DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy Chaperone's Jo Anne Worley Plus the Patti LuPone Gypsy

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy Chaperone's Jo Anne Worley Plus the Patti LuPone Gypsy
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Jo Anne Worley with Harmony; Worley and Drowsy co-star Peter Bartlett
Jo Anne Worley with Harmony; Worley and Drowsy co-star Peter Bartlett Photo by Joan Marcus

"Its purpose is to bring joy and laughter to people, and that's what it does," Jo Anne Worley recently said about the hit musical The Drowsy Chaperone, which continues to thrill audiences nightly at the Marquis Theatre. The same could be said about Worley herself, the veteran entertainer who has been making audiences laugh for decades. The star of stage and screen, who boasts a big Broadway belt, a larger-than-life theatrical presence and enough energy to light up Times Square, is currently back onstage in the aforementioned Chaperone, playing the role of Mrs. Tottendale, which was created by another TV favorite, Georgia Engel. As Mrs. Tottendale, the somewhat confused and forgetful dowager, Worley gets the chance to delight audiences with her spit takes, her swingin' pearls and her duet with Peter Bartlett's Underling, "Love Is Always Lovely." It's been an especially busy year for Worley, who also appeared in the acclaimed City Center Encores! production of Follies, playing Stella Deems, the former Follies star who asks, "Who's That Woman?" As passionate as she is about her acting career, Worley — whose Broadway credits also include The Billy Barnes People; Hello, Dolly!; Prince of Central Park; and Grease! — has one love that is equally as strong: her affection for animals. In fact, the woman who has entertained audiences at regional theatres throughout the country was recently named president of the charitable organization Actors and Others for Animals. I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with the celebrated performer.

Question: How did this role in Drowsy come about for you?
Jo Anne Worley: It's a direct result of doing the City Center Follies production…

Question: Which was wonderful . . .
Worley: Thank you. And what an exciting, wonderful event that was to be a part of! The director [of Follies], Casey [Nicholaw], as you know, is the director of Drowsy Chaperone. He asked would I like to do this role [since] Georgia Engel was leaving, and I said, "Well, Georgia Engel and I are kind of different!" [Laughs.] And he said, "No, no, . . . bring your pearls and bring yourself, and do it."

Question: What was the rehearsal process like? I know when you take over a role, you often don't get that much rehearsal time.
Worley: [Laughs.] You can say that! It's like jumping on a freight train that's going full speed a couple hundred miles an hour. But the good thing, when you're jumping on this train, you've got the people on the train with their hands and arms outstretched helping you. So you've had a lot of help before you get there — from the stage managers, the dance captains, the musicians, wardrobe; everybody is helping you. As much as you watch the show and are rehearsing, you literally only get one rehearsal with the real actors that you're going to be acting with — and they're not in costume or wigs. For instance, Jennifer Smith is a beautiful brunette, but onstage her character Kitty has a little blonde, curly wig. Thank God I know her and have worked with her, so I was pretty used to where Jennifer would be. It really is an ensemble piece, and when we're all onstage together, we have to be really, truly in exactly the right place. So you get the one put-in rehearsal, and then you're onstage, and you do it!

Question: What was that first performance in front of an audience like?
Worley: You get through it is what you do. If you get to the end of the show, you have succeeded! [Laughs.] As I said, there are people around you — the other people watching out for you are helping you. Peter Bartlett, who plays Underling in the show, we quite often are working together. He guided me through the last couple of numbers of the show, which are group numbers … so I wouldn't run into other people! We were pretty much a team there — that made it a lot easier and nicer. Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Mrs. Tottendale?
Worley: Let's see, favorite — I think I love swinging the pearls. I love the swinging of the pearls. Through the years when I would be doing regional theatre or stock, where you have very little time to learn a show and there would be a very involved dance number, I would say, "How about I [swing the pearls]?" And that would take up several bars of the music that I wouldn't have to learn choreography for. [Laughs.] Of course, it would be character-driven and come out of what was right. So being able to do that [is great], and what I have done — and I am so happy to be able to do this — is I bought a whole bunch of pearls that I use in the show and I rotate them. When I leave the show, I will be able to use them at silent auctions for charity events . . . it's wonderful to give back and we're able to in our business. So at either silent auctions or sometimes live auctions I can say, "These were the pearls I swung on Broadway! For an extra whatever, you can have the pearls also!" So I'm glad to have that opportunity.

Question: When did you start swinging the pearls? Where did that begin?
Worley: I was doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — another 1920s era [show] where long pearls were in vogue. I was doing the brunette character to Betsy Palmer's blonde, and it was for the Kenley Players in Ohio. I had been a fan, and obviously still am, of the work [that] Beatrice Lillie did. And she, of course, did the pearl swing, so I always give credit to Ms. Beatrice Lillie whenever I do them. People say, "Where did that come from?," and it was her bit, so I'm glad to be carrying on with that [tradition]. That was the first place I used it, and then I would do it later in other shows when I needed it.

Question: What's it like doing the spit takes each night in Drowsy?
Worley: Well, I tell you, again I have to give credit to my partner in that scene. Peter is so good about it. He said, "Just do what you have to do, and the thing you have to do is not leave any water left in your mouth, or you can choke or you can't say your line." You have to expel all that you have taken in, and you can't take in too little because then that's pulling your punches, and it's not funny. I practiced before I came to New York — in California against a palm tree [and] got pretty good at it. The palm tree didn't flinch or anything [laughs] — seemed to like it as a matter of fact. Then, when I got here in New York, I would practice in the shower against the tile, and then during rehearsals, before I got the opportunity of practicing with Peter, [I practiced with] his understudies or a swing person or, indeed, the stage manager [who] would put a slicker on. The joy of the audience laughing is what propels that scene and helps you continue through it.

Question: Had you seen the show before the offer came to join Drowsy?
Worley: Yes, I did. It started in Los Angeles, so I saw it in Los Angeles and was an immediate fan of the show.

Question: It's a great show.
Worley: It's purpose is to bring joy and laughter to people, and that's what it does.

Question: You also just became president of Actors and Others for Animals. Tell me about your work with that organization.
Worley: I have been involved with it for over 30 years, when it first came into being. In our business, because of the way it is, we can give back — in the way of helping raise awareness and money for different charities. . . . It seemed like I was doing more and more for this group called Actors and Other For Animals. I was on the board for several years before I became vice-president, and our president, Earl Holliman, just stepped down this year, and that's how I got to be Madam President. It happened at the same time that I came to New York to do Drowsy Chaperone, and the people on the board assured me [it was okay to] go . . . . We have one fundraiser a year that supports all of the different helping we try to do for dogs, so for the one fundraiser, I wouldn't be that instrumental in the beginning of it. But I am in touch by email and by phone, and this year we're toasting, not roasting, toasting Fred Willard. And last year it was Betty White, and we get a panel of their peers and friends to lovingly host and, of course, it's all very humorous.

Question: What's the mission of the group?
Worley: Spay and neuter is our most important issue. Of course, we do humane legislation, we take care of a lot of medical bills, and we go into hospitals and nursing homes and senior homes with dog therapy, and into schools for humane education. Spay and neuter, though, is our main job. We figure that is at the crux of all of the other problems. If we could get than in control, we got a chance. Obviously, eventually, we would all like to have a no-kill society.

Question: Were you involved with Broadway Barks this past weekend?
Worley: Yes, I was there and, as a matter of fact, I gave away a string of my Drowsy Chaperone pearls to the person who adopted the dog that I was showing.

Question: You mentioned before the Encores! production of Follies. What was it like working with that cast?
Worley: Oh, it was heaven. [Director] Casey [Nicholaw] is just a ball of energy and talent and genius, and he was jumping from room to room. They were working on the choreography of one scene, and another one [in another room], and the Finale, and then another one, and there would be wardrobe [fittings] . . . You were constantly doing something. And when we all got together, there were no divas — I realize that's the name of your column [laughs] — but there was no time for any divadom. There was no time! You just do the best [you can] and trust in Uncle Casey and give it your best shot, and it was so exciting! Being backstage and in the wings was like having a musical massage all night long from the fabulous music and the voices and the acting. As you know, sometimes we would be seated onstage while other scenes were going on having, as I called it, a close-up camera to seeing the other actors working — that was just wonderful.

Question: The audiences went crazy.
Worley: Oh, my! My goodness, indeed. It's a wonder we could walk out of the theatre at night [and] get our heads through the door! [Laughs.]

Question: Going back a bit, I know you were Carol Channing's standby in Hello Dolly!
Worley: Yes.

Question: So I take it you never got to go on.
Worley: Oh, heavens no! [Laughs.] She told me I would never go on. I came into it out-of-town in Washington, DC. Bibi Osterwald had always been her standby, but evidently she was doing a show at this time. I was vocalizing in the hallway — for a standby, there was no place to stand! [Laughs.] So I was vocalizing, and [Carol] came out and she said, "Jo Anne, you don't have to worry. You'll never have to go on. If you do, you'll have at least two days notice," which would mean the President called or something. When it was in New York, a fabulous, big hit, I was [also] doing Second City, [which] had a theatre here in New York at that time, so I was getting two paychecks. I would go to Second City and call in and check in [to see if] all was well. Of course, I would do my standby rehearsals when I had to, and I think you had to watch the show a certain number of times, which I was able to do.

Question: Did you ever get to play the role elsewhere?
Worley: Oh, yes. Many, many times. . . . As a matter of fact, I have my own set of Dolly wardrobe. I did it someplace and the wardrobe was made for me, and the producer said, "You should have this wardrobe," and so I usually use that. It's color-coded pretty much to when people do the show, similar things, and the red dress. So pretty much, I'm able to do that, rather than having them have to rent and fit. It saves a lot of time and trouble.

Question: And you also did Gypsy as well, right?
Worley: Many, many times.

Question: What's that role like to play?
Worley: I find that role, for me, a very easy fit. I was doing that role when I was younger than the girl who played my Gypsy Rose Lee. The grown-up daughter — she was older than me. So you're either kind of right for it or you're not. But I have found through the years, obviously and thank God, I have been able to get into it, under it, and enjoy it that much more. Before I was really just doing it, but now I can do it. . . . I really love doing the "Turn." If you would ask what would be the favorite part of that show, it would be "Rose's Turn," and the end of Act One, too. . .

Question: Did you have a mother who pushed you into the business?
Worley: Oh, no. No, no, no. We all have many different roads, and that's why there's no one way. There were a lot of Worleys, and I never discussed what I wanted to do. I would lie. They would say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I would say, "a nurse or a teacher." That would make them happy and get [them] off my back. When I was in high school, I worked at a truck stop on Highway 41 and Route 2, and I had my own money when I got out of high school. So I sent away on my own to be an apprentice in summer stock, actually in Nyack, NY. It was Pickwick Players. I got the drama scholarship to go to a college from that, and I got the apprentice scholarship to go back the next year and actually be paid, your room and board paid. So that was a very defining moment, you know, those forks in the road. And I was engaged as a senior in high school. I said, "I'm going away for the summer, but I'll be back." And I didn't [come back]. As a matter of fact, when you say, "Were you encouraged?" I was telling them, it wasn't a matter of asking, because I didn't need to ask them. I had my own money. I was going away to summer stock, and my father couldn't understand that I was going to be working and paying them room and board. He couldn't get that concept, and my mother said, "Oh, let her go!" There were lots of other kids, so in a way it was, "Oh, let her go. We got the other kids." [Laughs.] That's how I got out from under the fence.

Question: Looking back, do you have a favorite theatrical experience? Is there anything that sticks out in your mind?
Worley: Well, let me see, very favorite. What could that possibly be? There's been so many. You know, it sounds trite, but it is true. It is what I'm doing right now. I'm thinking back, going, "Oh that was exciting, that was exciting," but right now it is so delicious to be in New York, on Broadway, in a hit with a wonderful family of friends onstage and offstage doing things that you can only do in New York. You run into people, as you know, in New York. Sometimes I have my dog, sometimes I don't! [Laughs.] And being able to go to Sardi's between shows on Wednesday. If that isn't the best present of all time, I don't know what is.

[The Drowsy Chaperone plays the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. Call (212) 307-4100 for tickets or visit www.ticketmaster.com]

GYPSY at City Center
As the Act One curtain fell on Patti LuPone's Rose belting out "Everything's Coming Up Roses," I sat in my seat and simply said, "Wow." The intensity that LuPone would later bring to the nervous breakdown that is "Rose's Turn" I had expected; what she did with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" I had not. LuPone began the song with a mix of optimism and desperation, trying to cling more to the former than the latter, but midway through something snapped, and as she tore June's letter with a fury, an unsettling madness entered. With a crazed look of determination, she became a woman possessed, and as she sang "Everything's coming up roses for me and for you" — with an emphasis on the "me" — it was a completely startling moment that made one shudder.

This was just one of many thrilling moments in LuPone's triumphant Rose: a performance that was as exciting vocally as it was emotionally layered. In fact, throughout the entire evening — from the moment the curtain rose to reveal the 25-piece onstage orchestra through LuPone's emotionally devastating final scene with Laura Benanti's Louise — there was a palpable feeling of electric energy in the theatre. It was an evening filled with highlights; here are just a few: the tremendous applause that greeted LuPone's "Sing out, Louise!"; the reprise of "Some People," which LuPone ended on a gloriously belted high note; the sensuality LuPone brought to her duet with Boyd Gaines' Herbie in "Small World"; the heartbreak of Laura Benanti's "Little Lamb"; the mix of emotions that Benanti and Leigh Ann Larkin (Dainty June) brought to a powerful "If Momma Was Married"; the moving finale of "All I Need Is the Girl," when Benanti joined Tulsa (Tony Yazbeck) in his impressive dance; the contagious joy that spread throughout the theatre during "Together"; the terrifically talented trio of Nancy Opel, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey, who scored with "You Gotta Get a Gimmick"; the doomed look on LuPone's face as a jittery Herbie spoke about their imminent wedding and an even more crestfallen and desperate Rose as Herbie finally left; the sheer beauty of Benanti as she transformed from Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee; the emotional fireworks between Benanti and LuPone in Louise's dressing room; the anger that spewed out during LuPone's raw "Rose's Turn"; and the aforementioned final scene where LuPone collapsed in Benanti's arms.

In 1990, when I had my first experience with Gypsy (Tyne Daly), little would I have known that I would have the great pleasure of watching my three favorite musical theatre actresses — Betty Buckley (1998 at the Paper Mill Playhouse), Bernadette Peters (2003 at the Shubert Theatre) and now Patti LuPone (2007 at City Center) — spin their magic as Rose. Each has created extremely different, yet wholly thrilling portrayals of the stage mother of all stage mothers, and they are all indelibly etched in my mind.

Patti LuPone stars in Gypsy, directed by Arthur Laurents, through July 29. Do not miss it or her.

I thought you would be interested to read what the critics have said about LuPone's Rose.

Michael Kuchwara in the Associated Press:
"There is no musical-theater performer more determined than Patti LuPone. Her drive can invest a character — whether it's Eva Peron, Norma Desmond or Mrs. Lovett — with an intense theatricality that is thrilling to watch. And those thrills are present in City Center's overwhelming revival of Gypsy, the King Lear of musicals. . . . LuPone doesn't shrink from Rose's obsessiveness, but the actress makes you understand the almost pathological compulsion that makes her shove her two daughters — first June and then Louise — into the spotlight. LuPone knows how to act the part of Rose and to sing it, too. . . . Still, in the end, Gypsy is LuPone's show, most dramatically in 'Rose's Turn,' the stunning musical soliloquy that ends the evening. It's here where Rose pours out her true feelings, letting the rage and frustration of a stymied life explode. And LuPone's powerhouse delivery is dynamite."

Matt Windman in AM New York:
"But how can we best describe LuPone's performance? She combines Rose's frustrated fury and vulnerable emotions with the polish and authority of an actress who has been ready to play the role for years. In short, she is absolutely thrilling."

Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News:
"Whether Patti LuPone was destined to play the steam-rolling Rose who pushes her daughters to be famous in the 1920s and '30s, who knows? But she's mesmerizing singing and acting the role created in 1959 by Ethel Merman. LuPone's work never feels like a performance. From the first line, 'Sing out, Louise,' to her final knockout number, 'Rose's Turn,' she creates a Rose you can relate to and empathize with."

Frank Scheck in the New York Post:
"When this indomitable actress finished her tour de force rendition of 'Rose's Turn,' the audience rose for a spontaneous standing ovation. LuPone acknowledged the applause fully in character as the self-aggrandizing Mama Rose, bowing floridly and in effect incorporating us into her character's elaborate fantasy. It is one of many memorable moments in the show . . . . LuPone, as might be imagined, is a powerhouse in the role, singing the hell out of the classic Styne/Sondheim score and giving a portrayal that easily ranks as one of the best Roses ever."

Linda Winer in Newsday:
"The idea that someone was 'born to play' a character sounds like hyped-up old nonsense — until, that is, Patti LuPone grabs the cliche in her bared teeth and scares the banalities away as Mama Rose in Gypsy. How is it that this force of nature is just now taking her turn in what's arguably the greatest musical-female role in probably the most satisfying backstage musical of the American golden age? . . . . LuPone's Rose is indomitable, as required. Along with the ruthlessness, there is a grand playfulness. She's a stage mother who will do just about anything to make her girls into stars so that, as she tellingly blurts out, 'So we'd be a star.' But she's also a lot of fun, which goes a long way toward explaining why Herbie and all the unpaid kids in her pathetic act could have stuck with her through thin and thinner. She wears a Louise Brooks haircut and the uninhibited sexuality of a lady trucker. When she finally takes the solo spotlight for 'Rose's Turn,' the power of her multicolored voice and the strength of her personality make a visceral connection to all our mothers who were 'born too early and started too late.'"

Ben Brantley in The New York Times:
"Ms. LuPone has endowed the thwarted Rose with charm, sensuality, a sense of humor, a startling lack of diva vanity and even a spark of bona fide mother love. . . . This Gypsy is especially good on shining a light on family frictions, and Ms. LuPone contributes beautifully to this dynamic. The early scene in which she sends both her young daughters to bed, focusing the beam of her affection exclusively on June, tells you everything you need to know about this prickly parent-child triangle and the problems it’s bound to generate. Ms. LuPone has other such moments throughout. Her scenes with Mr. Gaines are uniformly excellent. (I'll never forget her Rose, suggesting an abandoned army tank, standing in a dressing room after Herbie walks out on her.) And she brings a harrowing psychological nakedness to the big nervous-breakdown number, 'Rose's Turn.'"

David Rooney in Variety:
"Ever since she seized Broadway stardom by the throat in her career-making turn as Evita in 1979, Patti LuPone has made it clear the footlights are her lifeblood. So it's unsurprising that this indomitable performer connects fiercely with Rose, the ultimate spotlight-seeker and mother of all stage mothers. . . . But the success of any production of Gypsy is determined primarily by its Rose. LuPone earns her place in the pantheon of the role's memorable interpreters, nailing the brash comedy, the cruel tyranny, the child-like need for attention and, finally, the crushing disappointment. . . . in both the deluded triumph of 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' and the shattered self-exposure of 'Rose's Turn,' when she finally acknowledges all her clawing at success has been for herself, she's mesmerizing."

Peter Marks in the Washington Post:
"To an impressive gallery of Broadway performances that encompasses Evita Peron and Sondheim's meat-pie maven Mrs. Lovett, LuPone adds her movingly take-charge Momma Rose. The character's anger has rarely felt so transparent. Nothing halfway clings to this earthy interpretation. LuPone's Rose smiles, even manages to beam at times, but it's a harsher essence, one bordering on manic depression, that envelops the portrayal. As a result, the finales Rose is given in each act — 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' at the end of Act 1, and especially, 'Rose's Turn' in Act 2 —benefit especially well from LuPone's power-belting, the sense that the songs don't merely rise from her lungs but also from her ankles. You're left with the thoroughly discomfiting sense of a woman of terrifying entitlement."

[Tickets for Gypsy — which runs through July 29 — are available at the City Center box office (West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Tickets, priced $25-$110, are also available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.]

A new Elaine Paige compilation recording is now available in U.K. stores. The SONY/BMG release is titled "Elaine Paige: Songbook" and features a mix of tunes from Paige's stage and concert careers. Songs include "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" (live), "I Know Him So Well" (live), "Memory" (live), "I Only Have Eyes for You," "From a Distance," "True Colours," "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" (live), "He's Out of My Life," "Oxygen," "Heart Don't Change My Mind," "Song of a Summer Night," "Grow Young," "Mad About the Boy," "Anything Goes" (live) and "The Rose." Paige is currently starring in the title role of the London production of The Drowsy Chaperone. For more information visit www.elainepaige.com.

Stephanie J. Block, who was most recently seen in The Pirate Queen, will return to the Birdland stage in August. Block will play the famed jazz club Aug. 27 at 7 PM. The singing actress will offer an evening of standards as well as a ballad cut from Wicked and a medley of tunes from the sixties. She will also perform a few duets with musical director Billy Stritch. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $40 cover charge and a $10 food-drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.

Christine Andreas, who is currently starring in the national tour of The Light in the Piazza, will head to the Empire Plush Room in October. Andreas will offer Love Is Good Oct. 2-6 at 8 PM, Oct. 7 at 7 PM and Oct. 10-14 at 8 PM. Martin Silvestri will be featured at the piano. Tickets, priced $37.50 (Tues.-Thurs. and Sun.) and $42.50 (Fri. and Sat.), are available by calling (866) 468-3399. The Empire Plush Room in The York Hotel is located at 940 Sutter Street in San Francisco, CA. Visit www.theempireplushroom.com for more information.

Christmas in July: Misfit Kids' Letters to Old St. Nick is the title of the July 23 benefit concert for ASTEP, Artists Striving to End Poverty. The world premiere collection of "naughty (and nice) holiday-themed songs" features lyrics by Playbill.com managing editor Kenneth Jones and music by Gerald Stockstill. The evening will boast the talents of Chris Hoch, Daniel C. Levine, Cindy Marchionda and Sally Wilfert with special guests Kara Boyer, Roger DeWitt, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Emily Harvey, Gavin Lee, Michelle Miller, Fred Rose, Ben Roseberry, Jennifer Simard, Andrew Ward and Jessica-Snow Wilson. Show time at the Players Theatre, 115 Macdougal Street, is 7:30 PM. A $20 pledge to ASTEP will secure a seat for this dress-casual, book-in-hand concert; to make a reservation, e-mail tickets@createsomethinggood.org or call (212) 706-1516. Put your name on the reservation list, and show up with $20 in cash on Monday evening. Seating is on a first come, first-served basis.

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

Patti LuPone performs "Rose's Turn" in the City Center Encores! production of <i>Gypsy</i>.
Patti LuPone performs "Rose's Turn" in the City Center Encores! production of Gypsy. Photo by Joan Marcus
Today’s Most Popular News: