Sunday, December 29, 2019

Berlin: 1999

As we near the end of another decade, I am reminded that it was 20 years ago this month that I saw in the Millennium in the fascinating city of Berlin, and in the guise of one of Berlin's most famous native daughters: Marlene Dietrich.

Black Market Marlene
I had been impersonating Dietrich for about five years at that point.  My first act, Queen of the World: Marlene Dietrich in Concert, had been followed by Black Market Marlene: a Dietrich Cabaret, my most successful endeavor with the screen siren. The act had been commissioned by the late impresario, Erv Raible, who invited me to create an original show for his legendary club, Eighty Eights.

I conceived a sung-through piece presenting Marlene in her gender-bending signature look of top hat and tails, incorporating pieces she sang in male drag as well as lots of her early film and recorded songs in German, French and English.  Accompanied by brilliant musical director and arranger David Maiocco, accordionist Tony Lauria and drummer Mary Rodriquez, I insinuated myself through the intimate club, weaving an illusion of a bygone Berlin cabaret suffused with smoke and mystery. For a glimpse of my Dietrich work at that time, enjoy Rick McKay's short film on me, Illusions.

The show was a big success, garnering rave reviews and launching a series of tour dates in cities like New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as gay hot spots Fire Island and Provincetown.  A Berlin cabaret promoter, Klaus "Mabel" Ascheneller, who represented several drag acts which he'd had success with in Germany (including drag opera diva Shequida), saw the piece and decided to pitch it to the BKA, an edgy cabaret venue.  Impressed with my rave New York reviews, and the images of me as Marlene, the BKA booked me to perform through the '99 Christmas season, the Millennium festivities and into 2000.  

Thank heaven David Maiocco was hired to come with me, and off we flew to Berlin.  To call the first few days we were there a whirlwind would be an understatement.  The producers at BKA barely spoke any English, and neither David nor I spoke enough German to get by.  We were introduced to our two musicians, neither of whom had much if any English: a female French classical accordionist and a German drummer.  David spoke the language of music to these talented musicians, and set to work getting them up to speed.

Meantime my schedule had been arranged for me, with interviews and press events, culminating in a segment for Berlin Public Television which had me followed around the city by a camera crew to various places significant to Dietrich, including her grave site.  There was a controversy over the giant posters of me plastered all over town: the Dietrich Estate, administered by Marlene's daughter, Maria Riva, insisted that the photo of me used on the posters was of the actual Dietrich and was being used without license.  Staving off their cease-and-desist order, my German agent had to put them in touch with my NYC photographer, Stephen Mosher, who provided proof that the shot was of me.  It was rather flattering in a way, but added to the overall stress of the situation.

The Public TV segment was shot the day of my opening performance.  The concept of preview performances was unknown to the BKA, and unbeknownst to us, they'd invited every television and radio station in Berlin, as well as the national press, to cover my first performance.  Despite the Germans' ambivalent attitude toward Dietrich (she's rather like Joan Crawford to them--simultaneously reviled and celebrated), an American drag performer playing the siren garnered a great deal of interest.

To add to the pressure of the moment, the camera crew whisking me around Berlin got me to the club without enough time for me to do the 90 minutes of makeup required to transform into Marlene.  This meant that my performance went up 45 minutes late.  By the time I emerged on stage to begin the show, a cranky full house of dignitaries and Berlin cognoscenti had been smoking (and fuming) for over an hour.  My first entrance was like something out of Fellini.  The room was thick with cigarette smoke. A row of television cameras in the back was staring me in the face. In the front row, Germany's top drag performers, in full regalia, were seated alongside the German Minister of Culture.  Arms folded, they peered at this drag arriviste American with all the warmth of a firing squad.

The performance happened.  At the end, the audience stamped its feet and demanded encores.  I learned afterward that Germans are very persnickety about genre.  My show was promoted as a cabaret, but the German idea of what a cabaret was bore little resemblance to what I was doing--they expected political humor, satire, improvisation, riffing off the audience.  I was doing a sung-through art piece with virtually no patter. To them, this was a concert and they were going to teach this upstart American a lesson.  My show incorporated no encores.  The audience applauded and stamped until I was forced to roll out three encores of songs I had already performed.  Finally, sweating and exhausted, I was allowed to leave the stage.

The next day, the press lambasted me. From the national newspaper Die Welt on down, the reviews were in and they were vicious.  You see, also unbeknownst to me, there had just been a highly successful Berlin run of Pam Gems' play Marlene starring a famous German television star, who had received raves. I didn't realize that my engagement was a thumb in the eye of this lady's success--and by a Yank, no less!  The press sharpened their knives and drew blood. 

With brilliant musical director, David Maiocco
Funnily enough--although my producers were freaking out, and I was devastated by the notices--I learned another perverse thing about the German public: they love controversy.  Far from dissuading people from coming to the show, the bad reviews made them want to see for themselves and make up their own minds about it.  The run sold out.  Audiences loved it.  People from Marlene's past started showing up and greeting me after performances-- including a little old lady in a babushka who threw herself, weeping, into my arms.  She'd been Marlene's dresser in the early 60s when she'd brought her act to Berlin, amidst controversy far more dramatic than what I was experiencing.

The BKA contracted me to host their New Year's Eve event, a varieté program--sort of like a vaudeville--with me as Marlene doing a few numbers and introducing the various acts, which included a belly dancer, a snake charmer, and my partner Damien--who was a dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo--performing The Dying Swan, en pointe.  It was surreal and sublime to find myself in this strange Weimar-style fun house as the 90s came to a close.

We toasted each other with champagne as midnight struck, people taking to the streets firing guns into the air, as fireworks exploded over the Siegessäule. David Maiocco dubbed our Berlin adventure The Marlennium Tour.  It certainly was a trip.  Twenty years ago.  Seems like another life, and certainly another career.  

Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin...

Monday, December 23, 2019

A New Decade Approaches

Well, here we are, about to start a new decade.  One thing I know for sure--the older I get, the faster time seems to fly.  Having already posted a sort of recap of my various ventures and creative projects of the year, I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the decade past and some home truths I have come to embrace.

I've been cobbling together ideas and notes for a memoir I am considering writing.  For inspiration, I recently read the wonderful and hilarious autobiography of Eric Idle, "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life." It reminded me that the decade that is coming to a close started for me with the finale of the First National Tour of Eric and John DuPrez's Tony-winning Best Musical Spamalot.

It was my most prestigious and most lucrative acting job to date. In October 2009, we gave our last show in Costa Mesa, CA.  By then I had been on the road for 22 months, played 62 city stops in North America, and turned in over 680 performances as Sir Robin.  I had starred opposite my idol Gary Beach, as well as greats Richard Chamberlain, Jonathan Hadary, and John O'Hurley.

I can't deny that I expected, as I returned to New York with a nice bank account, fancy LA head shots and a brand new agent, that my next step would be: BROADWAY.  From the age of 11, my dearest held aspiration, The Great White Way.  And having played a leading role in a hugely successful tour, I hoped and anticipated that doors in that hallowed echelon of the business would open for me.

Well, a decade has passed and Broadway remains elusive.  Virtually every other principal actor I worked with on the tour has done multiple Broadway shows and made big inroads into film and television in the past ten years.  While I often counsel my coaching clients and acting students not to compare their relative success and failure to that of others, it is sometimes impossible not to go down that rabbit hole of doubt and self-pity myself.  

As I've been putting together anecdotes about those halcyon days on the road, one story continues to creep up on me and rankles like no other.  Spamalot was directed by Mike Nichols and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.  This was certainly the show that put Casey on the map as a major force. The Book of Mormon and his many other successes were yet to come, and of course now he is, arguably, the most significant director on Broadway.

Casey came to see the tour in February of 2008 when we were playing Huntsville, AL.  It was the first time I had met him; I had already been in the show for well over a year.  At our note session, Casey was over the moon about my performance and gave me nothing but positive feedback.  I was elated.

A month later, we were in Wilmington, DE rehearsing John O'Hurley into our company in anticipation of our West Coast tour, which would take us to San Francisco for two months and then to LA and the Ahmanson Theatre for nine weeks. Casey came to see the show and, knowing he was in the house, I was probably pushing a bit in my performance; the overall mandate for Spamalot was a very low key, almost deadpan performance style.  Anyway, the next day we had a work session with Casey.

Everyone gathered on stage and Casey arrived to begin rehearsal.  To my surprise, he singled me out and began to dress me down, demanding to know what had happened to me and how my work could have become so awful--and that I had ruined the previous night's performance.  To this day, I find it hard to believe that in just a few short weeks I could have gone from brilliant in his estimation to ruining the show.  But in the moment, I was stunned.  And the worst thing you can do to a person who was ridiculed, bullied and brutalized for the first 10 years of his life in public school is to ridicule and bully him in front of his peers.  Casey could have taken me privately aside and told me I had been pushing and I needed to pull my performance back.  But he didn't. And so, feeling attacked, I stood up for myself.  

What transpired was a heated five minute squabble between me and Casey, witnessed by all, which left me shaking and furious.  But I took his notes, gave a better performance that night, and was told by his assistant that Casey left Wilmington happy with my work.  But the bad taste remained with me.  One of the dysfunctions of show business is that things happen, or don't happen, in one's career and one never knows why (or why not).  I have always wondered if that five minutes in which I quarreled with Casey hurt my chances of making inroads into Broadway.

But, of course, this way madness lies.  I will say that a year later, I got into an elevator at 42nd Street Studios in New York and stood right next to Casey.  I said hi, and he acted like he didn't know me.  My mind reeled.  As I said: madness.

Which brings me back to Eric.  Because these stories we hold on to--particularly the negative ones, the moments we actors think ruined forever our dreams of success and fame--can overshadow the really affirming, amazing moments we've experienced.  So, in the aftermath of this negative moment with Casey, we made our way out west.

One night, at the Ahmanson in LA, I was doing my big number, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," and I looked out and there was Eric Idle sitting in the third row along with his gorgeous wife Tania, and next to them, Billy Crystal and his wife Janice.  Throughout my song, Billy was howling with laughter and having the time of his life.  It was surreal.

After the show,  I'm leaving my dressing room and heading home.  I open the door, and who is standing outside my room waiting for me to come out but Eric, Tania, Janice, and Billy--who points at me and shouts: "YOU!!  YOU ARE HILARIOUS!"  He then leaps forward and takes me into a huge embrace, lifting me off the floor. Eric steps forward and pats me on the back and says to Billy, "Didn't I tell you he was great?"  I'm thinking--what is happening here?  Whose life is this?  I spent the next ten minutes with these two comedy legends as they and their wives gushed over me.  I only wish in 2009 we'd had phones equipped with cameras and video. 

Anyway, you see where I'm going with this?  The most important director-to-be on Broadway gave me a negative set of notes in front of my fellow actors and I thought my career irreparably damaged... and a few weeks later, the show's writer, one of the Pythons, the entire reason for Spamalot existing, the ORIGINAL Sir Robin-- and his buddy, one of the greatest and most successful actor/comedians of all time-- told me I was brilliant.  What better vote of confidence could I have?

And yeah... Broadway hasn't happened.  Yet.  But I've learned that holding on so strongly and desperately to a desired goal can make one unappreciative--almost unaware-- of the great things one is already achieving and has achieved.  So, no, the decade past didn't bring my Broadway debut.  What did it bring?  Relatively consistent employment as an actor at some of our finest theaters, and more and more great parts.  I've gotten to play a handful of my all time dream roles: Thénardier, John Adams, Nathan Detroit, Captain Hook. I've developed new musicals and worked with more legends: Jerry Lewis, Marvin Hamlisch, Sally Struthers, Valerie Harper. I've developed great relationships with directors and theaters  who've invited me back numerous times.  I've broken through with small bits on great TV shows: Law & Order: SVU  and Succession.  

So, have I achieved my ultimate dream? Not yet.  But I have probably achieved the ultimate dreams of many in my profession who continue to strive toward opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have had.  As 2020 approaches, I have concluded that no matter what the future brings, we must embrace the good in our lives, give ourselves credit for our hard work, and just keep moving forward with as much optimism as possible.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Birthday Reflections

Taking stock of what I have and what I haven't...
What do I find?
The things I've got will keep me satisfied.
Checking up on what I have and what I haven't...
What do I find?
A healthy balance on the credit side.
~Irving Berlin

Another birthday is here and I find myself in the midst of that awkward, silent time that precedes the start of a new gig.  In less than a week, I will go to Vermont and spend the holidays playing wonderful Max Detweiler in "The Sound of Music."  It's a return to a role I love; to New England, where I spent the first half of my life... and most importantly, it places me two hours' drive from my Mom--which means we get to do Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah, and Christmas together, and even see in 2020.  Blessings.

I have been doing a look back over this 54th year of my life and it's been a time of some real struggle--financially, professionally, personally-- but also a period of growth and achievement, highlighted by a new trend of diversification in my work.


 Big Apple Film Festival Award
A year ago, the Big Apple Film Festival awarded me Third Place Winner in their Short Screenplay Competition for my script, "T."  This intense, surreal story of addiction also won Best Short Screenplay in the HollywoodJust4Shorts Competition.  My feature screenplay, "The Girl in Green," placed in the top 10% in the coveted Academy Nicholl Fellowship Competition and finished as quarterfinalist in the WeScreenplay Feature Competition.

Television and Commercials

Last fall, I made my primetime TV debut in a tiny part on "Law & Order: SVU."  It felt like a huge achievement to finally join the "Law & Order" family--a rite of passage for a New York actor.  Since then, I have appeared in an episode of the HBO blockbuster "Succession."  Other interesting opportunities have come my way, including a super fun commercial shoot for the moonshine brand, Saint Luna--as the hipster bartender, I found myself featured as part of the branding for the company!

Coaching and Teaching

My private coaching business has been growing by leaps and bounds and in the best way possible: by word of mouth.  My talented and successful clients have been very generous, sending referrals my way and helping to build my business.  In the past year my clients have booked Broadway, national tours, television and film roles.  I've had amazing opportunities to work with folks like Zachary James on his Metropolitan Opera debut in "Akhnaten" and Josh Raff on his one man show, "Love-Love."

Coaching young stars at Goodspeed Musicals
Goodspeed Musicals invited me back to lead a master class in audition technique for young people.  Always great to return to East Haddam, where Goodspeed continues to set the standard for musical theatre production and education.  

I also launched a new venture with my teaching partner, Andrew Parks--a professional intensive for musical theatre performers called Rep Book Excellence.  This new approach to the selection and performance of audition repertoire had a great first round of classes and we are looking forward to bringing it back in 2020.


Returning to the world of cabaret as a director has been enormously gratifying and creatively exciting.  Crafting and directing Sierra Rein's solo debut act, "Running in Place," in collaboration with musical director Bill Zeffiro was a joy, and Sierra swept the awards this past year, winning both the Bistro Award and the MAC Award.  This spring, my dear friend Goldie Dver made her comeback after a ten year absence from cabaret with the show we created together, "Back in Mama's Arms."  The piece, an inspiring story of survival and optimism, has been universally embraced by the cabaret community and press and Goldie has confidently reclaimed her place on the cabaret scene.

New Works

Readings and workshops of new plays and musicals are something I try to be a part of as often as I can--one never knows what piece will go on to have a life.  I am fortunate that writers and directors have invited me to the party a few times this past year.

In January, Bill Zeffiro asked me to be in a reading of his musical "Houdini Among the Spirits," with stars Robert Cuccioli and Nick Wyman.  This summer I had a great feature in the reading of the immersive speakeasy musical "Whisper Darkly," co-written and directed by talented DJ Salisbury; and wonderful playwright Gordon Penn invited me to read the bombastic comic lead of President Juraslob in his play "Black Garden" at the Roundabout.


Two wonderful regional theatre productions highlighted this 54th year of my life and my 29th year in show business.  I escaped the winter and returned to one my favorite companies, Riverside Theatre, to play the delicious cameo of Hungarian charlatan Zoltan Karpathy in "My Fair Lady."  Superb production directed by Jimmy Brennan and starring husband and wife Higgins and Eliza Jimmy and Kristin Beth Ludwig.

Drag antics with Max Falls and Brandon Curry 
With a week's turnaround following my time in Vero Beach, I flew off to TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas to play drag diva Miss Tracy Mills in Matthew Lopez's "The Legend of Georgia McBride."  A play with such heart, directed with heart by Bruce Warren--and a company of such lovely actors with whom I became fast friends. We are slated to remount our production in 2020 at Virginia Stage Company.

Looking back, it's been quite a year and I feel really grateful, even while I struggle to make the bills, and line up work in a business that is precarious even in its best moments. I've been pretty much single for 13 years and I wonder if love will ever find me again.  Getting older makes one think about things like stability, savings, retirement... but in this business, to quote a song lyric by friend and collaborator Bill Zeffiro: "I'll retire when I'm dead."  Welcome 55th year--let's see what you have in store...

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Second Chances

Mea culpa, dear friends.
As can often happen in life... life intervened, and the past few months since I closed "The Legend of Georgia McBride" in Arkansas have been, well, challenging--on personal and professional fronts. 

Fortunately, the show business gods have smiled, and I will have the good fortune of seeing out 2019 not only doing the work I love--but doing a role I love.  

I think all actors have a list of dream parts--a list we often keep close and secret, for fear of either jinxing ourselves, or wanting those plum roles too much; in a profession full of rejection, the chances of those parts passing us by are all too likely.  I have been luckier than most, and have been given some ultimate dream parts to play.  But to play one more than once?

As Max, with Jacquelynne Fontaine as Elsa
Well, for the first time in my nearly 30 year career, lightning has struck twice!  I will be spending the holidays in Vermont playing the delicious role of Max in "The Sound of Music" at Northern Stage.  I had the good fortune of playing dear "Uncle Max" at North Shore Music Theatre in 2013--my first role at my hometown theatre, and my first production of many with brilliant director Jimmy Brennan. For my work, I was nominated for the IRNE Award, and I have to say it was one of my favorite shows to date.

Max Detweiler is a splendid flight of Oscar Hammerstein's fancy, placed in the midst of the true story of the Von Trapp Family.  Loosely based on a real life family friend--a clergyman and choral group promoter--Max serves many purposes in the plot of "The Sound of Music."  He is the urbane and witty friend of the Captain and confident to his love interest, the Baroness Elsa Schrader; he also provides the crucial connection for Maria and the singing Von Trapp children to the folk festival which serves as their way out when the family must escape the Nazis. 

Richard Haydn as Max and Eleanor Parker as Elsa
Max also serves another purpose--one lost in the film version of the musical which removed most of the politics of pre-fascist Austria and, along with them, Max's two songs: "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way To Stop It."  The latter is a stinging indictment of the complacency and self-interest that allows fascist regimes to take root and thrive.  Max, whose interests are purely mercenary, nevertheless works with the Nazis--until he is faced with the reality that his good friends are under threat from his fascist friends.  That realization provides an immensely satisfying dramatic transition for an actor and I look forward to assaying it again.

Claude Rains

As always, I am inspired by great actors and great performances of the past.  For Max, I have always thought of Claude Rains and his rascally performance as Louis in "Casablanca."  Charming, unscrupulous, unapologetically venal-- nevertheless, when it really counts, Louis does the right thing and begins his "beautiful friendship" with Rick, fighting the Nazi menace.

As Solange in "The Maids"
It's rather fun to note that Northern Stage, in the little town of White River Junction, Vermont, produces in its beautiful new venue, the Barrette Center for the Arts, on the site of what once was the Briggs Opera House.  In the early 1990s, I spent a Fall in this little whistle stop town, doing an ambitious rep of Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw" with Jean Genet's "The Maids" as part of White River Theatre Festival--I think it was their one full season ever!  Northern Stage has become an artistic force, and the area has come a long way since that far away Autumn.  I am looking forward to seeing what it has become, and to being part of bringing the "hills alive" once more with "The Sound of Music," which plays at Northern Stage November 20 through January 5.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Little Theatre That Could--and Did

There is pretty strong characters down there in Arkansas. You can't redeem 'em, you just join 'em. ~Will Rogers

The finale of "The Legend of Georgia McBride"
Hello again, from Fayetteville, AR where we are halfway through the third week of our five week run with "The Legend of Georgia McBride."  When I booked this gig, the common reaction from friends up north was: "A drag play? IN ARKANSAS?" 

This incredulity is understandable given what most of us know about Arkansas.  But most of us don't know Fayetteville.  Like Austin, TX or Asheville, NC, Fayetteville is an oasis of liberalism and culture in a rabidly "red" state.  Home to the University of Arkansas (Woo Pig Sooie!), this town is the hub of all things NWA (Northwest Arkansas).  Here, folks are proud to be inclusive, broad minded... different.  People are friendly, welcoming, easy to get to know, and the town virtually hums with contentment.

In this environment, the arts thrive... and for the past 14 years, TheatreSquared has brought challenging, vibrant theatre to its black box home at Nadine Baum Studios, part of Walton Arts Center.  And the audience has embraced it with incredible enthusiasm and support--you feel it from the stage.  It's an audience that's vocal, excited and genuinely proud to be there.  For an actor, what could be better?

Design of the new T2--it looks just like this!! AMAZING
Given the support Fayetteville has given TheatreSquared, it's probably not surprising that they are almost near completion of their 50,000 square foot state of the art home, with two performance spaces, rehearsal studios, offices and a beautiful gathering space in its airy, modern, ground floor lobby.  Additionally, they've built eight gorgeous apartments for visiting artists (and lucky us--we are the first actors to occupy the new housing).  I wish you could see what they've created and feel the excitement building here toward the grand opening. Check out all the gorgeous images and ambitious plans at the T2 website. The theatre industry should take note of the work TheatreSquared is doing--and it WILL.  I for one would be thrilled to return here.

Meanwhile, my love affair with Fayetteville continues, as we bring the sequins and the joy to TheatreSquared's founding venue.  This town is rich with whimsical and interesting local businesses, fantastic food and drink, live music and culture, the best used bookstore EVER (Dickson Street Books) and my favorite farmer's market of all time every week.  Not to mention the stunning art museum Crystal Bridges just a stone's throw from Fayetteville. But one doesn't fall in love with a town without falling for its people.  I walk around this place with no eyebrows and lavender nail polish in my off-hours and I am accepted and welcomed.  I've made friends with local business owners and staff members at T2 and their loved ones... and man, what a team at the theatre--led by the generous and openhearted Artistic Director, Bob Ford, and Executive Director Martin Miller.  

The girls of Cleo's! Tracy, Georgia, Rexy.
And to top it all off... I am in love with my fellow actors on this show.  It is a rare thing for a group to come together as strangers and a month later be close and affectionate friends. We relish our time on stage so much; but more, we spend our free time together too-- just enjoying the hell out of each other.  I am so grateful for this experience and I know the joy we all feel being here at TheatreSquared, in this life affirming play, as the theatre moves on to its exciting next chapter--is felt by each and every person who comes to see "The Legend of Georgia McBride." 

Don't miss out!  Be one of those lucky people--and join us before we close on June 2.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Forward in High Heels

Drag is a protest. Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies.
~Matthew Lopez, "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

With Maxwell Caulfield in "La Cage Aux Folles"
The last time I performed in drag was 12 years ago.  I was lucky enough to be cast as Albin in "La Cage Aux Folles"--a last minute replacement--at Ogunquit Playhouse.  It was my debut with the company and my third production of the show, and I played opposite handsome Maxwell Caulfield (best known as "Cool Rider" in Grease 2). Having recently graduated from the Academy for Classical Acting, a drag role was not something I expected to tackle at that time... but the show led to my getting seen for, and cast as, Sir Robin in the First National Tour of "Spamalot" and changed my life forever.

That return to heels and bugle beads was a big deal for me.  Six years earlier, I had publicly retired my drag act as Marlene Dietrich with a gala performance on what would have been the siren's 100th birthday.  After eight years of impersonating Dietrich and Lauren Bacall... a MAC Award and Bistro Award... and numerous great drag parts in shows like "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," I felt I had hit a dead end.  Female impersonation was something I chose to do to prove my versatility and transformational talents... and I couldn't seem to get away from it.  A definitive break was required.  Many of my fans and colleagues were shocked, some even felt betrayed.  How could I just drop it and move on...?

In order to GROW.

And so, 12 years since I raised my fist in a lavender glove and sang "I Am What I Am," here I am again, donning wigs and lashes and enduring the aches and pains of corseting and high heels... to bring to life Miss Tracy Mills, the wise and magical "fairy godmother" who teaches young Elvis impersonator Casey not only how to be a "woman," but also how to be a better man--in Matthew Lopez's comedy with heart, "The Legend of Georgia McBride."

I was not prepared for how challenging this drag role would be, nor how intensely it would touch my mind and heart.  Lopez brings such reverence and appreciation to the art of drag in this play, and to the history of drag performers and their important role in the Gay Rights Movement.  Drag performers have been on the front lines of the cultural war against LGBTQ people for decades, centuries.  Challenging our limited notions of gender and championing the voices of the marginalized, drag is now mainstream, with the success of RuPaul's Drag Race.

Lopez has created in Miss Tracy and her alter ego Bobby someone of great optimism and wisdom... a survivor who indeed, in the words of Jerry Herman, faces life "with a little guts and lots of glitter."  It is an honor to play her and I have been filled with so many emotions since beginning this process three weeks ago.  I am reminded of how empowering it can be to transform so completely and submerge myself into a character.  I am reminded of how challenging this kind of performance is physically!  But mostly, I am reminded of the legacy of drag and female impersonation that I was a beneficiary of, and through my work, that I helped to perpetuate and pass on.  It truly is a received tradition, and I would never have achieved what I did as a female impersonator had it not been for the artists who generously offered me advice and guidance and who were great examples for me---artists like Craig Russell and Jimmy James... the great drag queens I worked with while in the world famous La Cage Revue, like Angel Sheridan and Jesse Volt.

I am dedicating my Miss Tracy to the performer who took me under his wing when I was just starting in drag, creating my act as Lauren Bacall.  His name was Randy Allen, and in the early 90s he was one of our top drag performers, who went mainstream with his spot-on and hilarious show, "P.S. Bette Davis" (the "p.s." standing for "post stroke").  Randy was a finely trained actor who was also a superb makeup artist.  He transformed himself into a wizened, cranky old Bette with such finesse and artfulness.  I saw Randy perform at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown when I was there doing my act at The Post Office Cafe.  He blew me away with his mimicry, his physical work, his writing and his makeup artistry.  Randy returned the favor and came to see my show... afterward he offered to help me perfect my look and invited me to his dressing room where he not only taught me makeup techniques I still use today... but also instilled in me a sense of responsibility--to the lady I am impersonating, but also to the audience--bringing them something of quality and nuance that strives to be more than a burlesque sketch of a woman, but a living, breathing female being.

Randy changed everything for me... and he did it generously, selflessly, because he saw my talent and potential, and, like nearly all the great drag artists I've gotten to know--from Charles Busch to John Epperson--because he believed that if we all did the best work we could as drag performers--it would be good for all of us and for the art form itself.  I shall never forget Randy.  At the end of his life, cut short tragically by AIDS, Randy starred Off-Broadway in a two person play called "Me and Jezebel" based on a true story about an elderly Bette Davis.  To promote the show, they held a Bette Davis lookalike contest at The Ballroom in New York and Randy asked me to participate.  The press coverage was amazing. Not only did we get the first page of the New York Times Styles section, but CNN featured the publicity stunt.  See this video clip and you may recognize me in a sensible suit and pillbox hat (I won the contest by the way).

As the play went into production, Randy was declining rapidly and he called me and asked me to come and be his understudy in the event he was too ill to perform.  I did... and sadly, Randy passed away before the show even opened.  I was honored to know him and to have had his confidence.

It is this confidence that Miss Tracy Mills passes along to young, straight, fledgling drag artist Casey in our play. Not only the confidence to be a great performer, but the confidence to be true to himself, to be a person of integrity and honesty, of commitment and love.  Our director Bruce Warren has mined out of what could be a campy drag comedy a strong, powerful message of love and acceptance which will move the audiences here at Theatre Squared as much as the spectacular drag looks of Bryce Huey Turgeon (Haus of D'Lee) dazzle their eyes.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" runs May 1 through June 2 at Theatre Squared in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Visit the website for tickets and more information.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

I Said I'd Make a Woman, and Indeed I Did

Sometimes there's an odd cosmic confluence that happens along the creative path... themes seem to emerge and seemingly unrelated projects start resonating with each other in, well, magical ways.

As Karpathy, with James Ludwig as Higgins
I've spent a glorious six weeks in beautiful Vero Beach, doing my "drive-by" cameo as Hungarian swindler Zoltan Karpathy in "My Fair Lady" here at Riverside Theatre.

As we head toward closing, I've already begun the memorizing and preparatory work for my next role: drag veteran Miss Tracy Mills in Matthew Lopez's "The Legend of Georgia McBride."  As I've dug deep into the play it's become clear: I am about to play a drag Henry Higgins!

Wendy Hiller as Eliza and Leslie Howard as Higgins

"My Fair Lady" is definitely one of the ultimate makeover stories:  Higgins picks up grubby flower girl Eliza and, through the power of speech therapy, transforms her into a "duchess."  But, of course, the transformation is more than superficial... the true Eliza emerges: confident, independent, her "own woman."

In "The Legend of Georgia McBride," down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator Casey finds himself thrown, by circumstance, into a whole new world: the glittering world of drag.  The story of a straight man who discovers he's got a real talent for female impersonation is a fascinating journey, and Casey's guide and mentor is Miss Tracy.  She's an elegant, scrappy queen who has been there, done that, and who literally pushes Casey on to his new career as "Georgia."

Along the way, Tracy teaches Casey how to lip-sync, how to dress, walk, move, and shine as a woman--much the same way Higgins teaches Eliza the elegant graces and rounded tones of great lady.  And like Higgins and Eliza, Casey and Tracy find themselves at a crossroads where student and teacher confront a major life lesson.  Casey's has to confront his own homophobia and embrace the feminine strength within him; and Tracy is his drag "Yoda," challenging him to get out of his own way and be the man he knows he can be.

I am loving marinating in the wonderful thematic overlaps of these two pieces--one, a classic story over a hundred years old; the other a contemporary tale that tussles with our own prejudices and limitations.  Miss Tracy even says at one point, "By George, he's got it!"

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" plays May 1 through June 2 at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Join us for the fabulous!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

That Hairy Hound from Budapest

Those who follow my blog or my Facebook know that I have a passion for acting as my own dramaturge with each role I assay, and adore researching the origins of my character--and, in the case of revivals--the actors who played the role before me.  Not only does this research provide context for, and texture to my performance, it also gives me a greater appreciation for the originating
creative talents that collaborated on the piece at hand.

This February, I return to one of my favorite theaters in one of my favorite spots: Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Florida, to play the delicious cameo role of Zoltan Karpathy in one of the greatest of all musicals, "My Fair Lady."  This top notch regional theatre, lovingly supported by an enthusiastic snowbird community, brings beautiful productions to the stage each season.  My debut there was as another Hungarian, impresario Bela Zangler in "Crazy For You," directed by the wonderful James Brennan; I returned two seasons later to play headwaiter Rudolph Reisenweber in "Hello, Dolly!," also directed by Jimmy.   

I have long been a lover of the works of George Bernard Shaw, and "Pygmalion," upon which "My Fair Lady" is based, is one of my favorites of his plays.  I also adore the film version, produced in 1938 with the participation of Shaw, who won the Oscar for his screenplay.  The film starred Leslie Howard and the incomparable Wendy Hiller, who was Shaw's choice for the role of Eliza Doolittle. Alan Jay Lerner's book for the musical is based upon the "Pygmalion" screenplay, which is why Zoltan Karpathy--who is not in the original play--appears in "My Fair Lady."

The reason audiences of the original play never met Karpathy is that the scene at the Embassy Ball, where Eliza dazzles high society with her poise and elocution, was only added to "Pygmalion" for the 1938 film.  There's some fun dramaturgy behind how this character came to be.

Hungarian-born Gabriel Pascal, who was also a long time friend of Shaw's, was the producer of many of the great writer's plays, including "Pygmalion," which was a huge international hit.  After failing to persuade Shaw in the '30s to allow a musical adaptation of the play (!), he did convince him to collaborate on the film version.  The movie medium allowed for much more freedom of location, and the Embassy Ball sequence was added--along with Karpathy.  I can't help but see this Hungarian fop as an in-joke between Shaw and Pascal!

Shaw wrote the part specially for actor Esmé Percy.  Trained as an actor by the divine Sarah Bernhardt, Percy had been a big star of the English stage and something of a matinee idol, and had originated several of Shaw's leading men.  He even played Henry Higgins at one point, opposite the original Eliza Doolittle Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

Esmé Percy 
By the 1930s, Percy had lost his good looks (as well as an eye, in an accident involving a Great Dane--he had a glass one for the rest of his life) and had become an established character man on the screen.  For him, the delectable Karpathy (originally "Count Aristide Karpathy") was created.  The character is a former student of Professor Higgins, who took his knowledge of phonetics and languages to the courts of Europe, making it his business to unmask social climbers and aristocratic frauds.  He of course poses a big threat to Higgins and his "Galatea," Eliza... but ultimately, he concludes that her English is so good she has to be foreign born; and her manners so impeccable he concludes she is a Hungarian princess in disguise!

Theodore Bikel as Karpathy

The part of Karpathy (now with the first name of Zoltan) in "My Fair Lady" on Broadway was played by Christopher Hewett, best known for his brilliant portrayal of Roger DeBris in the original film of Mel Brooks' "The Producers."  When the musical was brought to the screen by legendary director George Cukor, the part was played by Theodore Bikel.  Bikel was another stage leading man who had become a character actor.  He was the original Captain Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music."  Bikel was a guitarist and folk singer and the song "Edelweiss" (incidentally the last song Oscar Hammerstein wrote) was composed for him, to maximize on these talents.  By the time "My Fair Lady" came along, he had become known for his virtuosity with dialects--on screen he played German, Russian, French--even a redneck sheriff from the deep South.  Who better to prance through the Hungarian affectations of Karpathy?

I take pride in having evolved into something of a "chameleon" and I enjoy submerging myself into delicious characters with crazy dialect challenges.  Karpathy is another great cameo to add to the pantheon of characters I've been fortunate to play.  Oh, let's face it! I am incredibly blessed not only to work with Jimmy Brennan again, and to do this great musical, but to return to the genteel and sunny environs of Vero Beach once more in the dead of a New York winter.  "My Fair Lady" runs March 12-31. For tickets, and more information, visit the Riverside Theatre website.