for "Between the Lions," a show on PBS. It's about a family of lions who live in a public library, and the show helps teach kids how to read. I auditioned for that, and I got cast in that as the mama lioness. That was in '99, and I've been doing puppetry full time and supporting myself full time as a puppeteer ever since . . . It's been pretty incredible. It's led from one show to the next. I finally started working on "Sesame Street" about three seasons ago. I always hoped I would get there, but if anyone had ever told me this form of puppetry is going to take me to Broadway, I would have laughed.
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