Interview: Denise Whelan on Embracing the Diva Life in LIVING ON LOVE at Stage Door Players

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As a general rule, I won’t say no to any show that has the phrase “demanding diva” in its description, and actress Denise Whelan assures me that her latest project has this in spades.

Whelan will bring to life opera diva Racquel in LIVING ON LOVE at Stage Door Players, opening this Friday and running through June 10. Let me set the scene: Racquel’s maestro husband begins writing an autobiography of questionable integrity with the help of an excessively attractive female ghostwriter, so Racquel decides the best revenge is to draft her own writer in the form of a lovely young man. Farcical shenanigans ensue.

I caught up with Whelan recently to get an inside look at the piece, and she couldn’t say enough about what a delight it has been to work with Stage Door Players Artistic Director Robert Egizio. She says his elaborate vision brings a physical comedy emphasis to the table, resulting in a hyper-hijinksed (it’s a word y’all) evening of flying sparks, flying silverware, etc. Check out the full conversation with Whelan below!


How has LIVING ON LOVE been going so far?

It’s good! It’s really good. And Robert works at a break- neck pace [laughs], which is good because then on the back end, we can really take our time to pull it apart and put it back together again. His vision is a lot of fun. He’s turned it into a really fast-paced farce, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.

So what can you tell me about this show?

This is the regional premiere, so it’s the first theatre that’s going to be doing it in Georgia, and it’s your typical [farce]- there’s a conflict because the maestro is a lothario, but he really loves his wife and they really love each other, but things get in the way. And of course you have the other two characters that come into the scene to ghostwrite the autobiography, and then there’s two butlers… So there’s just a lot of misunderstandings- it’s hard to explain! It all works out in the end, but a lot of hijinks happen before you get to that ending.

It sounds like a very classic farce. So what can you tell us about your character and how you play into all of this?

She is an opera diva. She’s an aging opera diva, so she’s a very typical ingénue soprano. And as happens when you age, she just becomes less bankable, but she still sees herself in that diva way, and she thinks very highly of herself, even though she knows she’s become a thing of the past.

Have you worked with Robert as a director at Stage Door Players before?

I have! I worked with Robert last year. We did BOEING BOEING, and at Stage Door Players, they have theatre awards, and I won a Woody for Best Supporting Actress, which was really cool because it was the first time I’d ever performed in Atlanta! My husband and I relocated here from Philadelphia, New York area. There’s not a lot of theatre here as compared to where I came from, but Robert did give me a great opportunity, and that was a ball. We had a ball! It was such a great show.

So far with your rehearsal process, what have you learned about your character and the show?

Well, Renee Fleming played this on Broadway- she’s a very famous opera singer/soprano. I do sing in the show, little bits and pieces, and I am a singer, but my background’s not in opera. So I watched her on YouTube, got some of her CDs, tried to listen to her, so I concentrated on that, trying to get my voice to sound more opera-like than musical theatre.

And then there’s that the process of, you know, memorizing, memorizing, memorizing! That horrible, horrible process before you get to enjoy it. That’s the hardest part, especially when you’re doing a farce because things are so physical, and your interaction with other characters is paramount to your character, so to have a book in your hand just stalls the process. We have made so many strides, and I have gotten to see what the other actors are bringing. So it just motivates you to get that book out of your hand so you can play with them. So that’s basically my process as of right now.

What has been your favorite part of this process?

I guess, first of all- I think the cast is incredible. I’m always amazed at how Robert can pick the best people. He really is good at casting. Myself aside, it’s so wonderful to just sit back and watch the other actors and see what they bring to the table. I guess when we had the readthrough, to hear his vision of it, because even though I say it’s a farce, it’s really not a true-true farce because he’s taken it, and he really wants to tweak it and pull all the farcical elements out of it, and that’s what’s going to make it so interesting. Otherwise, it’s kind of like an, “oh, you know, they have a miscommunication… blah blah blah,” but I think it’s the hijinks that is really going to make it that much better.

So far, I’ve enjoyed just understanding what his vision is and listening to the other actors and their take on their characters. It’s motivating to see the other talent and to know what Robert’s vision is. That makes you want to get on the wheel and start working.

I’ve heard great things about Robert as a director, so this is all just confirming that for me.

Yes, and I’ve known Robert for, gosh, 30 plus years, and I knew him as a fellow actor/singer/dancer, so his background, that’s why he’s such a good director, because he speaks our language. He knows exactly what we’re thinking before we even think it. He’s also extremely open. He can tell when we have a question, he can tell when something’s not fitting on our bodies, and he will say, “Let’s figure out what works for you.”

That’s so exciting! So for theatre fans around town who aren’t familiar with LIVING ON LOVE and might be on the fence about coming to it, what would you say to them?

It’s a laugh a minute. I laughed so hard at the read through, and then when we started blocking I was laughing. So it’s an enjoyable night, and just so funny! And you don’t have to think hard. And I guess the best thing is, I have a 14-year-old and a 13-year-old, and they’ve been with me for my whole career, even when they were in my belly, I was performing. So they asked, “Are we going to be able to come see this show?” And I said, “Yes, I think you’re going to really like it!” It’s just so funny. Everybody can come see it. There’s nothing in it that’s offensive, little kids are going to laugh, so it’s a show for the entire family.

It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun!

It is. Like I said, from the moment that the first actor steps on stage. You know that you’re going to have fun from the moment the first actor steps on stage. That’s the best way I can describe it.

This sounds great!

Yes! I just have to get the words in my head, and we’ll be all good! [laughs]


LIVING ON LOVE opens on Friday, May 18, 2018 and runs through Sunday, June 10, 2018. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2:30pm. (Additional performance Thursday, June 7, 2018 at 8:00) Single tickets are on sale now at the box office (770-396-1726), or online at www.stagedoorplayers.net. Tickets are $33; senior, student, and youth discounts are available.

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Review: FREAKY FRIDAY Slays at Horizon Theatre

 

Or, “Why You and Your Family/Squad/Cat Need to See Horizon’s Freaky Friday Yesterday.”

What happens when a mom and daughter start fighting about how much neither understands the other? Probably tears followed two hours later by a knowing glance and reconciling hug. That’s real life and/or Gilmore Girls, but in a Disney story, this set-up is begging for something strange and wonderful. And for everyone to sing about it.

In Horizon Theatre’s Southeastern regional debut of Freaky Friday the musical, Pulitzer Prize-winning songwriters Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey set out to prove to the world that they can write a 100% family-friendly musical, an unbelievable feat for the pair whose most recent hit included the song, “What the Fu[dge]?” At the same time, if any Broadway team is qualified to write a mother/daughter saga alongside bookwriter Bridget Carpenter of NBC’s sap-machines, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, the Next to Normal writers are a natural choice. Fans of both the Linsay Lohan and Jodi Foster movies (or even the Gaby Hoffman one, but who remembers that?) will be pleasantly surprised by the way Kitt and Yorkey’s musical interpretation respects the integrity of the comedy while adding a fresh spin.

The day before her wedding, Katherine gets in an argument with her teenage daughter Ellie which results in the two switching bodies. Over the next 24 hours, they discover how much they didn’t know about each other and ultimately, how much they love each other. And also that they might both be low-key crushing on Adam the Highschool Hottie, but who isn’t?

As Artistic Director Lisa Adler told us in her curtain speech, each Freaky Friday adaptation re-adapts the basic premise with a new set of characters, new plot, and new modern-day setting. So following this tradition, Carpenter and co.’s circa 2017 reincarnation involves a virtual scavenger hunt a la Pokemon Go, video correspondence, and a couple of stray 2005 remnants like the phrase “all up in my grill,” and maybe a flip-phone.

In the expert hands of Horizon’s company, Kitt and Yorkey’s score masterfully expands the characterization by giving Freaky Friday fans moments they hoped for but couldn’t fully imagine, with notable highlights like “I Got This,” “Oh, Biology,” and “Busted.” Paired with Jeff and Heidi Cline McKerley’s full-company choreography (yes, they boldly make the leads dance), each song in the female-driven musical theatre pop score* is simply a bundle of fun, with impressive showstoppers that bring down the house without dissolving into an undefined mass of screlting.**

The strongest aspect of this version isn’t just the hilarity, catchy songs, and choreography, but tying them together is the over-the-top charicatured depiction of high school- best exemplified in how everything stops each time Adam (a smooth Christian Magby) enters, and the chorus sings out his name. The weaker “adult world” sequences are minimally fleshed out, saved mostly because Jenn Acker is freaking hilarious.

As “the daughter” Ellie and “mother in the daughter’s body” Katherine, Abby Holland carries the show with heart. She embodies Katherine’s return to high school by combining an endearingly awkward physicality and the blind confidence of a mouse trying to stare down a bull. That coupled with her powerful voice makes it easy to forget that she’s really a kid.

Once you can get past the fact that Jennifer Alice Acker and Holland look the same age, Acker is amusingly gawky as Ellie in her mother’s posh body. Her very loose physicalities juxtaposed with her magazine cover-worthy cooking business make for priceless comedy.

 

Christian Magby captures the swagger of a clueless-but-pretty high school boy with ease, especially in “Women and Sandwiches.” Atlanta favorite Randi Garza nails the Regina George-level sickly sweet and irrationally evil Savannah. It’s not clear what artistic choice made Garza play both Savannah and journalist Alexandra, but is anyone going to complain about seeing such a powerhouse twice as much? Nah.

Other notable appearances include the laughably annoying Joseph Masson as the kid brother/son Fletcher, and Frank Faucette as the irresistable fiance Mike, who woos us all with his rendition of “Vows” (in Kitt/Yorkey terms, this is Freaky Friday‘s version of “I’ve Been”).

What looked like another needless adaptation of a story that has decidedly been done turns out to be one of the most solid family musicals Atlanta has seen in a long time. The show itself knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be and tackles its clear goal exceptionally. In the capable hands of Horizon Theatre, this production is delightful, funny, heart-wrenching, and is a surprise must-see this season.


Ok, sidenotes:

*And if you LOL at the opening song title, “Just One Day,” just subtly different from Next to Normal‘s opener “Just Another Day,” congratulations, you too are a nerd.

**Screlting- (noun) the vocal combination of screaming and belting by females, first seen in Rent, and most recently overused in Heathers the musical.

Review: COMEDY OF TENORS is a Must-See at GET

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For the next week and a half, Georgia Ensemble Theatre is treating Atlanta audiences to an evening of pure farce.

Complete with mistaken identity, family drama, and a little bit of music, A Comedy of Tenors is absurd hilarity from beginning to end. The Lend Me a Tenor sequel by Ken Ludwig sees producer Henry Saunders (Robert Egizio) trying to keep his tenor trio together for a huge concert in Paris. But knowing artists and their temperaments, Henry’s fate has to be none other than running around like a chicken with its head cut off until the last scene. Chaotic highlights include: tenor Tito Merelli (Brian Kurlander), his wife Maria (Courtenay Collins), and their daughter Mimi (Lyndsay Ricketson) falling apart at the seams, plus Mimi’s man (Haden Rider) of whom Tito doesn’t approve, and more messes involving Henry’s son-in-law Max (John Markowski), the bell-boy, and a saucy ginger.

Let’s go ahead and clarify that the “mature content” advisory is for real, so please don’t bring your 10-year-old twins.

Under the superb direction of Shelly McCook, Tenor 2 epitomizes feel-good escapism comedy, with a firm grasp on classic farce- in this case, physical comedy for days. Highlights  include a pants debacle culminating in stair-hopping (I can’t explain it- you just have to see it), recurring non sequitur sign language, and opera references.

Collins slays as the melodramatic Maria, opposite Kurlander’s non-stop, flawless diva antics as Tito. As Mimi, Lyndsay Ricketson delivers a magnificently over-the-top, unhinged performance, taking schmacting to a whole new level. Rounding out the cast, Lane Carlock delightfully barges into the narrative with simultaneous strength and oblivion, Haden Rider brings expert comedy to Carlo, and the always brilliant Egizio plays the no-nonsense Henry Saunders, frequently juxtaposed hilariously with John Markowski’s berated Max.

It’s funny. It’s warm and fuzzy. It’s relatable. And there’s a cash wine bar in the lobby, so what’s not to love?

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Courtenay Collins, Brian Kurlander
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Lyndsay Ricketson, Haden Rider
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Brian Kurlander, Courtenay Collins
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Brian Kurlander, Lane Carlock

Photo credits: Dan Carmody/Studio7

Video Recap: Songs, Streamers, and More at Atlanta Lyric’s ’18-’19 Season Reveal Cabaret

It’s always a good time when you pack a small venue with Atlanta theatre patrons, performers, and friends. Throw in some Broadway songs, and you’ve got a rockin’ night.

Last Saturday, the Atlanta Lyric Theatre presented their ’18-’19 Season Announcement Party, an intimate evening of cabaret performances held at the Lyric Studio Theatre (one of the billion theatres on the Marietta Square). Hosted by Lyric artistic director Mary Nye Bennett, the show featured performances from many Atlanta theatre favorites including Chase Peacock, Jessica De Maria, and more.

Mary welcomed the audience by expressing her love for the community feeling of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre, saying, “What I love about the Lyric is getting to know our subscribers as friends, not just patrons.” She proved this by personally addressing multiple guests she spotted at tables around the room.

Though the nominal purpose of the evening was to reveal the Lyric’s next season of musicals, Mary warned us that she planned to draw out the suspense, a la Ryan Seacrest on American Idol. She called that a dated reference, but I appreciated it.

The first act included performances from what’s left of the Lyric’s current season: Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsAlways… Patsy Cline, and Tarzan, rolling out the season reveal in Act 2 using medleys from each show. And it was definitely worth waiting for! Next season will include: Aida, Newsies, The Wedding Singer, Singin’ in the Rain, and Oliver! 

The biggest surprise of the evening was when Mary welcomed the Aurora Theatre’s Ann-Carol Pence and Anthony Rodriguez on stage to announce that Newsies will be a Lyric/Aurora co-production next summer. Honestly at this point I think we’re all ridiculously on board with any Atlanta theatre collaborations the fam wants to throw at us (see: Memphis 2015, In the Heights 2016, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2017).

Check out highlights from the performances below!

“Walkin’ After Midnight” from Always… Patsy Cline. Performed by Mary Nye Bennett (who is not playing the role in the show but is awesome nonetheless).

“Strangers Like Me” from Tarzan. Performed by Chase Peacock and J. Koby Parker (also not necessarily playing these roles in the Lyric’s production, as Mary said they had just finished up auditions).

“Everything I Am” from Tarzan. Performed by Chase Peacock.

“Every Story” from Aida. Performed by Adrianna Trachell, Alison Wilholt, and Jessica De Maria.

“Fortune Favors the Brave” from Aida. Performed by Fenner Eaddy, Chase Peacock, Haden Rider, J. Koby Parker, and George Deavours.

“A Step Too Far” from Aida. Performed by Jessica De Maria, Fenner Eaddy, and Adrianna Trachell.

“Easy as Life” from Aida. Performed by Adrianna Trachell.

After the Aida performances, I heard the woman in front of me say to her friend, “You have no idea what it’s like just from this music! It’s so good! It’s going to knock your socks off!”

Not captured: that moment when the Newsies poster appeared on the screen, and the whole audience lost it.

“Carrying the Banner” from Newsies. Performed by Chase Peacock, Haden Rider, J. Koby Parker, Fenner Eaddy, George Deavours, Alison Wilholt, Adrianna Trachell, and Jessica De Maria.

“Santa Fe” from Newsies. Performed by our favorite Quasimodo, Haden Rider.

“Something to Believe In” from Newsies. Performed by Chase Peacock and Jessica De Maria.

“It’s Your Wedding Day” from The Wedding Singer. Performed by Alison Wilholt, J. Koby Parker, and company.

“Someday” from The Wedding Singer. Performed by J. Koby Parker and Alison Wilholt.

“Grow Old with You” from The Wedding Singer. J. Koby Parker and Alison Wilholt.

“Singin’ in the Rain” from Rent. Jokes. It’s from Singin’ in the Rain. But I almost had you fooled, right? Performed by Chase Peacock.

No video because live-Tweeting called, but next was “You Were Meant for Me” from Singin’ in the Rain. Performed by Fenner Eaddy.

“Good Mornin'” from Singin’ in the Rain. Performed by Adrianna Trachell, Haden Rider, and J. Koby Parker.

“Oom-Pah-Pah” from Oliver! Performed by the company. 

“You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” from Oliver! Performed by George Deavours.

“As Long as He Needs Me” from Oliver! Performed by Jessica De Maria.

And how could they end the night with any encore but the rousing “Seize the Day” from Newsies? I’m living for how much the ladies are living for this song.

STREAMERS!! Mary Nye Bennett turned to me after the song, streamer cannon still in hand, and excitedly asked, “Did you get the streamers on your video?!”

Review: World Premiere of VIVIAN Shows Huge Potential for Future Productions

How does a family move on from the loss of a wife and mother? It’s a difficult question in the first place, then you throw in a haunted house, and the whole situation gets jumbled.

So begins Vivian, a new musical by Atlanta theatre professionals Chase Peacock and Jessica de Maria. Making its world premiere at the intimate Lyric Studio Stage (one of a zillion theatres on the Marietta Square), the audience is tightly packed in, inches from the action- the pre-show curtain speech requests no one leave their seat until the end of the show for their own safety.

It’s worth noting that this particular crowd- largely composed of friends of the writers and performers- seemed unfazed by the spooky elements. Unexpected ghost appearances, sudden shocking moments, almost all were greeted with laughter from this congenial, if relaxed group. You’ve never seen an audience more ready to fall in love with a new work.

Vivian tells the story of therapist Cliff Bennett (a rich Travis Smith) who, having recently lost his wife, moves with his two daughters to a disheveled fixer-upper home. Reading patients and reaching his own daughters prove two very different things, with the latter being the chief struggle Dr. Bennett- who repeatedly reminds us of his prestigious title- faces. As they settle in, his youngest child, Vivian (a young and brilliant Mabel Tyler), seems haunted by an invisible force in the house. Teenaged Chrissy (a poignant Brittany Ellis), meanwhile, is so over both her dad’s lame attempts at connecting with her, and the boy-next-door’s, James (a golden-voiced Austin Taylor), attempts to woo her. As a first mounting, the 90-minute one-act musical leaves much to be desired while showing great promise.

It feels like two shows in one: the first being a sad but hopeful musical about a family trying to rebuild their life, a man struggling to love his daughters well, and a teenager falling in love. The second, a straight play without songs, is a ghost story about a girl sporadically possessed by something unknown. Each entity is intriguing and worth pursuit, though neither is fully fleshed-out. As a unit, Vivian plays as simultaneous productions of both the musical and the straight play performed in tandem unbeknownst to one another. This ultimately creates an unfinished product in search of a focal point as it flails in different directions.

Chase and Jessica’s modern ballads sit comfortably in the Broadway-pop genre, with an easy rock bent. Especially in “The Tides,” a masterful trio sung by Dr. Bennett and his daughters, C&J’s songs feature utterly delightful folk-like harmonies. Much of the music and lyrics prove memorable in the best ways, with another particular winner, the sweetly relatable “Let Me Guess.” Still, the show feels under-sung, with little variety in the tunes, which often trail off without closure, and have a weak connection to the book.

Its billing as a ghost story hypes the supernatural elements more than the story delivers, with some explanations turning out to be disappointingly benign. Even at the close of the show, it’s unclear whether the ghost(s) are malicious or just creepy by virtue of being ghosts.

A few key moments are lost in Vivian’s underdeveloped book. Without giving anything away, the audience reaches some conclusions while the characters are still in the dark. Then suddenly, we’re all on the same page, not quite sure how or when the Bennetts and co. got there. Among its many fragmented pursuits, the most disjointing is the show’s abrupt, songless end. Even the actors seemed apologetic as they shrugged, smirked as if to say, “Yes, that’s really it,” and bowed.

Director Julie Skrzypek uses every inch of the limiting venue, with a simple if predictable set. As a small-scale world premiere, this production does exactly what it needs to: it shows the vast potential in this musical and its writers.

(Dis)Agree with what you read? Let’s have a discussion in the comments or on Twitter- @BwayGinger!

Oh and let’s just all listen to “The Tides” and “Let Me Guess” on repeat, ok? And then check out more at Chase and Jessica’s website, here.