It's Not Just Stars That Shine
I received a comment from reader Gordon Kent about the PBS production on Friday of Carousel, for which I'd had a Media Alert. I wrote back a story about one of the supporting actresses, and thought I'd expanded on it just slightly. (In my case, "just slightly" might end up anything...)
To start with, though, I was impressed by the production, which among other things used a lot of songs that I suspect gets cut out of most productions of Carousel (and definitely the movie version). It struck me while watching that the show that it's so heavily music that the Carousel is on the edge of being an opera -- so, it was nice to hear afterwards when the host Audra MacDonald commented that Richard Rodgers always considered Carousel to be his opera. I like the show, but it's never been one of my top favorites (I find the story a bit thin). But that score is such a joy, and ultimately it's 80-90 percent of the show.
I'm a big Kelli O'Hara fan. And I like opera star Nathan Gunn a great deal, too. And they were both (as expected) quite terrific in the starring leads. But the treat for me was to see Jessie Mueller. She co-starred as Carrie Pipperidge, and is the point of writing this here.
I had seen Jessie Mueller just over two years ago at the teensy (108-seat) -- though highly-regarded -- Writers Theatre in my hometown of Glencoe, Illinois. Small as this theater is, it's actually massive compared to where they existed only a few years ago -- the company was founded 21 years ago literally in the back of a bookstore, Books on Vernon, which seated only about 40 people. Yet their reputation was so high in the theater community that the main theater critics from both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times would regularly drive 20 miles from the city to review their new productions, making their way past the shelves of books. On occasion, a critic from the New York Times would even review one of their new shows -- from the back of a bookstore! That's how good they are. My "highly-regarded" comment wasn't hometown hyperbole.
A few years back they finally became "big" and got a space in the back of the Glencoe Women's Club, renovated it, and now have a whopping 108 seats. Their production of A Streetcar Named Desire was so wildly acclaimed that critics came from all over the country, not just Chicago. (The Wall Street Journal reviewer said he didn't care where you were in the Midwest that summer, you should drive to Glencoe, Illinois, to see the show. The New York Times critic wrote it was the best production of A Streetcar Named Desire he himself had ever seen.) Their world premiere of the musical, A Minister's Wife, went to Broadway a year or so ago, at Lincoln Center. And yet, the company -- under the leadership of artistic director Michael Halberstam -- still performs some of their shows in the back of that same bookstore.
Anyway, okay, finally, back to Jessie Mueller. But that's where I saw her in a production of She Loves Me, where she starred as 'Amalia,' (If you don't know the musical, it's from the play, The Shop Around the Corner, which is what the movie You've Got Mail is based on. She played the Meg Ryan role.) She did a nice, solid job in the first act, but it was in the second act when she came alive, and was an absolute, total, revelatory joy. Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to She Loves Me (and, among other things, Fiddler on the Roof), was in the audience that night, as well, and when I spoke with him after (he's a friend -- I didn't just go up and intrude...), he agreed about her performance and most especially how so-wonderful she was in the second act. Then, last year, she "graduated," went to Broadway and got a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Musical, for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Not shabby.
So, seeing her last night was a complete pleasure -- and it helps that she was great..
There are quite a view videos of her in On a Clear Day, but instead, but the point of all this -- see, I knew I'd get around to it!! -- is that I want to include one from that tiny production of She Loves Me. It's only about 2-1/2 minutes, but you can see how wonderful she was back then, in the 108-seat theater. It's her show-stopping number, "Ice Cream," but alas only part of it -- however led into with the dialogue scene, opposite Rod Thomas. (Again, for you You Got Mail aficionados, this is the scene when Tom Hanks comes to Meg Ryan's apartment to start to "make nice" and get her to like him.)
Anyway, sometimes, it's just nice to see people "before." (Especially if you just saw them for the first time the night before in Carousel.) So, here is Jessie Mueller in late-2010, surrounded by 108 seats, not long before -- heading off for Broadway.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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