A singing and dancing murder investigator, Blakeman Brophy (Curtains), a lonely, and love-sick numbers-reader, Kristen Jepperson (Adding Machine: A Musical), a Nubian princess, Ashley Ware (Aida), a maid’s rebellious daughter, Kristin Watson (Caroline, or Change), and Christine Ebersole (Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: An Evening With Christine Ebersole) make up my favorite solo musical scene-stealing performances of Fall 2009.
Blake has played so many dark and psycho loonies on the stage, that it was such a nice change – and a real treat – to see him play a charming, loveable, and sweet murder solver. While trying to solve a backstage murder or two, Blake not only solved the case, he got to sing and dance, fine-tune some of the show’s scenes, and, most important, he got the girl. What a role, and what a performance! I’m still smiling!
Blake: I am originally from Long Island, NY. I came to DC after grad school to pursue a career in accounting. On a whim one day, I went with some co-workers to an open call for extras for “The Pelican Brief”, which was filming in the District at the time. I was selected to appear in a brief scene at the National Cathedral and spent some time riding in a limo for another scene. The other guy in the car was a working actor in the area, and I started talking to him about the theatre scene, classes, and working opportunities. I started looking into auditions and training possibilities and ultimately, completed the curriculum at the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory. Because of my day-job, most of my work has been with community groups, though I’ve had a number of professional gigs around town.
Joel: Why did you want to play Lieutenant Frank Cioffi?
Blake: I had seen the Broadway production and remember enjoying it and thinking it would be a lot of fun to work on someday, either as Cioffi or as the songwriter, Aaron Fox. I thought it would be refreshing to do comedy since most of the roles I’ve been playing for the last several years have been dark, creepy, intense and tortured souls. I did play Capt. von Trapp a year ago – you’d think he’d be a generally positive character, but when you really think about it, he’s only happy for about five minutes after marrying Maria – before the Nazis take over his house, and he’s back in his dark place. Luckily, Andy Regiec (Curtains’ director) and the production team saw something in my audition and offered me Cioffi. Let me say, it’s been wonderful to be able to smile and laugh and goof around onstage for a change!
Joel: Who is Lieutenant Frank Cioffi?
Blake: Cioffi is a highly-competent career policeman in Boston, likely the son and brother of other Boston policemen. He knows he’s good at his job and takes pride in that, but there’s still some untapped element of his soul that he dreams of unleashing. He’s been able to appease his need for a creative outlet by performing regularly in local amateur theatre productions in the greater Boston area. While he believes he has some talent, he’s never really felt he had the means or the opportunity to pursue that as a livelihood.
Joel: Did you base your performance on a friend, or relative, or someone else?
Blake: I didn’t really model Cioffi consciously on anyone I know personally. Early on, I did recognize certain traits that he exhibits which led me to believe he’s probably a middle child like myself (the deference to those in authority or with a perceived advantage and the ease with which he allows himself to blend into the background and cede the spotlight when necessary or convenient). There were some aspects of his physical carriage – his center of gravity and his stance, how he holds his arms at rest – that I cribbed somewhat from the characters in “L.A. Confidential” and other period police dramas, but not exclusively on any one in particular.
Joel: How did you prepare for the role?
Blake: Gosh, given my personal background and the role as I’ve described it, I want to say I’ve been preparing for it my whole life! As I mentioned, I did some serious thinking and exploring with his physicality and certain traits that would reveal more of his character and past than the libretto reveals. I spent a good amount of time working with a Boston accent CD/booklet – that was fun. During rehearsals, I tried to remain a bit distant as an observer, to try to get in the habit of watching people unobtrusively and making mental notes of certain behaviors or exchanges. Those folks had better hope I never plan to write a book!
Joel: “Coffee Shop Nights” is your big number in the first act, and you have another in “A Tough Act to Follow” in the second act. Set them up for me in the story.
Blake: “Coffee Shop Nights” is a very revealing ballad in which Cioffi is trying to break the ice with an actress with whom he’s been smitten since seeing her perform in previews. It’s an interesting number that subtly shifts back and forth between casual conversation and deeply personal revelations. I love that he unexpectedly finds himself on an empty stage in a professional theatre surrounded by the very people he’s always longed to be in company with – it’s really aroused so many latent longings of his soul that he’s only somewhat conscious of. It’s bittersweet. I basically performed the number straight with Jolene Vetesse (the actress playing Niki Harris, Cioffi’s love interest), as Cioffi has just arrived at the station, and still hasn’t shed any of his personal/professional neuroses yet.
“A Tough Act to Follow” is really Cioffi’s big number, and I absolutely loved performing it. In the show, I’ve just made a major advance in the murder case while simultaneously edging two wayward lovers back into each other’s arms (and demonstrating Cioffi’s actual acting talent). As Niki compliments Cioffi on all of this, he makes an awkward attempt to reveal his feelings for her by using a musical-theater analogy and the number gradually dissolves into an elaborate Marge & Gower Champion production number fantasy. It’s romantic and elegant with a touch of goofiness. Cioffi doesn’t have the same polish as Niki and stumbles a bit at first before gaining his confidence and doing his best to match her, grand gesture for grand gesture. Who hasn’t fantasized about doing a scene like that?
Joel: What was the most difficult part of performing these songs and your role?
Blake: I initially had a lot of anxiety about the accent, but once I became comfortable with the voice I developed and could focus more on being internally consistent, I settled into it.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Blake: Right now as I am in rehearsal for The Trip to Bountiful, which I am directing for the Reston Community Players, opening January 22, 2010. Recently, my focus has been primarily on performing, although I am currently considering some directing opportunities for companies in the area.
From the first moment you saw her calling out numbers for Mr. Zero, the audience fell in love with Kristen Jepperson’s Daisy. Here was the only character in this unique musical who longed for real love and happiness, and when she sang her torch song, about her yearning to be with Mr. Zero, you rooted for her (even though you wished she had fallen in love with someone more normal than him). I saw Studio Theatre’s exceptional production three times in 9 days, and the reason I returned to see the show again and again, was the heart -wrenching performance of Kristen Jepperson.
Kristen: I’ve been doing theater since I was about five (a while ago…), but oddly enough it never occurred to me, when it was time to go to college, to major in it. By that time, I was playing the harp, and I got a scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts. After graduation, I toured around the country as a harpist/singer with the New Christy Minstrels, then moved to the DC area to continue eking out a living as a harpist. About twelve years ago, after taking a tap class, I decided to rejoin the theater community and did Anything Goes, followed by Crazy For You and Dames At Sea. I started taking classes at Studio Theater (I finally finished the course about six months ago). Other favorite roles of mine are: Daisy (of course!) in Adding Machine: A Musical, Emma Goldman in the tour of Ragtime, Agnes Gooch in Toby’s Mame; five and a half performances as Reno Sweeny in Olney’s Anything Goes, and many more.
Joel: Why did you want to play Daisy?
Kristen: Well, first, she has that GREAT song!! Second, pathetically, she’s very much like me.
Joel: Tell us about that.
Kristen: Well, if you look at her from the perspective of one of her co-workers, she’s simply pathetic. She’s always pining after a married, loser of a man for 16 years, and living with her mother. Then, after Mr. Zero is executed, she kills herself. But later, in the Elysian Fields, she really turns out to be the heart of the play, because she’s the one who actually has the guts to finally go after what she wants. Director/co-librettist Jason Loewith said to me that Daisy is the heart of the play Why? First, because she actually has one and acts on it, and second, because having the courage to go after what you wants is what the play is about, to my mind. In terms of relating to her, I think we all feel pathetic sometimes.
I think there are a lot of kernels of Daisy inside me. Certainly not as pronounced as they are in her (for the record, I have never considered killing myself over a man who got himself executed for killing his boss). But I have been in more than one situation where I pined after an unavailable man, and way too many times where I didn’t have the nerve to put myself forward.
Joel: How did you prepare to play her?
Kristen: Well, Daisy is one of the most insecure, self-loathing people ever. Unfortunately, I found myself really kind of wallowing in that for the first couple of weeks, which was very hard emotionally. I was also sick with that horrible thing that was going around for the entire rehearsal process. I passed that on to David Benoit (Mr. Zero), along with the pink eye that I picked up at the urgent care. All of this contributed to making it a very trying couple of weeks…
Joel: “I’d Rather Watch You” is your big number in the show. Set it up for me in the story.
Kristen: Daisy has just had another big blowout with Mr. Zero, which she promised herself she wouldn’t let happen. She had planned on congratulating him on his 25 years at the company, maybe inviting him for a celebratory drink after work (all of this is in my head, not necessarily the playwright’s), but then they descended into bickering again. During the song, she imagines herself and Mr. Zero as characters in a movie: loving, dancing to the music (she dances with his hat to a duet she sings with the radio). It’s really a charming song about her longing. It’s also one of the only conventional musical theater type songs, which Jason (co-librettist) tells me was specifically written to give the audience a small break from the other more 20th century, somewhat difficult-to-listen-to songs.
Joel: What was the most difficult part of performing the song and playing Daisy in the show?
Kristen: The song was just a joy to sing. As for playing Daisy, I really had to take myself to that insecure, self loathing part of myself every night, which is very hard. But what a joy in the end to know that we all have it in us to overcome that, as she does.
Joel: What’s next for you?
Kristen: I’ve been cast in Jerry’s Girls at McLean Community players, which doesn’t go up until next May or so. I am, of course, hoping to find more professional work.
Toby Orenstein knows great talent when she sees it, and when she cast Ashley Ware to play Aida, she found one of the most exciting young actresses and powerful singers in our area. I was completely “blown away” by Ashley’s emotional and vocally astounding performance, as the stubborn and loyal; princess who is in exile – who sacrifices everything for love.
Ashley: I was born & raised in D.C. I caught the “performing bug” at about age 7, when I did a summer with the D.C. Youth Ensemble, a youth performing company founded by Carol Foster. I attended Ellington School of the Arts and graduated from the Vocal Department. I’ve been classically trained vocally for the past 11 years. I received my theatre training through private coaching with Vera J. Katz, as well as a few classes at Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory. Some of the roles I’ve portrayed are: Cat in Kia Corthron’s Breath, Boom!, Lady in Orange in Ntozake Shango’s For Colored Girls, and just recently Canary in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A, to name a few.
Joel: Why did you want to play Aida?
Ashley: Portraying Aida presented a wonderful challenge to show the contrast between a woman following her passion and her strength of loyalty and commitment to her people. Aida is very different from the characters that I’ve played in the past. It was refreshing to portray a woman who accomplishes things without using her body but with the strength of her mind.
Joel: Tell us about Aida, and how you relate to her.
Ashley: She is incredibly strong-willed and determined. Once her mind is made up there’s no changing it. Her loyalty forces her to go the distance for those she loves, even if it’s at her own expense. I can definitely relate to her free spirit as well. Despite her stern and focused demeanor, there is a side to her that wants to drop all inhibitions and just be.
Joel: Did you base your performance on a friend or relative, or someone else?
Ashley: I didn’t necessarily base my entire performance on any one person in particular, but I did do some background work on the French Heroine, Joan of Arc, and watched excerpts of Leleti Khumalo’s portrayal of Sarafina, in the movie “Sarafina!” to get an idea of the courage she should always carry with her. Also, Aida was raised to be a warrior princess by her father. So you could assume that she was raised to think like a man, not to show much of her feminine or dainty side so as not to be underestimated. So though she was a princess much of her appearance, her mannerisms, and gait needed to depict that of a strong warrior. I was given advice to take a look at Yul Brynner as Ramses in “The Ten Commandments”, which really helped me out. I also spent a lot of time alone with the script, making sure to focus on her transitions from one moment to the next. I also researched the history of Egypt and Ancient Nubia, and the actual occurrences and exchanges between the two – just so that it was no longer abstract to me, so that it could now be a real place in my mind.
Joel: “Another Land” and “Easy As Life” are your big solos in the show. Set them up for us.
Ashley: “Another Land” is the first song she sings, which happens right after she gets captured. It takes place at the docks after the other captured women have been taken away. As she realizes the predicament she’s in, she thinks back on her homeland, and looks into her grim future. While she takes in her surroundings, she is forced her to her knees with grief. “Easy as Life” comes in towards the top of the second act. After just having been told that she must cut off all contact with the man she’s come to love, she sings about the difficulty of letting him go. This song is where we really get more insight on the struggle she faces between her love for Radames and her commitment to her people and country.
Joel: What was the most difficult part of performing these songs & playing Aida?
Ashley: The most difficult part was definitely portraying her reserved demeanor, while simultaneously showing her need to be free and explore.
Joel: What’s next for you on the stage?
Ashley: I have a great opportunity coming up! I will be going on the National Tour of The Color Purple.
I am a big fan of Caroline, or Change, and every time I see a new production of it, it’s the actress who plays Caroline’s daughter – the overly assertive, rebellious Emmie – who always steals my heart. A young and talented actress rose to the occasion – Kristin Watson – and stole my heart and soul again, and she sang my favorite song from the show – “I Hate The Bus”. The audience went crazy. I still get chills thinking about Kristin’s gut-wrenching performance.
Kristin: I am 19 years old and grew up in a suburban area north of Atlanta, GA. I have 15 years of dance training in ballet, modern, jazz, African, and tap – including 6 years of professional training and on stage performances as a member of The Georgia Ballet. As a member of my high school’s drama club I was cast as a leading character in several productions, including the role as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, the Queen in The Christmas Madrigal, Mrs. Medlock in The Secret Garden, and Mr. Arrow in Treasure Island. My vocal training developed as a member of the high school chorus During which I was selected as the featured soloist in a number of vocal performances. I also spent two summers as a performer and an intern with The Atlanta Street Theater summer program, held at Clark Atlanta University. I am currently a sophomore at Georgetown University majoring in Government and Theatre. I am the secretary of the GU Black Theatre Ensemble board.
Joel: Why did you want to play Emmie?
Kristin: When I read her part, I wanted to play Emmie because I loved her spunk and vivacious attitude. I felt as though she personified a mind-set of determination and a strong desire for change. Her songs and her spirit are upbeat and she puts her heart and soul into each situation she encounters. I wanted an opportunity to give my interpretation of this character, and portray her as a strong-willed teenager who seeks change.
Joel: Tell us about Emmie Thibodeaux, and how you relate to her.
Kristin: Emmie is a sixteen year old girl living with her mother and two younger brothers in Louisiana in 1963. She is frustrated because she must care for her brothers, while her mother works long hours each day, and believes that this prevents her from being able to enjoy her teenage years. She has strong feelings about the civil rights movement and is inspired by Martin Luther King’s campaign for desegregation, and feels that having to care for her siblings – also prevents her from vocalizing her opinions about racial injustices and continuing Dr. King’s campaign in her home town.
Emmie rebels against her mother – and along with her friends – knock over a statue of a confederate soldier. This is a message that changes concerning race relations are going to take place, and she is going to continue to fight to break down racial barriers until these changes are made. In my opinion, she is the most vocal element of change in the musical and by the end of the show the audience must decide if they are going to follow Caroline – who in a way gives up hope of becoming something different – or follow the change that Emmie is advocating. I relate to Emmie because she is her own person, and has a strong sense of identity. I have always been comfortable with who I am, and I have always known what I wanted out of life. We are both very determined. Emmie inspires me to always strive for excellence.
I don’t know anyone else performing in theatre and cabaret today that has a voice that is as beautiful as Christine Ebersole, After singing 15 songs and 2 encores, this great performer, who is also a very funny story-teller, (accompanied by a “hot” band, led by musical director John Oddo on piano, with Scott Silbert on Reeds, Paul Langosch on bass, and Dave Ratajczak on drums), earned the loud and rousing applause from the deliriously appreciative audience, For me, it was the most fun and best sung concert in the Barbara Cook’s Spotlight series – ever.
How can you not love sitting in the very intimate Terrace Theatre while Christine is working her magic with standards like, “Fascinating Rhythm”, “Bill”, “Lost in His Arms”, and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, with her velvety, lush tones?
And, when Christine sang Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”, the relevance of this song that was written 155 years ago, hit home with a thud, especially to this writer who was laid off from his job this year.
What a way to end the wonderful night with two wonderful encores. The first -“Monotonous” was dedicated to the late great Eartha Kitt. Christine rolled her “rrrrrs” like Eartha used to when singing this signature song, and the audience roared its approval.
When Christine concluded the program, with her second encore – the emotional “My Shining Hour” – written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer – as soldiers were being shipped overseas during WWII, there were only a few dry eyes in the house.
As I am writing this, in 3 ½ hours, President Obama will be announcing to the nation that he is sending more young Americans to fight in Afghanistan As I sit here finishing this article, I can still hear Christine Ebersole’s sweet voice singing:
“Like the lights of home before me
Or an angel, who’s watching o’er me
This will be my shining hour
’til I’m with you again.”
Next: Part II of Fall 2009 Musical Scene Stealers- The Ensembles: Ashley Austin, Josh Simon, and Shelby Sykes (Chicago), Allison Block and Rachel Brook (West Side Story), and Jane Petkofsky, Mimi Preda, and Brent Stone, (The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)