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How Is She Playing 40 People At Once?

Christina Bianco

Christina Bianco

In Application Pending, Christina Bianco plays an entire community of stressed out parents

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

It’s a wonder that actress Christina Bianco doesn’t struggle with nightmares about the dozens of characters she plays in Off-Broadway’s one-woman comedy Application Pending. You imagine that keeping all of them straight haunts her fevered mind.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, which means it really is the most rewarding, as well,” says Bianco, a Forbidden Broadway veteran and YouTube video star known for easily leaping from one voice to another, singing dead-on impressions of Celine Dion, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Idina Menzel, and others.

For the record, Bianco portrays more than forty people in Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg’s brisk, non-musical look at the admissions office of Manhattan’s fictional and elite Edgely Preparatory Academy. The 80-minute play, now at Westside Theatre/Downstairs, charts the fraught deadline day for pre-kindergarten applications, and phones are ringing off the hook with parents of all stripes (and stereotypes) advocating for their oh-so-worthy kids.

Fielding those calls is the polite, reserved “Christine,” who has suddenly inherited the job of admissions director following the hasty exit of her shady predecessor. The onslaught of callers—all voiced by the tireless Bianco, who sits at a desk—includes a pushy Jewish stage mother; a society lady; a soft-spoken dad; flamboyant gay fathers; a New England businessman; and an assortment of kids, educators, administrators, law enforcement officials, clergy, academic rivals, and child advocates, including George Clooney.

There’s even a chest-thumping cameo from Celine Dion, a diva treat for Bianco’s diehard fans.

“I never had a template for how to prepare for this,” Bianco says of performing her many, many roles. “Typically, I like to show up the first day of rehearsal very memorized, very off-book so I can dive in and start playing immediately. That was not an option with this show.”

First of all, this was a new play—a work in progress—with edits, cuts, and rewrites happening during the rehearsal process. And then there was the task of memorizing the order of which character was calling—plus remembering what each person was calling about—all while trying to tune out the nonstop phone-ringing and light cues that punctuate the chaos.

“Many of these characters call more than once,” Bianco says with an exasperated laugh. “At times, I found a lot of it to be physically and vocally impossible. I said, ‘I’m only one person. I can only cut myself off so many times…I might actually hyperventilate!’ It does get very hard to play somebody who is really high strung and then go back to the voice of the next person, who is very calm and collected.”

The solution for that particular challenge came from Sandberg (who also directs) and Edwards, who revised the order of some calls. “I’m grateful that they helped make it something playable that gets all the correct points across without me passing out by the end of the show,” Bianco says. [Read more →]

February 11, 2015   1 Comment

How to Put Soul in a “Honeymoon”

Tony Danza & Brynn O'Malley

Tony Danza & Brynn O’Malley

How Brynn O’Malley creates a leading lady in Honeymoon in Vegas

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Make no mistake: the new Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas is supposed to be a lark. Based on the 1992 film, it’s a fizzy romance about Jack Singer, a guy who won’t propose to his girlfriend Betsy because his mother cursed his love life. (Like, literally cursed.) He almost loses his lady, however, when she’s seduced by a flashy gambler, and getting her back requires a trip to Hawaii, a visit to a mysterious tropical monument, and a skydiving trip with a planeload of Elvis impersonators.

So again… this is not Greek tragedy. And Jason Robert Brown’s score, with its swinging Vegas sounds, is designed to keep toes tapping while these lovelorn dorks sort out their lives.

But despite all the goofiness, the actors have to take their roles seriously. If their performances don’t have legitimate feeling—if they don’t show some recognizable humanity—then the whimsy won’t work. Just ask Brynn O’Malley, who plays Betsy: “The show is so much fun and the circumstances we’re put through are so ridiculous,” she says. “But we also feel like our job is to be the ambassadors of truth and make sure that no matter what is put in front of us, we approach it from the most grounded place.”

That’s one reason she’s glad to have another crack at her role. O’Malley also played Betsy when Honeymoon in Vegas premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse last year, which means the Broadway run at the Nederlander gives her the chance to go further with her performance. (The show is currently in previews and officially opens next month.) “What’s been fun this time around is we get to dig a little deeper and really track Betsy’s journey through the show,” she says.

Of course, digging deeper doesn’t always mean breaking brand new ground. In one crucial scene, for instance, Betsy has to decide if she’s going to impulsively go to Hawaii with the romantic gambler (played by Tony Danza) and leave Jack alone with his commitment-phobia. At Paper Mill, O’Malley motivated Betsy’s decision with both anger and excitement, while both her paramours fought for her attention. “We liked that scene,” she says. “But we weren’t sure, coming in to this round, if the scene as written was what we wanted to do for Broadway.”

She continues, “We thought, ‘Well maybe we can play it this way, or we can take Jack out of it, on an on.’ We went through four or five versions, only to discover that the one we started with is the one we’re gonna do. But now we know exactly what we’re doing, and we know exactly why.” [Read more →]

December 9, 2014   No Comments

An Actor Channels His Inner Journalist to Play a Marine

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini’s passionate preparation for his latest role

“I wanted to become a journalist before I became an actor,” says Jonny Orsini. “I think I approach roles the way a journalist approaches stories.”

That means he does a serious amount of research for every part he plays. Take his work in Almost Home, a new drama by Walter Anderson that’s now at Theatre Row in a production from The Directors Company. Orsini plays Johnny Barnett, a Marine going back to the Bronx after serving in Vietnam. The character not only confronts his own guilt at being called a hero, but also grapples with the expectations of his family and mentors, some of whom have shady ulterior motives.

For Orsini, who’s too young to remember what Vietnam veterans faced when they came back to America, books and films have been essential to his preparation. Even more importantly, he’s had long conversations with Anderson, who fought in Vietnam himself. “Walter didn’t necessarily experience everything in the play, but a lot of it draws from his life,” the actor says. “So to have him in the room was incredible. And he had the best suggestions about what to read and what to watch.”

The research, though, is only part of Orsini’s journalistic impulse. “I was always interested in learning about people and things that weren’t necessarily widely known and then bringing the story to light,” he says. “If you’ve gone through something and you feel alone, then seeing it in a respectfully told story can make you feel less isolated. Anything I can do to make people feel less alone is very much what I want to do with my life.” [Read more →]

September 26, 2014   No Comments

This Audience Laughs at the Strangest Things

Julia Stiles & James Wirt

Julia Stiles & James Wirt

James Wirt on the unexpected humor in the play Phoenix

Phoenix doesn’t sound like the funniest play. The show, which is now at Cherry Lane Theatre, opens with a nurse named Sue (Julia Stiles) confronting a laid-back dude named James (James Wirt) just a few weeks after their one-night stand. Turns out she’s pregnant—whoops—and she’s not planning to keep the baby. And oh yeah, after this, she and James are never going to see each other again.

To repeat: Not an obvious laugh riot. But playwright Scott Organ injects his script with so many startling turns—and gives both characters such vivid personalities—that their odd relationship is as charming and amusing as it is bittersweet and sincere.

It’s a very particular play, for instance, that can deliver both tense uncertainty and awkward comedy while two almost-strangers sit in the lobby of an abortion clinic, discussing the fate of their unborn child.

The audience response to these moments has certainly surprised Wirt. “There are so many laughs in so many random places, especially in the abortion clinic [scene],” he says. “I’m trying to get the scene driving, and then we hold for a laugh at Julia saying something. We never knew that line was funny, and now we can incorporate that.” [Read more →]

August 4, 2014   No Comments

Return of the Gargoyle Woman

Everett Quinton & Jason Cruz

Everett Quinton & Jason Cruz

Everett Quinton finally plays another shady lady

Although the Peccadillo Theater Company’s new comedy Drop Dead Perfect sends up a wide range of American cultural touchstones—from The Glass Menagerie to I Love Lucy to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—its greatest inspiration is arguably the high-camp, cross-dressing work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As with Ludlam classics like The Mystery of Irma Vep, Drop Dead Perfect is a smorgasbord of high- and lowbrow references, and it stars a leading man decked out in glorious drag.

In this case, the gender-bending star is Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s longtime artistic and romantic partner and a Ridiculous fixture during the company’s heyday in the 70s and 80s. When Quinton enters in a fitted 50s gown, meticulously coiffed auburn wig, and jungle red nails, he seems absolutely in his element. It’s as though the part of Idris Seabright—an overbearing matriarch who’s keeping a major secret from her beautiful ward, her long-lost Latin nephew, and her pill-pushing lawyer—has been written just for him.

And perhaps it has been, though the credited playwright, Erasmus Fenn, isn’t saying. That’s mostly because he doesn’t exist. “If I may be slightly coy about it, I’ll say he speaks only to me,” says director Joe Brancato, the founder and artistic director of upstate New York’s Penguin Rep, where Drop Dead Perfect had its world premiere last summer. (It’s currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clements.) “He was born and raised in the Bronx, just as I was, but he’s agoraphobic. He doesn’t want to besmirch his life with the business of the theatre like doing press; he’s a child at heart.”

Brancato, however, gleefully reminisces about going to see Ridiculous shows. “The abandon was amazing,” he says. “They were just breaking all rules and at the same time saluting everything that was great on film and on stage, and that always stayed with me. I remember Everett so clearly, which is why I asked him to do this play.”

Though Quinton forged his career playing what Brancato calls “gargoyle women,” he hasn’t trod the boards as a broad since 2010′s Devil Boys From Beyond. “I had been praying for a role that was as meaty as things I had done in the past,” Quinton says. “I cut my teeth on big juicy parts like Idris, and I wonder if that gets in my way at auditions. The whole ‘tone it down’ thing is my dilemma. I object to terms like ‘over-the-top.’ To me it’s just high comedy. It’s like the Restoration comedy of our time, all these fabulous extreme characters.” [Read more →]

July 22, 2014   No Comments