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

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