DIVA TALK: Catching up with [title of show] and Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching up with [title of show] and Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Stephanie D'Abruzzo
Stephanie D'Abruzzo Photo by Meredith Zinner

One of the highlights of the 2003-2004 season — the one that boasted the opening of the three vastly different, terrific musicals Avenue Q, Wicked and Caroline, or Change — was the Broadway arrival of Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who wowed audiences with her delicious, comedic performances as both Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut in the Tony-winning Q. Since that time the Tony-nominated D'Abruzzo has been busy with stage work (a delightful turn in the Off-Broadway musical I Love You Because), concert performances and television gigs, and she is currently making her regional theatre debut in another little-show-that-could, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen's [title of show]. D'Abruzzo is playing the role of the dry, vampire-hating, Rice Krispy-loving Susan in the St. Louis Repertory Theatre production of the acclaimed four-person musical, which has been extended to Feb. 7. I recently had the chance to pose a few questions to the gifted artist; that interview follows:

Question: How did you get involved with this production? Have you done much regional theatre work?
Stephanie D'Abruzzo: This is my first real regional production, and I auditioned for it just like everyone else, on the steamiest August day that the city dished up for us this summer. At first I was disappointed that I wasn't seen as a Heidi type — because who doesn't want to sing "A Way Back to Then"? — but as soon as I saw the Susan sides, I instantly thought, "Well, duh. This is the role for me." Thankfully Vicky Bussert, our director, and Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Rep, agreed.

Question: Had you seen [title of show] either Off-Broadway or on Broadway?
D'Abruzzo: I am a bad, bad girl and had not seen any of the incarnations of the show, though I was certainly aware of it and had the cast recording. I'm good friends with Matt Vogel, who directed the [title of show] show, and I had watched those and sort of felt as though I kind of knew the show and the people in it... even though I most certainly did not. But everyone I knew who had seen [tos] at NYMF or the Vineyard or the Lyceum loved it and/or had very strong feelings about it. I got many ebullient responses to the news that I was doing the production in St. Louis, because people were thrilled to know that the show was experiencing this new life and that I was getting to be a part of it.

Question: A lot of people wondered whether the show would be as enjoyable without the original cast, since they are the basis for the characters. How do you think the show works with different actors?
D'Abruzzo: Well, it didn't seem to hurt A Chorus Line when other actors eventually put on the shiny gold hats and told the stories that came from – and were mostly played by — the original dancers, and that was a testament to the strength of the characters and the structure of the show. I think the same applies to [title of show]. The plot of the development of the show-within-the-show is very compelling, and incredibly unique in that it is almost documentarian, exploring the good, the bad and the ugly about how the business of show affects art and artists. In fact, I think more people were concerned about all of the obscure theatre references that pepper the show and that they might not play outside of New York, but I have seen that the show works on multiple levels. There are plenty of people who get all or most of the references and funny lines about Broadway and its denizens, and then there are people who don't get any of them but who still get sucked into the relationships between the characters and the journey that the show-within-the-show takes. There are strong reactions from the audience when things start to rise and then fall apart in Act II, and that's a great indicator that they have invested heavily in the characters. It's a great compliment to the actors who donated huge chunks of their lives and personalities to create these roles, because the characters are utterly entertaining and sympathetic and well-drawn even as text on a page, let alone played by new teams over its long future in regional houses and colleges. Just you wait until City Center Encores! does it in 2025! [Laughs.]

All that said, I have no idea if the show is truly more enjoyable or less enjoyable without the original cast, but I love this cast and I think that, at the very least, we are all having a great time and honestly respecting the characters we've been given to play. I'm so lucky to be a part of this production, and I cannot end this long answer without sending loving shout-outs — in alphabetical order — to [co-stars] David Horstman and Benjamin Howes and Amy Justman and Ben Nordstrom! Question: What is it like playing another actor, especially one who is your contemporary? Did you get a chance to speak with Susan Blackwell before you began rehearsals?
D'Abruzzo: I had not met any of the [tos] cast until a brief encounter backstage at the 2008 NYMF Gala. Then I saw Susan at an audition a few months later and we chatted for all of five lovely minutes. I saw her again at the closing performance of Avenue Q this past fall, not long after I had been cast in [tos]... I was onstage with all of the Q alumni and she happened to be in the audience in my line of sight, and while the producers and creative team were being brought onstage, we caught each other's eye and I mouthed to her, "I'm playing you!" and she mouthed back, "I know!" And at the party following the show, she embraced me and gave me her blessing, or at least said she was happy that I was playing her, which meant the world to me. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for her or the rest of the gang to be experiencing other people inhabiting their stage personas. And that was what I was most nervous about - her reaction to me playing her.

I was less nervous about actually playing her, because I decided early on that I had to treat Susan as any other character on a page and not think too much about the real person. Trying to imitate her would not only be troublesome, as I am not nearly so stunning and tall, but it also would be needless because I'd be playing this character to audiences who would not necessarily be intimately familiar with all the details about the real Susan Blackwell anyway. I had to make the character my own and make it work with our little ensemble. I've likened it to playing any other real person in a piece, like John Adams in 1776 or Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music... you don't need to have met these people to play them if there's all the necessary information in the script. And there is, in this case, more than enough for all of us to go on.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
D'Abruzzo: I obviously enjoy delivering the message of "Die Vampire, Die!" and I also have a great time singing "Secondary Characters," but I think that my favorite part of the show is at the end, where we are all listening to Heidi sing "A Way Back to Then" and then singing "Nine People's Favorite Thing" and the finale. It's my favorite part because we are all so connected to each other at that point, physically and emotionally. I love singing in that moment, but I also love listening and giving my energy to the other characters in that moment...It's the part of the show that for me is filled with joy and love and respect and everything that makes an ensemble true.

Ben Nordstrom with Stephanie D'Abruzzo in [title of show]
photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Question: What are your particular "vampires," if any?
D'Abruzzo: Oh, I have many vampires. They're all laughing at me. But at least they can help carry all of my emotional baggage. They have massive upper-body strength. [Laughs.] Question: Do you think the musical has a message and/or what does it mean to you?
D'Abruzzo: You know, for a show that was written off by many as being this tiny thing with limited appeal, I have found that there's more to this musical than meets the eye. It's like an amazing candy bar: a nougaty core about realizing one's dreams —or not — and the constant challenge of testing one's potential to find the right place in the world, surrounded by a chewy story about trust and friendship and how success — or the quest for it — can cause even the most solid foundations to crumble, and sprinkled with peanutty tales that address the very nature of art: what it is, what it could or should be, how it's created, and how precious and beloved it can be in the eye of the beholder. There's so much bravery in this piece, but it's wrapped in sweet chocolate fun, and I think that people sometimes lose sight of the big picture when they get distracted by the comedy and the cursing and the stuff that seems really flippant. I think I just described a musical Snickers! [Laughs].

Question: Like Avenue Q, [title of show] was produced Off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theater. Do you see any other similarities between the two musicals?
D'Abruzzo: This reminds me of a "compare and contrast" question from high school. [Laughs.] Let's see... The two shows do indeed share many similarities. Besides the Vineyard connection, both were also developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, and both are small, language-laden, original ensemble musicals that people like to describe as "edgy," which starred relatively unknown actors who also participated in the development of the piece. We shared two commercial producers —Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller — as well as Acme Sound Partners, SPOTCO, and Sam Rudy Media Relations. But there are no chairs in Avenue Q — just a bench in the bar scene — and no puppets in [title of show]. Those are big differences.

I will say it is a little strange for me during [title of show] when we all sing, "We're all so drunk with elation at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway/This is where it all started for the folks of Avenue Q." It's been made meta — if that's possible in an already meta show — because our director, Vicky, decided that I should mime puppetry on the line "folks of Avenue Q" while the others point at me. If people have read my bio, it gets a laugh.

Question: What was your reaction to the news that Avenue Q would reopen Off-Broadway?
D'Abruzzo: I was as stunned and surprised as everyone else, as we all only found out about it that night. It was an incredibly well-kept secret.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
D'Abruzzo: Recently, although sadly not while I've been in St. Louis, I've gotten to become sort of a semi-regular at Stephen Ruddy's Gravid Water at Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre, which goes up the last Monday of every month. An actor and an improvisor are paired (with five or six pairings in an evening), and the actor memorizes one side of a scene from a published play. The improvisor knows nothing about it and has to respond to the actor's lines, and the actor — who cannot stray from the lines at all — has to tailor the delivery to have it all somehow make sense. It's an incredible listening exercise — and a challenge not to melt with laughter — and I've done scenes from plays like Adding Machine, Lend Me a Tenor and Round and Round the Garden. I've been paired with some of the most amazing improvisors in town, and some nights it just clicks perfectly, but even in the scenes that aren't perfect, it's still a lively process, and the audience seems to love it whether it sails or sinks. And this spring, it looks like I will be playing the pre-verbal toddler Trixie in the Kennedy Center Family Theatre's world premiere of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. It's based on the very popular Caldecott Honor-winning book by Mo Willems, with whom I worked on "Sesame Street" and "Sheep in the Big City," and will feature a tender ballad entirely in baby gibberish!

For tickets to [title of show] phone (314) 968-4925 or visit The Rep's online box office at RepStl.

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

Amy Justman, Benjamin Howes, Ben Nordstrom and Stephanie D’Abruzzo
Amy Justman, Benjamin Howes, Ben Nordstrom and Stephanie D’Abruzzo
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