DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy's Janine LaManna PLUS Maggart on Disc and News of Minnelli

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy's Janine LaManna PLUS Maggart on Disc and News of Minnelli
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Janine LaManna
Janine LaManna

It would be hard not to admire singer-actress-dancer Janine LaManna, who returns to Broadway April 17 for a three-month guest-starring engagement in the award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone at the Marquis Theatre. Not only is the new mom (daughter Mia is one) about to succeed Tony winner Sutton Foster in the role of young starlet Janet Van De Graaff, but she will be doing so while awaiting the return of husband Mike McDermott, who is currently overseas in Iraq, serving our country as a Captain in the U.S. Army. LaManna, who made her Broadway debut in Ragtime, says the secret to getting through this time apart from her husband is focusing her attention elsewhere. "You try not to watch the news so much, and you try and concentrate on the positive," says the multi-talented performer, who was most recently on Broadway in the 2005 revival of Sweet Charity. About her work in that Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields-Neil Simon musical — which starred former "Married with Children" star Christina Applegate in the title role with LaManna as Nickie — The New York Times' Ben Brantley, said, "As Charity's hard-bitten best friends (and co-workers), Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa bring an otherwise absent spark to 'There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This,' an exultant skirt-swishing tribute to the 'America' sequence from West Side Story." Good reviews have a habit of following LaManna, who emerged unscathed during the much-in-the-news musical Seussical, which cast her as the feather-challenged Gertrude. In fact, the New York Post called her performance in the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical "enchanting," while the Associated Press said the actress was a "powerhouse Kewpie doll . . . [who] stops the show in the second act with her 'All for You' hymn to Horton."

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the enchanting powerhouse about her latest roles: mom, wife and stage star. That interview follows.

Question: How did the role in Drowsy Chaperone come about for you?
Janine LaManna: I was in North Carolina with my daughter, and I got a call from [casting director] Bernie Telsey's office. They said, "Would you be interested in this?," and then I came up and met [director-choreographer] Casey [Nicholaw], who I knew from another show. They called me that afternoon and said, "We'd like you to do this."

Question: Had you seen the show at that point?
LaManna: I had not seen the show.

Question: Have you since?
LaManna: Yes. Question: What did you think?
LaManna: It's fantastic! It's so sweet and so funny. I mean, it's everything a musical should be. It's very bright and sarcastic, [and] I really think there's an audience for this. There's an audience that needs some kind of comment on musical theatre today, in this day and age. . . . I have a bunch of friends in my life that are very, very much like the Man in Chair. Two friends in particular that basically are the Man in Chair, and I just think this is hysterical. I think that's when comedy is at its best — when it's true and when it's honest and when it comes from some place [and is] really, really organic.

Question: Have you started rehearsals yet?
LaManna: I did. I started last week.

Question: How are they going so far?
LaManna: Great. They couldn't be nicer. It's just a nice group of people.

Question: Have you ever replaced another actor in a show before?
LaManna: I have.

Question: What's that process like?
LaManna: You try to not duplicate exactly what the other actress is doing because you don't want to take all of the work that they've done and put into it and say, "Oh, I'm just going to copy this." It's really more out of respect to the other actor to try and do what they've done without copying them identically. But I think at this point it's easier for me. The first time . . . I was a standby for Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman on the road. I started rehearsals — she was unavailable to start rehearsals with the cast — so it was basically me. I had seen the show, but I had not seen [Chita] do it. I saw Vanessa Williams do it. So, I started rehearsing this role the way that I could do it. And then [Chita] came in two weeks later, and I saw her do it. After I saw her do it, I changed my interpretation because I thought, "Oh, that's the way it should be!" And then Rob Marshall took me aside and said, "Janine, you can't do it the way Chita does it because you're not Chita. You're a very young girl, and you're not the same Aurora in any sense. So you've got to find your own way to do it." I was too young to know that you could actually be respectful to the other actor by doing your own thing.

It is a little daunting, especially when you're replacing somebody who is so loved and so cherished, and people are just fawning over their performance. It's definitely a daunting task because you just want to be as good if not better, or have a different take on it. And if you do have a different take on it, [you wonder if it] is going to be well received.

Question: In the Drowsy song "Show Off," there are a lot of acrobatics. What type of things will you be doing?
LaManna: Pretty much the same things [as Sutton Foster]. Surprisingly, I have pretty good cartwheels. [Laughs.] I don't know where that came from, but somewhere my 12-year-old life came back to me — I guess it stayed in the muscle memory. So, the cartwheels and the splits and the kicks; fortunately, for me, really high kicks are probably the only trick that I've ever had consistently over the years. I'm not a really proficient dancer, but I definitely have a high kick. It's gotten me by — let's put it that way. [Laughs.]

Question: Have you gotten to perform the whole number yet?
LaManna: Yes.

Question: How did that go?
LaManna: Good. I worked with Casey the other day, and he is so supportive and so informative and really has such a great way with actors that puts you immediately at ease, which is what you need to have in order to be in this type of position. You need to be with somebody who's not judging you right away. Casey was just completely understanding and creative. He was so creative with me, and he's like, "This looks good on you, this looks good on you, that doesn't look good on you…" He was really forming it to my body as opposed to putting a square peg in a round whole.

Question: You're doing a guest engagement for three months.
LaManna: Until July 29th.

Question: Tell me about your thinking behind that. I know your husband is overseas.
LaManna: Yeah, and he's supposed to be coming home in June or July, so this all kind of worked out perfectly.

Question: How long has he been in Iraq?
LaManna: Since last July. It'll be a year in July.

Question: How has that been for you?
LaManna: I have a daughter, and you really concentrate on that — you focus your attention somewhere else. If I were to watch the news a lot — I've tried to do that before — that doesn't work so well. So, you try not to watch the news so much, and you try and concentrate on the positive, and we stay in very close communication. Unfortunately, it's all about the day to day, and one day at a time.

Question: How has motherhood been?
LaManna: Just awesome. She's really a great little kid. She's a very happy baby, very well adjusted, very strong willed, which doesn't surprise me. She was in my tummy for about five-and-a-half months during Sweet Charity. I cannot even believe that I did the show for as long as I did, but it was great. And she came pretty much out of my belly with a little rhythm in her. Whenever she hears clapping or music, she just kind of jumps up and down! [Laughs.]

Question: How do you think it will be combining motherhood and doing the show?
LaManna: Because I haven't really done a show since I had her, I don't know. I'm really looking forward to it. As many shows as I've been in with other people's children [around, I] have embraced that completely. I think it's great when kids are in the theatre. I just think it keeps everything light and airy. Children bring such a joy and happiness and lightness to everything, that I can only imagine what it's going to be like with me. In that respect, I don't know how much I'll bring her to the theatre and how much she'll stay home. It depends on her sleeping schedule — it's really all about her schedule and sleeping and napping and feeding and all of that. I'm in the throes of trying to find sitters and nannies and all of that right now.

Question: Do you have family in the city?
LaManna: I have family that's kind of close by. My sister and my niece have been watching her this week and last week. My sister is about two hours away, but the rest of my family is about six hours away. But I have lots of girlfriends down here. I have such a great support system here. My whole life is here, basically, and it's easier for me to find family — I call them my extended family — the friends I've made and the friends I went to college with and their families. Their parents are like my parents. I went to school at Wagner College on Staten Island, and my best friend [and] college roommate still lives on Staten Island.

Question: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
LaManna: Rochester, New York.

Question: When did you start performing? What's your earliest memory?
LaManna: Oh, it was third grade in The Wizard of Oz. I can also remember being on the coffee table when I was a little kid.

Question: Were there any performers that you particularly admired?
LaManna: I think my first albums were really the biggest influence. For some reason — and I don't know who bought them for me — but I had Barbra Streisand's first album, I had West Side Story, Sweet Charity and Chorus Line.

Question: How many of those shows have you gotten to do?
LaManna: All of them, which cracks me up. It hit me during Sweet Charity. I was listening to Charlotte [d'Amboise] do the beginning of the first song [as] she sings, "Can I remember how this song and dance began? Yes I can. Damn right I can…" Well, Charlotte started singing that verse, and I, all of the sudden, had this flashback of Gwen [Verdon]. I just remembered Gwen singing that, and I thought, "That's right! I acted out every number from Sweet Charity my whole junior high [and] high school [years] in the living room in my own world." My mother would drive up and say, "My God, I can hear the stereo blasting out on the street!" [Laughs.] And I think every performer has that story. It's the same story — it's the universal "How did you know you wanted to be an actress?" Once I started, they say that I had a propensity for it. My sister is a little bit older than I am and gave me a summer camp at the Baltimore Actors' Theatre. I went for a summer, and I did ballet and guitar.

Question: How old were you?
LaManna: I think I was 11. And [I did] drama class and music class and all of that, and that was it. That's when I knew for sure, "This is what I'll do for the rest of my life." And I was fortunate to know what I wanted to do at a young age. It was very clear-cut. There was never, ever a moment of question.

Question: What was your Broadway debut?
LaManna: Ragtime.

Question: What was that experience like?
LaManna: The first time I got onstage with the entire cast and orchestra, my body was shaking [because] I was so blown away once I heard the chorus behind me. I was on the balcony and the chorus came at me, and it just hit me like a truck. It was unbelievable. It was really a surreal experience. It was scary and exciting at the same time. There were 50 people onstage. I'm one little girl up there on a balcony, and all of a sudden they're singing "Ragtime!" with those glorious voices, and I thought, "Oh my God!" [Laughs.] But I was there for a long time, and I absolutely loved it. I loved listening to the music, and Ragtime is what led to Seussical because Lynn [Ahrens] and Steve [Flaherty] liked me as Evelyn [Nesbit], and they said, "We'd like you to do this workshop." And I said, "Oh, okay. Thank you." I didn't ask them what part or anything — I was just happy to be working with them. I had missed the whole beginning of Ragtime — and I thought that show was just such a classic, unbelievable piece — so I was just so happy to work with them in any capacity. And then Steve said to me one day in rehearsal, "You know, you're going to be playing Gertrude McFuzz. . . . You know it's the heroine of the show," and I said, "Oh, no I didn't! Oh, okay, thank you!" And I asked them later, I said, "How did you get Gertrude from Evelyn Nesbit?" I mean, what a dichotomy in characters. He said, "There's just something really cartoon-y about you — your big eyes, and you're just funny, and we just saw it."

It seems to me that [Ahrens and Flaherty] usually find somebody that they fall in love with, and they're really great that way. It's so nice to be asked by the writers. It's nice whenever that happens. It really makes you feel as though somebody has connected with you, and if it's the writer, they can see in you that you can portray what they're feeling. They've written the character. Gertrude is very much like Lynn. I think Gertrude kind of came out of Lynn. When we heard the score for the first time, Lynn and Steve sang it, mostly Lynn. She's Gertrude. [Laughs.] It was quite an honor to have her say, "And we see you as the same."

Question: What was the Seussical experience like? I remember it was in the press a lot, and there were a lot of different actors going into the cast.
LaManna: I had such a wonderful experience with it because my role was so touching and so poignant. It really had all the different facets of a character that you would love to play — emotions ranging from happy to sad, but she's cute and really the underdog and wanting so badly to be noticed and to be loved. She had a nice arc.

Question: Do you have a favorite Broadway experience so far?
LaManna: I would probably say Seussical, just because of the part and because of the experience and working with all the different stars. A lot of people will say, "Sorry, we don't mean to bring it up…," but it was a totally great experience. There was a lot of attention for me, and the show got a lot of attention. I think we got a little side swept [by] The Producers. I don't think people really knew what Seussical was. They weren't sure if it was a children's show like Blue's Clues Live Onstage. They weren't quite sure what it was. It wasn't until Rosie [O'Donnell] came in [to the cast] and gave it a lot of public attention that the show started to pick up — obviously not enough to keep us running for a longer period of time. But it was joyous … I think overall that was my favorite experience because of everyone's reaction to it. Question: Sweet Charity was also high profile. What was that experience like for you?
LaManna: Great. It turned out to be something that I really did enjoy. I was a little apprehensive at first to be doing that kind of dancing, but lo and behold, I ended up leaving five months pregnant. So it actually did work out where I could get through the number — and it was a tough number — but I enjoyed the character so much, and I loved working with Christina [Applegate] and Kyra [Da Costa]. As a company, it was great — we had a great group of people. And, a lot of times, that will indicate what kind of experience you're going to have — what kind of people you're going to work with everyday. So far, I've been very fortunate, and everyone is getting more and more professional, it seems, these days. Everyone is gracious and happy to be working, and that really informs your daily life at the theatre.

Question: Going back to Drowsy, how would you describe the character of Janet?
LaManna: Well, let's see, after a couple of days of rehearsal . . . [Laughs.] What I think is funny about Janet is it's actually really not Janet. It's really Jane Roberts, who is playing this ingénue, Janet Van De Graaff. So, to me, I kind of look at her more as Jane Roberts. She's the "Oops Girl." As I'm starting to do a little more work, I'm keeping it in mind that Jane Roberts is the star and that it's life imitating art — she's kind of playing a star in the show as well. As long as I keep that in mind — that Jane Roberts has signature things that are very popular and that she's famous for — when I'm doing Janet, that it's hard for Jane to let go of some of her "Oops Girl" stuff because she's a star already. That's what makes her famous, so, of course, she's going to put it into Janet Van De Graaff. And, Janet seems to me to be a very sweet ingénue in the show, but yet because Jane is such a star, there's always that sense of, "[Sigh], the director told me I look good when I face this way!" And Casey was working with me on that, and he said, "You know, somebody is screaming from the front of the house, 'Show the sleeves, show the sleeves!'" So it's kind of funny how everything is very deliberate in that era, and I love that era so much.

I've done that era many times, and I love it. I think it's such a fun era to play. I love the forties, I love the twenties and thirties. I did My One and Only a couple of times, and I did No, No, Nanette in school, and I also did Theda Barra and the Frontier Rabbi Off-Broadway. So even though that's silent film, and it kind of predates this, we're coming off the cusp of that silent-film stuff: It's getting very breezy, it's Prohibition, there isn't a care in the world, but it's just a little heightened. It's that heightened breeziness. The Beatrice Stockwell character is just so perfect. It reminds of the Sarah Bernhardts — they took themselves so seriously. It's almost like that movie "Bullets Over Broadway" — almost reminds me of Dianne Wiest's [character]: "Don't speak, don't speak." It's kind of like the Chaperone — where you're a bigger star and you really start believing what people tell you about yourself.

And you have tricks, and there's nothing they wouldn't try. Here's a guy on roller skates. When you look at the old film footage, they really pushed themselves to the limit. Every time a new film came out, "Okay, what trick can we do now?" Fred Astaire kept coming up with new tricks, and Gene Kelly, and there's Ginger Rogers right along side of him doing the same stuff. I'm sure she had never roller-skated before, and then they're doing big numbers on roller skates.… I think that Drowsy is one of the only shows recently that is bringing us back to that kind of performing. As actors ourselves, we're being pushed to our limits. I mean, I'm doing cartwheels and kick splits. It's like, "Pull out the stops!" And that's what's funny about show business: "Can you show off? Let's see you show off." And that's what it was about those days, "How can you show off? What are your tricks?"

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
LaManna: I still remain hopeful for Harmony to come in, the Barry Manilow project.

Question: What's the latest with that show?
LaManna: I'm not exactly sure. I did hear recently that the funding was there and that they're just trying to get all the other elements in place before they can go again. It's a really, really beautiful piece. The story is so poignant. I think it's a story that needs to be told now. And it's pretty much the original boy-band story!

Question: What was your role in that?
LaManna: I played Ruth, who is a little bit of a dynamo. She's the activist — it's a little but like Katie in "The Way We Were." Her story with her leading man is a little Katie and Hubbell, I always say. And, it's a lovely piece — I really hope the best for it. The other thing [that] I've been working on for a very long time is a piece about the life of Camille Claudel [called M. Claudel by Laurie McKelvey]. That's a nice piece . . . [but it's] really in the infantile stage. We did a reading-type workshop of it, [and it has] just a lovely, lovely score — just beautiful, one of my favorite scores to sing.

I'm also working on a one-woman show for myself, but mainly a night of music, more so than a play. And that I'm working with Stafford Arima. That's what I'm going to try and do while I'm here. And depending on when my husband comes home, that will kind of inform the rest of my stay, but I should probably be here for a while.

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

FOR THE RECORD: "Maude Maggart Live"
An aspiring cabaret singer could probably have no better mentor than Andrea Marcovicci, so it’s not surprising that Maude Maggart—a Marcovicci fan and former protégé—has had great success in the cabaret world in the past few years, playing top rooms around the country to rave reviews.

The young singer, who grew up in Manhattan and Venice Beach, has just released her latest solo recording, which, fittingly, was recorded at both the Gardenia in West Hollywood and the Algonquin in New York City. Simply titled "Maude Maggart Live," the 13-track CD is loosely based upon the short-lived love story between her maternal grandparents, musicians Johnny and Millicent McAfee. He played reeds for the Johnny Hamp Band; she became the band’s girl singer in 1937. Shortly thereafter, they married; ten years later, they divorced. Yet, in that time they produced a child, who herself would spawn a daughter, Maude Maggart.

Maggart possesses one of the more unique voices in the cabaret world—there is a period sound in her upper register which features an operettaish tremolo, yet she can also produce darker sounds, all tinged with emotion.

The new disc features a mix of vintage tunes, some more familiar ("My Funny Valentine") than others ("Coffee in the Morning, Kisses in the Night"), but Maggart treats each with the same care and respect. She opens her recital with the little-heard Mitchell Parish-Peter DeRose gem "Deep Purple" and concludes with a heartfelt pairing of "Skylark" and another rarity, Kurt Weill and Ann Ronell's "The River Is So Blue." In between are great readings of "I'm in the Mood for Love," "You Go to My Head" and "I've Heard That Song Before" and enough spoken dialogue to get a feel of not only the grandparents who influenced the singer, but the intelligent and good-humored singer herself.

Too Marvelous for Words: A Gala Evening of Johnny Mercer Songs is the title of a May 15 concert at the Weill Recital Hall to benefit the New York Festival of Song. The evening will boast the vocal talents of Liz Callaway, Eric Comstock, Tom Wopat and recent "Dreamgirls" star Anika Noni Rose. NYFOS artistic director Steven Blier will be featured at the piano. The gala will begin at 7 PM with the performance followed by dinner at Remi (145 West 53rd Street) at 8:30 PM. The Weill Recital Hall is located in Manhattan at 154 West 57th Street. Tickets, priced $500 or $750, are available by calling (646) 230-8380.

Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Emmy Award winner Liza Minnelli will perform in concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center May 18. The evening will feature Minnelli standards as well as tunes from her forthcoming CD, which features the songs of her godmother, Kay Thompson. Show time is 8 PM. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center is located at One Center Street in Newark, NJ. Tickets are available by calling (888) 466 5722. Visit www.njpac.org for more information.

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

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