DIVA TALK: A Chat with Avenue Q's D'Abruzzo Plus Thoughts on Stars of Bee and Tree

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Avenue Q's D'Abruzzo Plus Thoughts on Stars of Bee and Tree
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

In less than two years' time, Avenue Q star Stephanie D'Abruzzo has experienced a number of firsts: her first Broadway musical, her first Tony nomination and her first performance in a Tony-winning musical. Now, the skilled singer, actress and puppeteer is set to experience another first, a solo cabaret act. In fact, D'Abruzzo will make her solo cabaret debut this Monday, May 23 at the famed jazz club Birdland. The eagerly awaited evening will feature the talented performer backed by musical director Michael Patrick Walker on keyboards, Michael Croiter on percussion and Jim Donica on bass. I recently had the chance to chat with D'Abruzzo about her upcoming Birdland gig; that interview follows:

Question: How are you feeling about making your solo cabaret debut?
Stephanie D'Abruzzo: I'm feeling good. I've been wanting to do this for a long time. I think the most difficult thing has been finding someone who would actually give me the venue to do it! [Laughs.]

Q: How did the booking come about?
D'Abruzzo: I've known Jim Caruso for awhile, actually since right before [Avenue Q] transferred to Broadway. He had interviewed me [at the time of the] Drama Desk [nominations]. The Drama Desks in 2003 were not going to be televised — they were going to be webcast, so he was doing little interview bumps with some of the nominees to run in between [the awards]. Now, they never ran, but we just had the best time chatting. So I've known him ever since then. One day — I think it was around Christmastime outside the theatre — he was handing out flyers for the Birdland season. He had asked John Tartaglia to do a Christmas show, which Johnny had to cancel because he didn't realize that we had a show the Monday night that he had scheduled his show for. So, I go up to Jim and I said, "Jim, how is it you're asking everybody in the show to do something at Birdland except me?" [Laughs.] He said, "Why, do you want to?" "Yeeeees!" . . . So, that's how it came about because he's a swell guy. It was right at the time when he was scheduling the spring "New Season," so it was sort of "right place, right time."

Q: Tell me about putting your show together and choosing songs. Have you enjoyed that process of creating your own evening?
D'Abruzzo: Yeah, it's been great. I knew instantly I wanted Alan Muraoka to direct it. I've known Alan for years through "Sesame Street," but I also know the great job he did on Ann Harada's Ars Nova show and on Johnny's Joe's Pub show. I know what a good eye he has as a director, so I definitely wanted to use him. And the one thing Ann Harada had told me is "Alan will work you and with you." And that's great — that's what you want, you want someone who's going to get the best out of you. There was a little bit of arguing over songs, things that I felt strongly about, things that he felt strongly about, but I think we've got the list down to a really good, unique line-up.

I don't like giving away any of the titles because I think it reveals too much, but there are some great surprises — there are some great originals. Michael Patrick Walker is writing me an original song just for the evening, so it will be premiered that night. I am going to do Gary Adler's "If I Weren't Married." Alan agreed no night would be complete without doing that. I'm doing a Phoebe Kreutz song that I don't think any of the other cast has performed, and then there are things that are kind of obscure or [songs that have] not been sung in this venue. I really wanted the night to be different. There are great standards that I love that I would love to do on any other occasion, but I felt that they wouldn't be as fun or as appropriate for this night. I love Frank Loesser, I love the great old standards like "What'll I Do?" and "Cry Me a River," but for this night I didn't want to go down that path, I wanted it to be something a little special. Because, heaven knows, if I'll ever have the chance to do it again! [Laughs.] Q: Have you had the chance to see much cabaret in the city?
D'Abruzzo: Not as much as I'd like because they're always on Monday nights, and half of the time I'm doing something else on a Monday night, and the other half of the time — well, I have to do my laundry some time. [Laughs.] So I don't really get a chance to see as much as I'd like to. The one thing I've noticed that I've enjoyed most about seeing other people's cabaret nights is when there's been something unexpected, something that I haven't heard them sing before or didn't think they could sing. I think that's what blew me away so much about Ann Harada's Ars Nova night, which I believe was one of the first cabaret nights I got a chance to see — certainly the first one by someone that I knew. And, for as long as I've known Ann, I had no idea the range that she had, I had no idea what she could do! I've shared a dressing room with her for years and I've been working on Avenue Q with her for years, and yet I had no idea what she was capable of until I heard her that night. So I knew that that's what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to surprise even the people who've known me for a long time, and I hope that I do.

Q: Will you have any guest stars — either of the puppet or human variety?
D'Abruzzo: No, this is going to be all me. The few little backup vocals that I've got going are going to come from my fabulous, three-piece band. Michael Patrick Walker will be on keyboards as well as music directing. I'll have Michael Croiter on percussion and hopefully some guitar — he can play anything. And, Jim Donica will be my bass player. He's a little trepidacious about the singing, so it'll probably just be two-part backup.

Q: You also had the chance to perform recently at the Sondheim Children and Art benefit. What was that experience like backstage and onstage?
D'Abruzzo: Oh my God! I normally, as a general rule, don't get nervous when I'm performing, [but] my heart was pounding. My husband, who was watching, said, "I don't know how you do it" because he was a wreck. I followed Marin Mazzie and came before Donna Murphy. . .

First of all, looking at the line-up and seeing how many of the [performers] that I knew was pretty staggering, and then the people that I ended up meeting for the first time that night was even more staggering. I was in a dressing room with Annie Golden and Ann Morrison and Becky Ann Baker and Rebecca Luker and Michele Pawk. And, I got to meet Barbara Cook for the first time . . . I found myself standing about three feet from Angela Lansbury. . . Yeah, I was a little petrified because it was big company to be in. You kind of felt like it was high stakes [and] you want to feel like you belong in that group you're being lumped in with. Thankfully, I felt good about what I did, and fortunately I wasn't alone in feeling [nervous]. There were a lot of people, seasoned people, saying, "Oh my God." Fortunately, for me, I sang "Sooner or Later," relatively simple if you're talking Sondheim lyrics and melody. There were so many people backstage looking over cards with their lyrics and going over them in their head. I was grateful to get one of the more straightforward Sondheim pieces because I don't know what I would have done [otherwise] . . . . It was an amazing afternoon/evening all around.

Q: And, now you have a new co-star in Avenue Q. What's it been like working with Barrett Foa?
D'Abruzzo: I'll tell 'ya something, we just passed our 730th Broadway performance, so my whole feeling at this point is different is good! [Laughs.] We'd been having a little bit of drama a couple of months ago because everybody was getting sick, so not only was Barrett coming in new, but I was out, everybody was out, we had vacation swings come in. It was a lot of fun though because Alex Gemignani came in for a week as Brian, and we hadn't gotten to play with him since we were Off-Broadway. And we had a new Nicky/Trekkie vacation swing, Christian Anderson, who was great. But there were so many cast changes and so many new people on a stage at any given time that the difficulty of maintaining the show became a little more challenging. I was tearing my hair out a little bit because of how different things were and knowing it was my job to keep things solid, keep things grounded. . . That was the big challenge of February, March.

Q: Any word about what's happening with the Las Vegas or London productions?
D'Abruzzo: I have no idea. [Laughs.] I read about the London production on Playbill.com. That's how we all found out about it. Regarding Vegas, I was offered, but I turned it down for many reasons. Basically, the con list was longer than the pro list. I did think about it longer than I thought I would. So, I am not doing [Vegas], and I really don't know or can't really say what's happening with other members of the company.

Q: Any other projects in the works?
D'Abruzzo: Actually, I just found out I booked an animated pilot that records this Friday called "Proof of Life on Earth." It's for ABC Family. I'm playing the cynical, sarcastic daughter character, and I'm also voicing the prim, proper Martha Stewart-y neighbor character. It's one day of work, but it's nice to be able to book something else. Sometimes I get the feeling that I'll be playing Kate Monster until I'm 40. [Laughs.] . . . I think that's one of the most exciting things about doing a cabaret night is just having a night where you're singing something different.

[Stephanie D'Abruzzo will play one evening at Birdland, May 23 at 7 PM. The club is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $25 cover charge and a $10 food/drink minimum; call (212) 581-3080 for reservations.]

If a theatre award for Vocal Discovery of the Season existed, I'd give my vote to Lisa Howard, who plays host Rona Lisa Peretti in the comical, charming and ultimately touching new William Finn musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Circle in the Square Theatre. Howard's voice can be big and belty, though never forced, and her sound is equally lovely in quieter moments. The singing actress has also been handed some of the musical's most melodic offerings, including "My Favorite Moment of the Bee," which repeats throughout the show, as well as "The I Love You Song," a trio for Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger (as Olive) and Derrick Baskin (as Olive's Dad). The latter song is the strongest of the score and features wonderful vocal and acting work from all three performers and creates the show's emotional highpoint. Spelling Bee marks Howard's Broadway debut, and I look forward to seeing (and hearing) more from this talented performer.

Speaking of talented performers, Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth demonstrated once again last weekend in the City Center Encores! presentation of The Apple Tree that she may be the finest comedic singing actress of her generation. It would be hard to imagine that anyone today could have drawn more laughs from the material than Chenoweth. She offered stellar work in each of the musical's three acts — an all-knowing Eve in "The Diary of Adam and Even," a whip-cracking Princess Barbára in "The Lady or the Tiger?" and a touching chimney sweep and glamorous movie star in "Passionella" — and her singing was as thrilling as ever. The evening's highlight: Chenoweth's simple, clear and beautiful rendition of "What Makes Me Love Him?" Let's hope the Tony-winning actress records this Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick tune at some point.

More names have been added to the upcoming star-studded tribute to Stephen Sondheim this summer at the Hollywood Bowl. The July 8 evening — celebrating the composer's recent 75th birthday — will now also feature the talents of Carol Burnett, Len Cariou, Barbara Cook, Audra McDonald, Emmy Rossum and Vanessa Williams. These performers join the previously announced Jason Alexander, Jason Danieley, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Marin Mazzie, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of longtime Sondheim musical director Paul Gemignani, the 8 PM concert will also feature the presentation of a special award to Sondheim by Academy Award-winning lyricist and ASCAP President Marilyn Bergman. Paul Lazarus is the director and producer of the one-night-only event. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.org for more information.

Broadway Barks 7 — the annual adopt-a-thon created by pals Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore to find homes for pets from city animal shelters — will be held July 30 in Shubert Alley. The yearly event, which also benefits local animal shelters and adoption agencies, is set to begin at 3:30 PM and will run for approximately three hours. The afternoon will feature an auction of celebrity autographed memorabilia as well as celeb presentations of pets from animal shelters. For more information, visit www.broadwaybarks.com.

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

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