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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 22, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 12
Double your pleasure - Patti Cohenour plays two major roles in Grey Gardens
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Double your pleasure - Patti Cohenour plays two major roles in Grey Gardens

by Eric Andrews-Katz

GREY GARDENS
5th AVENUE THEATRE (at ACT Theatre)
March 16 - May 26


Patti Cohenour is no stranger to the theater. Not here in Seattle, nor in California, nor even on the Great White Way. She's created roles on Broadway (earning both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations) that have become iconic and she's had her share of troubling performances. But all in all she has triumphed and is now starring in a dual role in the highly acclaimed musical Grey Gardens, the 5th Avenue Theatre presentation of which is now running at ACT. Seattle Gay News caught up this week with this versatile and talented actress, who portrays Edith Bouvier Beale in the play's first act and her daughter, 'Little Edie,' in the second.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Patti Cohenour: My mother and father, absolutely. I was born into a family of real talent. My mother was an opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera House and gave her career up in order to have a family. My father was a barber who sang like a bird. He had this gorgeous instrument without any training. They are deeply supportive.

Andrews-Katz: Your first Broadway musical was the adaptation A Doll's Life. What was your first thought when you read through the script?

Cohenour: It was definitely before its time. I auditioned for Hal [Prince] at the very last minute. I was covering [the role of] Mabel in Pirates [of Penzance] for Linda Ronstadt. I called the office and was told to come in that afternoon. I remember reading from [the play] A Doll's House, the last scene where Nora walks out, and it was a cold read. I remember thinking, 'Don't read the stage directions.' After the audition, Hal came up to me and gave me a hug saying something like, 'That's an actress!' That is something that has stayed with me up to today.

Andrews-Katz: A Doll's Life was nominated for three Tony Awards yet only ran for five performances. What do you think prevented a longer run?

Cohenour: Finances. At that point if you didn't get the great reviews you didn't run for long. It just got horrible reviews overall. It was a major Broadway flop and could not sustain. They let it go, instead of pouring more money into it, when they knew they weren't going to recoup their investments. The music really is remarkable and there are some beautiful pieces. When you are trying to do something on the dark side (extending it from a very brilliant play), it's hard to explain about the changes going on every day. It was just insane. I don't read reviews anymore because of that.

Andrews-Katz: Big River is the musical version of Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn. What is the audition process like for a big Broadway musical?

Cohenour: This was back in the day when you went to a casting office and picked up your music. I was doing the Shakespeare festival at that point and I was asked to audition. I got Roger Miller's handwritten music and knew he was a remarkable songwriter. The audition piece was 'You Oughta Be Here With Me.' I knew that if I could just find that country sound it would work. There were just sparks - that kind of chemistry is such a remarkable gift. It was an extraordinary experience and cast. One of my favorites to this day.

Andrews-Katz: In The Mystery of Edwin Drood you were the young neophyte Rosa Bud, a role earning you a Tony nomination. What kind of challenges did you face in a musical where the ending was decided by the audience each night?

Cohenour: That's the thing about this piece and what's so exciting about the revival. You really have to stay on your game. I never got voted as 'lover.' I got voted 'murderer' a lot [Rosa Bud was the most popular villain during the run]. Rupert [Holmes] makes it very clear that the show isn't rigged, and you - as an actor - have to perform however the audience votes.

Andrews-Katz: After triumphing in the original Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera, you continued on to the Canadian cast. What are some of the oddest Phantom experiences you've encountered?

Cohenour: One night during the hanging scene, the 'noose' didn't drop in. The actor playing Piangi (David Romano) flung himself on stage as if he were a dead body, and it worked! I told my husband about it that night and his comment was, 'No noose is good noose.' One night I got stuck in the dressing room slats and could barely move. It's always something. You hope technically that everything goes smoothly, but it's so huge. The real show is backstage and the work that goes on there. It's pretty amazing.

Andrews-Katz: If there is one moment that stands out for you during your role in the original The Light in the Piazza, what would it be and why?

Cohenour: Obviously the love/hate moment of 'I have to tell you what's going on.' It's one of those arch moments that either works or doesn't with an audience. People's reactions to that moment were usually pretty cool (or not at all). I always hoped that when I hung up the phone and turned to the audience to say those lines, I hoped they got the joke.

Andrews-Katz: How did you decide to move out to the Pacific Northwest?

Cohenour: I've been out here almost 22 years. My husband is from out here. When I did Phantom in Canada, it gave us the opportunity to find a piece of property out in this area. It serves all my purposes for us to live near the Olympic Peninsula. It has everything you need - if you need a culture fix there's the theater, you want the mountains or water, it's there. It's something we can appreciate all the time. Now, I get to go home and work in my gardens. We just needed to be out here.

Andrews-Katz: Aside from the Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis connection, what is the collective fascination of Grey Gardens?

Cohenour: I think the sheer survival instinct of these two women with finding happiness within them, and among all that squalor - something keeps them going. In spite of horrible circumstances and mental illness. You have to admire that they have no filter - they are completely bohemian and people just didn't go there in those days. That codependency between these two women is fascinating. The original documentary [Grey Gardens] really is reality TV before reality TV came into fashion. It was a remarkable mirror for them for two years while the original documentary was being filmed. I'm struck by their survivor instinct.

Andrews-Katz: What challenges to you face in playing the dual role in Grey Gardens, the musical?

Cohenour: Finding the spine of both women and the willpower to get through it all. My Edith in the first act just ruled with an iron fist - narcissistic and in complete survival mode. She wanted to hold everything together at all costs. In the second half, she stays creative, but she's also aware of her schizophrenia - she talks directly about it. With this enormous amount of energy they had, to me the willpower of both these women is derived from pure survival instinct. I think that's what the piece is about - finding your happiness somewhere within all of that. The show is more than a caricature of these women; they had theatricality with human emotions and love. I wanted that to come out in the forefront. I want the humanitarianism to come through.

Andrews-Katz: In your opinion, is Grey Gardens a comedy or tragedy, and why?

Cohenour: It's both. It's very much both, as it is in life. There are good and bad parts mixed together - I don't think you can separate them. That's why there are two masks [of drama] conjoined - they share that duality.

Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role regardless of gender, what would it be?

Cohenour: Does it count if I wanted to play a role again? I loved doing Mimi in La Bohème. I didn't get to do any other operas, but that was a remarkable experience. I don't think there is any more beautiful score. We did an intimate production of the show, but I loved Mimi. She is very fragile, but a beautiful character. Outside of my realm though, I have never thought, 'I have to play that part.'

Patti Cohenour has been a part of several productions on Broadway and many more around the country, including in the Seattle area. She was nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for her role in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and she won a Theatre World Award for her role in Big River.

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