Monday, October 26, 2009

Settling in with Settle

Brendan Lemon

When Keala Settle auditioned for the role of Bloody Mary, which she plays on the South Pacific tour, the director Bartlett Sher, who was impressed, asked, "Where were you when we were casting this production for Lincoln Center?"

So where was she? "I was at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego," Settle told me in a recent interview, "working as a stagehand with the sound crew for the musical 'A Catered Affair.'" And why was an actor this talented - Settle has a big, rich voice that can be swoony one minute, and rock out the next - working backstage?

"I'd done Tracy Turnblad for three years in a tour of 'Hairspray,'" Settle said, "and I was burnt out. But I love the backstage world of theater, so I decided to work in it while I figured things out."

Now that Settle's performing again, here's what she's figured out about her character, Bloody Mary: "She's not the happy-go-lucky lady from the movie who walks around and laughs. She's an actual person who's in survivor mode. The Second World War has upended her world. She'll do anything to get her daughter, Liat, a better life: that's why she's so desperate to hook her up with Cable. I'm so grateful to Bart Sher for giving me a character who isn't a cartoon."

Settle has played Bloody Mary twice before, the first time in college where she was on a theater scholarship. "I don't want to knock those productions too much, but in them Bloody Mary was a caricature."
Settle was involved in singing long before college. "My mother is a musician," says the actress, who grew up in Hawaii. "I was harmonizing with TV commercials from a very young age. I grew up with the Disney Channel and MTV." Settle says that in high school, "I was kind of a troublemaker. They put me into a Shakespeare class. I said, 'I can't understand this.' But I had a counselor who went through the plays with me, bit by bit. Before long, I was hooked on theater."

Settle likes playing Bloody Mary in a way that defies some people's expectations. For example, she says, "The song 'Happy Talk' is not really happy at all; it's uneasy and uncomfortable. I know there are some people who might not see it that way. But my take - and the take of this production - is richer, deeper, unafraid of the pain. After all, it takes place during wartime. A big war, that affected people's everyday lives in a way we can hardly imagine today."

When asked what she's enjoying most about doing South Pacific, Settle mentions the orchestra. "When I first heard it, and first was singing with it, I was in tears. I had never performed with a 25-piece orchestra before. The musicians in it are astounding, which makes my job more fun."

Settle also points to her fellow cast members as an advantage. "They're a great bunch.
A lot of them have never toured before. Unlike me: I've basically been living out of a suitcase for six years."

With her on-the-road experience, Settle is a resource person for the newbies, although she downplays this role. "I don't have to say much. I tell the actors that the best resource in any new town on the tour is the local stagehands. They always know the places to go eat and the local sites worth visiting. Myself, I've gotten to know a lot of towns on the road without having to ask the stagehands anymore. I know where the local Walgreen's is, and what bars are open in a given city after the show. To enjoy the road, you have to know the basics."

The End

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Tour Blog: David Pittsinger and Emile De Becque

Brendan Lemon

David Pittsinger, who is about to join the tour in Raleigh, North Carolina as Emile de Becque, has played the part 130 times during the production's ongoing run at Lincoln Center in New York. So the other day I asked him: does doing the show still surprise him?

"The surprise comes as a daily thing," replied Pittsinger, who graduated from U Conn and then got serious musical training at Yale. "There's always the excitement of each day's new audience, and the daily interaction with colleagues: trying to better our stage rapport."

More specifically, Pittsinger says, "I'm am still a little surprised by how consistently I am struck by the power of the show's scenes dealing with race." He points to the sequence when Lt. Joe Cable sings "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" and then turns to Emile before the latter does "This Nearly Was Mine." "Sometimes," Pittsinger says, "I almost feel as if I'm looking at a younger version of myself." He adds, "I think everyone who portrays the characters of 'South Pacific finds things that we may not like in ourselves and may want to change. It isn't just a story of Nellie confronting her racism and everyone else being perfect."

I asked Pittsinger whether he was ever surprised by "South Pacific"'s ending: Nellie and Emile get back together to become a family. Will the honeymoon last? "That depends on who my Nellie is. Carmen Cusack" [who plays the part on the tour] will be the fifth performer I've played opposite in that role. Each one brings something strong to the part. Each Nellie would be a little different for Emile to settle down with. But whoever it is, I don't think that Nellie is going to flee back to Little Rock and or ever ask for a divorce. The love between Nellie and Emile is too strong."

Pittsinger usually inhabits the opera world (he just finished a run of "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera, playing Angelotti, and will do "Lulu" at the Met in the spring), so I asked him if playing Emile is much different from singing Mozart or Britten or any other great composer.

"In opera, you usually only have 6 or 8 performances in a run. It feels more like doing previews of a musical, where each performance can be totally unlike any other performance. With a long-running musical, you have much more time to explore a role. But make no mistake: Mozart's 'Magic Flute' was the music theater of its day: in that sense opera and Broadway are similar."

Pittsinger, who lives in Connecticut, with his wife, the singer Patricia Schuman, and their 10-year-old twins, is grateful to do "South Pacific" at this point in his rich and varied career. "I did 'Shenandoah' and 'Carnival' when I was young, and playing Emile has brought back a lot of feeling from that time - it conjures up the music I grew up with. I am very grateful for that."


Thursday, October 1, 2009

More From Fleet Week at the Bay

by Genson Blimline

I really loved being out on the water on a beautiful ship. It's also nice to do things like this for huge audiences that are up close and personal. They really seemed to enjoy the number and that's always nice. If only we had a little more time before curtain, it would have been rad to go for a spin around the Bay.