Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reverend’s Interview: Minsky's Beth Leavel

Actress Beth Leavel won a boatload of theatre awards, including the Tony, for originating the title role in The Drowsy Chaperone. The hilarious musical had its world premiere in Los Angeles prior to its Broadway debut, and the creative team behind The Drowsy Chaperone is hoping lightning strikes twice, as their new musical Minsky’s will have its world premiere January 21-March 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA before moving to New York.

Based on the 1968 movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s, it is, according to the advance publicity, “a big, racy, romantic musical comedy set in Depression Era New York City.” Set in Minsky’s, a burlesque hall “where profit margins are as skimpy as the costumes,” it features a musical score by Broadway legend Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) and Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam, Triumph of Love). In addition to Leavel, the show’s great cast includes Christopher Fitzgerald, who originated the role of Boq in Wicked and currently stars as Igor in Broadway’s Young Frankenstein, as well as Rachel Dratch (of Saturday Night Live fame) and George "Norm!" Wendt.

Prior to her acclaimed turn in The Drowsy Chaperone, Leavel played such iconic roles as Miss Hannigan in Annie and Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street. She is currently starring on Broadway as another classic character: Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.

Earlier this month, Leavel took time out from decorating her home in New Jersey for Christmas to speak with Movie Dearest. Leavel said she had “a six-hour window” before she had to report for that evening’s performance of Young Frankenstein, but was delightful to talk to. Of her current assignment, Leavel told me, “It’s such a fun show and I’m so grateful to have a job,” especially in these difficult economic times. (Sadly, the expensive Young Frankenstein is scheduled to close January 4.)

Leavel plays Maise in Minsky’s. “She’s (lead character) Billy Minsky’s right-hand gal, a performer and former dancer and now kind of the heart of the burlesque house.” The actress confided that while the Drowsy Chaperone remains her favorite role, “Maise is the character closest to me.”

Of her current show-in-development, Leavel told me “It’s an original piece, even though it’s based on a movie. This is a true original. The score is breathtaking, it has huge dance numbers and covers a fascinating time in American and entertainment history: burlesque.” She also raved about the costumes designed for the musical by Gregg Barnes.

Leavel (center) in rehearsal with her Minsky's co-stars.

The actress is clearly thrilled to be working again with choreographer-director Casey Nicholaw and author Bob Martin after their mutual success with The Drowsy Chaperone. “They provide such a safety net, these talented people,” Leavel said. “I jumped at the chance to work with them again.”

Leavel gave high marks to the theatre scene in southern California. “I also wanted to do Minsky’s out of loyalty to everyone at the Ahmanson Theatre, who was so supportive of The Drowsy Chaperone. It’s also a beautiful theatre.”

I asked Leavel how her experience on Minsky’s thus far compared with helping to create The Drowsy Chaperone. She replied, “Everything is going so amazingly quickly; everyone is so prepared, and it’s such a luxury to work this way. The process is still a little too young to say working on this is exactly the same as The Drowsy Chaperone, but we’re doing great.”

Of working with composer Charles Strouse, Leavel told me “He is such a dear and such a legend. It is a pleasure and honor to work with him; everyday, I’m like a star-struck student.” She is particularly fond of one of the songs Strouse and Birkenhead have written for Maise, an anthem she sings at the end of Minsky’s first act “about how the theatre is our home.”

In terms of Minsky’s appeal to the GLBT community versus general theatergoers, Leavel said “I can’t really differentiate; it’s a very human story that appeals to everyone’s heart.” She continued, “There isn’t a specific gay angle yet but, since it is still in development, things could change.”

Whether it ends up containing overt GLBT content or not, the world premiere of Minsky’s promises to be one of the theatrical highlights of the new year.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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