Two in the Trenches; After surviving the Broadway closing of 'Side Show,' these vets reunite for a spruced-up 'Blondes.'


Henry Spofford Jr. of the Philadelphia Spoffords will sing sweet nothings into the ear of the brunette Dorothy Shaw on Tuesday, when the curtain goes up on "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. But in real life, the gentleman who plays him, Broadway leading man Hugh Panaro, really does prefer blondes--at least the particular towhead who plays the gold-digging Lorelei Lee. After all, Panaro and Alice Ripley have a love child together.

They call him Zippy.

At the moment, Zippy is crashing the Reprise! cast's first reading of the Anita Loos work that made a star out of uber-blonde Carol Channing 50 years ago. Minutes before everyone gets down to business at a rehearsal studio in Burbank, Panaro mashes Zippy into the soft curve of Ripley's neck. Ripley grabs Zippy and presses his tender mouth into Panaro's cheek. A fuzzier nuclear family would be hard to find.

Of course, Zippy has an advantage when it comes to fuzziness. He's made of terrycloth. Over turkey and ostrich burgers at Burbank's Coral Cafe the next day, Panaro and Ripley explain how Zippy the stuffed zebra completed them as a happy theater family.

Panaro says Zippy made his debut during the brief run of the star-crossed musical "Side Show" on Broadway in 1996. For no particular reason, Panaro, who played the lover of Ripley's character in the musical about conjoined twins and Depression-era vaudevillians, decided to decorate his dressing room in a jungle motif. He covered the floor with a leopard-print rug. Bamboo and fake vines climbed the walls and mirrors.

"Everybody got on the bandwagon," says Panaro, a former Broadway Phantom who also starred in "Martin Guerre" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2000. "People were bringing me little jungle Beanie Babies. I had leopards and tigers and giraffes. And then Zippy arrived. He had spiky dark hair that Alice thought looked like my hair looked in 'Side Show.' And Zippy was the best because it came from Alice."

Ripley, whose Broadway roles include Janet Weiss in "The Rocky Horror Show" and Molly Ivors in the Tony Award-winning musical "James Joyce's The Dead," trills back at him: "Is it just me? I think he's beautiful. It's what's going on behind his eyes that just makes me crazy."

One more thing makes her happiness complete: "It's a good thing I have a husband."

Oh, yes. By the way, the 38-year-old Ripley has been happily married for six years to rock and jazz drummer Shannon Ford, who performs with her onstage in her other life as a singer-songwriter. And the divorced Panaro, also in his 30s, thinks Ford is a swell guy. Because this isn't any ordinary love story. It's the story of a promising friendship that intensified in the heat of a battle to keep a show alive. And that battle is one that also concerns other lovers of the American musical--the growing conflict between risk-taking and commerce on Broadway.

"Side Show" closed after 11 weeks despite glowing notices, not the least of which came from the New York Times, which called Ripley's performance "simply astonishing." (The Southern California premiere of Bill Russell and "Dreamgirls" composer Henry Krieger's musical is playing at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through April 7.) After the final curtain came down, Ripley and Emily Skinner, who played her sister, were jointly nominated for a Tony Award. That validated the cast's passion for the show, but it also underlined their loss.

"You never know why a show closes," says "Blondes" director John Bowab, a Broadway veteran who worked with Angela Lansbury in "Mame." "In this case, it could be management. Sometimes lesser shows have run because management knew how to keep them running. "Yet 'Side Show' had a sort of mystique to it, and I think when you're involved in a production like that, it's like joining hands and fighting off the depression that can come with something one loses prematurely. Some of my best friendships have been with people who've been associated with me in things that didn't work. You join hands, and it's us-against-them. And that becomes something maybe deeper."

The pair's stage reunion was coincidental. Bowab first heard Ripley and Panaro in "Side Show" and resolved to work with both of them: He'd directed Ripley in a concert version of "Show Boat" at the Hollywood Bowl last year, and he'd worked with Panaro in the 2000 Reprise! production of "Call Me Madam." Because of the spare two-week rehearsal period for "Blondes," he was eager to cast familiar talents and stage veterans. "It's comforting when you're under a tight schedule to work with someone you know," Bowab says. "You don't want them to have to prove themselves to you or you to them."

Other stage stalwarts who round out the cast include Valarie Pettiford, a Tony nominee for "Fosse" who plays Dorothy, and Ruth Williamson, a Broadway veteran who appears as Lady Beekman. The plot turns on Lorelei and Dorothy's search for happy marriages along different paths--Lorelei for money and Dorothy for love--a buoyant quest that takes them from a midnight sailing to the Moulin Rouge.

Because the stage version is rarely revived, audiences are more likely to recognize hits from the Jules Styne-Leo Robin score: "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "A Little Girl From Little Rock."

Bowab cast Panaro and Ripley in "Blondes" because he knew what they were like backstage. Panaro played "a square" in "Call Me Madam," Bowab says, but in real life he charmed cast and crew with his "devilish" sense of humor.

"When you're casting what is basically a square role, you don't want to hire a square actor," Bowab says. "You want somebody who will bring something to the plate."

Bowab found a similar quality in Ripley during their "Show Boat" stint. "Alice is one of the great theater voices around today, and during the rehearsal breaks at the Hollywood Bowl, sweltering under 100-degree heat, she was up and bright and devilish. I just fell in love with that."

Indeed, Bowab's task has been to direct a Lorelei that the audience will love despite the character's grating image as a gold digger. Channing, who owned the stage Lorelei, was able to play a doll with dollar signs in her eyes to great comic effect when the show opened in 1949. The character was softened for Marilyn Monroe when she starred in the heavily adapted 1953 film version. Bowab wanted Lorelei to seem fresh in 2002, even though the play is set in cool-with-Coolidge 1924.

"I didn't want to evoke any of those memories," Bowab said. "I didn't want to imitate Carol Channing. And in this century, I didn't want the baby doll. I think it's been done to death. And Madonna covered the Monroe version with her video. So I wanted somebody who stood on her own and could bring me a unique quality."

Indeed, Ripley is a classic beauty, with flawless, high cheekbones, eyes the color of blue marble and a distinctive style.

Ripley says she's like her mom, a cross between Monroe and Ann-Margret. Panaro says the Ann-Margret part wins hands down. "It's an essence thing," he says. "It's rock 'n' roll, kitten with a whip. Put a whip in Alice's hand and she looks right at home."

Ripley's Lorelei will be as much a creature of the late 20th century as it will of the actress. Ripley wants to put some metaphorical meat on the character's bones. "It would be so easy to play her as a gold digger," she says. "That's one facet of the diamond that is Lorelei. Just one. Everybody is motivated by one thing, and that is to find love, but with Lorelei it's skewed. I think Lorelei equates money with love. That's what makes her say, if I get a million dollars I'm a worthwhile person. I'm loved."

"You might say this is really heavy for a musical. But I think it's really important to look at Lorelei as a whole person. There are things that are kinky, that literally have kinks. That might surprise people."

And getting the opportunity to surprise an audience is becoming more and more of a luxury for musical theater performers, they say.

Even at the Coral Cafe, Monroe's ghost presides. Ripley notices a sepia-tinged photograph of the blond icon hanging on the wall above her booth, and she can't help sneaking glances at it.

"Look at how beautiful she is," Ripley coos. "She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

"Look in the mirror," Panaro shoots back.

Indeed, Ripley is a classic beauty, with flawless, high cheekbones, eyes the color of blue marble and a distinctive style.

Ripley says she's like her mom, a cross between Monroe and Ann-Margaret. Panaro says the Ann-Maragret part wins hands down. "It's an essence thing," he says. "It's rock 'n' roll, kitten with a whip. Put a whip in Alice's hand and she looks right at home."

"If she tried to do an imitation, that would be absurd," Panaro says. "Alice is so many different things that she can bring to the role. Why not take what Alice can do and put them in?"

Freshening familiar characters is a typical approach taken by smaller resident theaters that breathe new life into old musicals--a major perk beyond the reach of performers who inherit roles in bigger-budget Broadway productions, they say.

"With a lot of corporate shows, it just comes down to running the show like a finely oiled machine," Panaro says. "You don't want to rock the boat, so if the guy that's doing it now takes two steps to the right and you want to take three, sorry, you've got to take two."

Ripley observes that the pressure on musical theater to conform has been growing as productions become more and more expensive. "It's ridiculous," she says. "The one downfall of commercial theater is that it's commercial. It's all about who can bring in the most money and the most people."

Ripley found another way to bring in audiences. For two weeks before "Side Show" closed, she collared them at the Broadway discount ticket booth. For an hour before every performance, she and fellow cast members tried to talk theatergoers into seeing the show.

Panaro braved the Christmas cold with her. "I remember asking somebody, 'What are you here to see?"Oh, I'm going to see "Cats."' 'Oh my God, you've never seen "Cats?" "Oh, no. We see it every year." "Why don't you come and see something new? I'm in this show called "Side Show." It's great."No, no. We're here to see "Cats."'"

Most people had never heard of "Side Show," Ripley says. "I'd say, 'Come back to my dressing room after the show because I want to see how this show affected you.' And Emily who played my twin would go, 'What are you doing inviting these people you don't know to our dressing room?' I was like a missionary."

Ripley made curtain speeches, offering dinner to anyone who'd ante up $1 million to keep the show going. The $1 million never materialized, although a theater lover sent her a $2,000 check with a note saying, "I know this isn't going to save the show, but at least you can have a cast party on me." Ripley burst into tears when she read it.

Her eyes still moisten when she talks about "Side Show." "I have a real murky and very dark sadness about it. I wouldn't be so bold as to compare that show to an artist like Van Gogh, but you know how Van Gogh became famous after his death? That's how I feel about it. 'Side Show' is produced all the time all over the country in high schools and regional theaters, but I'm talking about the original cast. There's just a really big difference in being where the alchemy begins. 'Side Show' closing was a really awful grieving process for everybody--not just the actors, but the orchestra and the crew and the ushers."

Even though "Side Show" received good reviews, Ripley and Panaro say, the show was drowned out by other productions with huge budgets for promotion, such as Disney's "The Lion King" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which inserted CD singles in subscribers' copies of the New York Times.

And some audiences were challenged by the show's grotesqueries, unable to see past its freak-show setting to its universal truths, such as the yearning for self-acceptance and unconditional love.

"To me, that's the ultimate dream come true," Ripley says. "I'd never seen a show like that, and it single-handedly restored my faith in the possibility of musical theater being more than just a diversion but of being something that's really healing."

"Some people weren't deep enough to go there," Panaro says. "They said, 'Oh, it's about a sideshow and bearded ladies.' They didn't quite get it."

But then steering clear of a cookie-cutter sensibility earned Ripley and Panaro their "Side Show" roles in the first place.

Performers rarely get the chance to bare their soul on the commercial stage, Ripley says. "For so long, that has not been demanded of them. The director isn't going to make you do that and the audience doesn't care. I'm not getting down on musical theater because it's my life. But as long as certain standards are met, you can get away with having a great voice and not really being that great of an actress in musical theater."

Perhaps that's why Panaro holds a special place in Ripley's heart. Because in her eyes, he's all heart.

"I always describe Hugh as a heart with legs," she says. "He's a walking heart, like the giant heart costume I wore when I was a singing telegram delivery person. My valentine outfit was this padded pink heart with a place for my arms to come out, and that's exactly how I see him. A big heart with legs."

Panaro laughs. "Honey," he says, "the check's in the mail."

LA Times, March 3, 2000 

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