Mara Davi, whose Broadway credits include The Drowsy Chaperone (she succeeded Sutton Foster in her Tony-nominated role as the young starlet Janet Van DeGraaff), A Chorus Line (as Maggie, the high belter of the haunting "At the Ballet" sequence) and Irving Berlin's White Christmas (Judy Haynes, one of the "Sisters," in the 2009 revival of the holiday favorite), is currently starring in Virginia's Signature Theatre world premiere of the new musical Beaches. Adapted from the 1985 novel by Iris Rainer Dart, the musical features a book by Dart and Thom Thomas, lyrics by Dart and music by David Austin. Directed by Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer, Beaches — chronicling a tumultuous but loving decades-long friendship between two women — casts Davi as Bertie (the role created on screen by Barbara Hershey) and Alysha Umphress as Cee Cee Bloom (the part played by Bette Midler). Via email, I recently posed several questions about the new musical to the multitalented singing actress; her answers follow.
Question: How did you get involved with this production? Tell me about the audition process.
Davi: I got the audition for Beaches through my agents back in September. I read the script first, and then watched the film, which I had never seen. The audition was a really lovely experience, with director Eric Schaeffer, writers Iris Rainer Dart and Thom Thomas, composer David Austin and our producers all behind the table. I sang "A Bunch of Kids" from the show, which I fell in love with then and am so happy to sing every night now (you can listen to it here). I did a scene as 17-year-old Bertie, another as 37-year-old Bertie, and that was it. I had a very pleasant experience and enjoyed the material, but, as usual, I could hear a lot of amazing ladies in the room before me singing beautifully, so I didn't have high expectations of getting the role.
|photo by Margot Schulman|
Question: What was your relationship with the film "Beaches"? For me, it's one of those movies that always manages to pull me in whenever it's on TV.
Davi: I'm embarrassed to say that I was not familiar with the film until I was preparing to audition for the musical! However, I did have a special relationship with "Wind Beneath My Wings." I grew up singing in church and around town with my mom and my sister, Melody, and "Wind Beneath My Wings" was a song that we often sang together. I think of them whenever I hear the song.
It may have been better that I didn't know the film. Sometimes if I have a very special relationship with a show or a role, there is a danger that I will build its significance too much and end up self-sabotaging my audition. I didn't put those kinds of pressures on myself when auditioning for Bertie and was able to go in relaxed and playful with the material.
Question: Did you go back to the film once you were cast? Does the musical differ much from the film?
Davi: I haven't gone back to the film since I was cast, but I read the novel and have kept it handy throughout the rehearsal process. It has been an incredible tool for filling in backstory and giving me insight into Bertie's point of view. The musical bears a closer resemblance to the novel than the film, but definitely draws from both. The best way I've heard it described is: "It's the same women on different days." Lovers of both the film and the novel get to spend time with the same ladies and see the same lasting friendship that they know and love, but get to experience it in a new way.
|Photo by Margot Shculman|
Question: How would you describe the character of Bertie?
Davi: Bertie is a well-bred, introverted girl, who has dreams and passions for her life that conflict with the expectations of her family, her social set and the era. As a shy, sheltered girl, she admires Cee Cee's talent, brashness and bravery. She is full of love and shares that love with Cee Cee and later with her daughter, Nina.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her?
Davi: I love every minute of the ride I get to go on as Bertie, but two moments stand out to me and they're both duets with Cee Cee: "Normal People" and "Day at the Beach." "Normal People" is the first song we sing together after we've recovered from a long falling out. In the song we get to let our hair down and just goof off together, which is such a release from the pain that comes beforehand. Alysha Umphress and I have a blast singing this song and we are constantly discovering new, fun moments together. "Day at the Beach" comes at a time when the friendship arrives at its fullest expression, and the song celebrates that.
Question: How would you describe the score? Does the musical retain any of the songs from the film?
Davi: The score is radiant, romantic, exciting and surprising. The story of Beaches spans 30 years, and David Austin's score is seasoned with flavors of the 50s, 60s, 70s, while carrying his unique, intricate and lovely musical voice. The musical does retain one song from the film, "Wind Beneath My Wings," which is woven nicely into the fabric of the show.
Question: The relationship between Bertie and Cee Cee Bloom is strong, yet, at times, volatile. Tell me about sharing the stage with your co-star and developing that relationship.
Davi: What I really love about the relationship between Cee Cee and Bertie is how it grows, develops and deepens. These girls meet when they're eight and ten. They love and admire each other right away, but that doesn't mean that they know everything about each other. They go through big growing pains and have fundamental differences of personality that sometime make them clash, but these differences unite them like a positive and negative charge joining together. Up to the very end of their story, they continue to surprise each other. Those surprises have been fun for Alysha and me to explore. From the beginning of our play together, our characters already care for each other very much, but what do we learn about each other along the way? What new thing jumps out that makes us care for the other that much more? These discoveries are very easy to do with Alysha; she is so incredibly talented and so dynamite as Cee Cee Bloom. There is something new to discover and love about her every night. We also did a lot of improvising and ad-libbing in the rehearsal room, which has made us very comfortable playing with each other every night. We probably have too much fun at work!
|photo by Margot Schulman|
Question: Tell me about working with director Eric Schaeffer.
Davi: Eric Schaeffer really has a gift for seeing the big picture. The cast and creative team for this is large, and we all are passionate about the story we are telling and have ideas for how to tell our part of it. Eric is our captain, and is able to bring all of these individual ideas together into a cohesive whole. He makes the rehearsal room feel like a playground where actors have freedom to experiment, explore, fall and get back up. Iris, Thom and David have also been an incredible creative team to work with because they allow an open dialogue about the material. Iris created these characters, she knows them better than anyone else, and she's been so willing to share her insight and also to listen to our thoughts. Through her encouragement and openness, she has given me permission to make Bertie my own.
Question: Are their hopes for a life for Beaches after the Signature run?
Davi: I hope so!
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Davi: I released my first album of original songs recently. My friend Adam Waite wrote the tunes, and I wrote the lyrics. Check us out on iTunes! The band is Mara and the Bitter Suite. The album is "Unspoken."
[Signature Theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Avenue. For more information and tickets, call (703) 573-SEAT or visit Signature-Theatre.org.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.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.