As I passed by the lounge, I noticed Noelle Gunn sitting alone at a table for four, watching Desperate Hero set up for its first set. She waved back at me as I crossed the room and sat down opposite her.
“He’s meeting me here,” she replied, smiling brightly above her trademark scarf. “His rehearsal ran long.”
“I didn’t realize he’s doing a show now too.”
“Yeah, he’s in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Virginia Samford.”
“When does it open?”
“Thursday, same as the show I’m in.”
Noelle has the lead in Theatre LJCC’s production of Funny Girl. She and her significant other, Tanner McCracken, have performed together in five local plays, including a successful staging of Barefoot in the Park – in which they portrayed Neil Simon’s newlyweds– earlier this year. This season, they’re in different shows that share the same run: weekends, Nov. 7-17.
“Are you enjoying being Fanny Brice?” I asked. “I’d think that role would be a lot of fun.”
“It’s definitely challenging,” Noelle replied, “especially with me not looking much like her anyway. Most of the actresses who play the part look like her: tall, thin, bright blue eyes. I don’t look like that.”
Nobody really looks like Fanny Brice, but that’s only part of what made the comedienne unique. A burlesque performer who became a Ziegfeld Follies headliner in 1910, she rose to stardom on Broadway and in films before she became an even bigger star on radio during the 1940s. Sadly, due to her untimely death in 1951, Brice is not as well remembered today as many of her contemporaries.
“It helped to look up videos of the real Fanny Brice on YouTube,” Noelle said. “When you watch them, you can really see how some of the comedic greats we know – Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett in particular – have drawn from her.”
“What impresses you the most about her?”
“Her flexibility. She had a very rubber face and was very animated. If you look at old glamour stills of her, you would not expect her to be as physically funny as she was. She also had a gorgeous voice that you would not expect of her.”
“Speaking of her voice, a few standards came out of this musical, didn’t they?”
“The show does contain a lot of stuff people know,” Noelle said, nodding. “’People,’ ‘I am Woman,’ ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’…”
“Streisand originated the role on Broadway and in the movie, right? Do you feel any pressure to play the part and sing the songs the way she did, or are you trying to make it your own?”
She laughed. “Well, it does come with some big shoes to fill, so you want to do it right. Even if you don’t come into it as a die-hard fan of the show, everybody knows Streisand’s versions of those songs. I love the songs the way she sings them, but as soon as I found out I’d gotten the part, I started poring over the music from the original Broadway show, the stage musical, and the movie – they’re all different, so I have three versions to choose from.”
Tanner walked in as she was speaking, affectionately squeezing her shoulder before taking the chair beside her.
“How was your rehearsal?” I asked.
“It was fine,” he said. “I’m just wearing a number of different hats in this show.”
“I’m a member of the Sanhedrin, but I also show up as a reporter, a SWAT officer, and an old homeless guy.”
“Which one’s your favorite?”
“I’d say the SWAT guy. There’s a short riot scene, and I enjoy the stage fighting. That’s fun for me.”
“You’ve both played leading roles, and you’ve both had supporting parts,” I said. “Do you feel that you learn more from one or the other?”
Tanner considered. “You learn different lessons from each. When you’re the lead, it’s a challenge because the success of the performance, to a considerable extent, is on your shoulders. But you can’t do it all yourself, and there can’t be a show without the character parts. There’s a cliché saying in theater that there are no small roles, only small actors. You may have a one-scene, five-line role, but that part is there for a reason, and a good actor will bring his all to that one scene and those five lines.”
“And if you do those roles right, you can completely steal your scene,” Noelle said.
“Right. You can come in, shine bright, and stick in people’s memory that way. It can be like the difference between a dash and a marathon. The lead role is not necessarily the most fun.”