LA STAGE Times was given permission to witness the process
Dangerous Beauty underwent in the final months leading up to its premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse on February 13. This is a portion of the final installment of a three-part series of articles prepared via interviews with producers, the creative team and cast as well as onsite reporting that began with the first group sales presentation in October 2010.
Jenny Powers as Veronica Franco photo by Jason P. Maughn
Perhaps no one understands the journey of Veronica Franco better than the woman who has embodied her for more than five years. Broadway veteran Jenny Powers (Little Women
) began playing the role at the 2005 Vassar workshop and has traveled with it through every subsequent incarnation. She and Megan McGinnis were appearing in Little Women
when her agent called to say the film was being made into a musical. It was one of Powers’ favorites and a hit among her Tri Delta sorority sisters at Northwestern.
“On a rainy night in Chicago, a girlfriend of mine says, let’s rent a movie,” relates the trim, curly- and raven-haired beauty over salad at Hugo’s in West Hollywood last October. “Have you ever seen Dangerous Beauty
? I said no. Oh my God. So she rents the film at Blockbuster and we watch it in our big den room. It started with just the two of us and ended up with 35 women all crying at the end. They just trickled down from their rooms. Amazing. My little sister watches it for therapy whenever she needs a pick-me-up. She finds it so empowering.”
Director Kaller relates the story of Powers’ audition to the Pasadena Playhouse cast on the first day of rehearsals in late December 2010. “We were at Ripley-Grier Studios on 8th Avenue and 38th Street when Jenny walked through the door. I whispered to the musical director, Brad Haak, ‘God, I hope she can sing.’ Brad very smartly did not share with me that he knew her. Her radiance was palpable. She walked into that room and I said, ‘There’s Veronica Franco.’ She sang and it was unbelievable. I said, ‘Oh God, I hope she can act.’ And she read the scenes and I said, ‘Yeah, she’s good.’”
Unfortunately Powers was still committed to Little Women
, as was McGinnis who was being considered for Beatrice, Veronica’s childhood friend. Kaller knew the Louisa May Alcott musical’s attendance numbers were down and held out for the duo. As days went by, the workshop producers began to get nervous and pressured her to make new choices. Three weeks before the workshop, Kaller was told to please move on to other actresses. That afternoon, the anticipated announcement finally materialized – Little Women
was going to close.
Powers tells the assembled Pasadena cast, “There really aren’t words for today. The Dangerous Beauty
dream team. As the Powers family would say, we’re going to slam dunk this.” McGinnis admits she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I thought this day would never come.”
Later Powers admits that the delays allowed her to grow into a stronger actress and performer. She stepped into another Broadway role as Rizzo in Grease
, married Broadway star Matt Cavanaugh (West Side Story
, A Catered Affair
), traveled to the Middle East and grew up. “I was not the woman I am now. I’m a much more open and empathetic human being, which makes for a far richer and deeper performance.”
A former Miss Illinois, Powers is well versed in Dangerous Beauty
’s message of self- empowerment through education. During her one-year reign, she delivered a similar one to school kids of all ages throughout the state. “[Chicago] Mayor Daley was so excited about it because I was basically preaching about the importance of the arts and education. His big thing was character education. To me it’s the same thing the arts do. To fulfill those duties was really empowering for me, to lend my visibility in that way. And like Dangerous Beauty
will hopefully do, inspire these kids to live out their dreams, make bold choices and take big risks.”
Bryce Ryness and Jenny Powers photo by Jim Cox © The Pasadena Playhouse
Powers took a risk in 2008 leaving Grease
to return to the Windy City and her alma mater in order to tackle Franco a third time under Kaller’s direction (Powers’ second workshop was NAMT in 2006). “There is something about Veronica’s courage and her honesty, how real that character feels and how timely this piece is, that sits so deeply in me. Even when I went to do Dangerous Beauty
in Chicago at Northwestern, I didn’t regret leaving my Broadway paycheck, despite knowing it was really just a workshop production. I always gain so much from digging into Veronica and working with Sheryl. I think everyone who gets to work with her grows.”
“You cannot put Jenny Powers in the chorus of a show!” Kaller emphasizes. “There’s too much ‘power’ there. I’m not saying people who are in ensembles aren’t brilliant, wonderful and talented, but it’s a different energy. Jenny sucks the air out of the room. Her energy is exhausting, beautifully exhausting.”
Powers needs all she can muster since her character appears on stage 90% of the show, aging from a 16-year-old girl to a late 20s courtesan. At the Pasadena Playhouse production, she must undergo numerous costume changes, then navigate Tom Buderwitz’s elaborate two-level Venetian set complete with water-filled canals, stairs, balconies and walkways. In the process, Powers sings several key solos and duets, dances Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s elaborate choreography and, to top it off, fences with co-star Bryce Ryness during a poetry duel. She credits fight choreographer Brian Danner and Ryness with making it seem real.
“Even though it looks like he is going in for the kill, Bryce has my back and is in complete control,” Powers stresses on Monday, her first day off since performing the show with two matinees for the first time that past weekend. “I’ve worked hard to be in control and in sync with him as well but I also want to beat him! Our ‘Poetry Duel’ is bad-ass! That’s evident in the reactions, the wincing and gasps, from the cast on stage. I think this number fully embodies the ‘dangerous’ in Dangerous Beauty
When asked how she survived her first full week of previews, Powers exclaims, “I am alive! Because of the physical, emotional, vocal and spiritual demands of this role, I didn’t know if it was humanly possible to execute it eight shows a week. So far, the most challenging part has been some of the technical elements, like trusting the sound system to carry me and not pushing because I have a lot to sing. Or trusting all my costume and wig changes will be successful so I can just ride the ride.”
Riding the ride also means escaping into the music, which Powers says is more than merely thrilling to sing–it is completely transportive. “I can’t just sing those songs, I experience those songs. I sing not just with my voice, I sing with my heart. I sing with my pelvis. I sing with every chakra because the music demands it and the story demands it. What I love about the score is you have to sing it with your entire being.”
As for how she keeps her energy up, Powers says other than eating and sleeping, she is “Dangerous Beautying” all the time. “Between my dressers, the cast and the creatives, I have an incredible support network on and off stage. They all ‘feed’ me. And, I do eat a lot
! Steak has become a staple. The zinc and amino acids are good for my voice and counter-balance all the adrenaline I’m using.”
Laila Robbins and Jenny Powers photo by Jim Cox © The Pasadena Playhouse
Laila Robins plays Veronica’s mother Paola, a pivotal influence in Franco’s initiation into courtesan life. She thinks Powers has the right sort of intensity for the part. “You don’t just want to put any sort of pretty girl into the role,” she emphasizes in the green room backstage during tech week. “Jenny’s got this kind of fierceness about her. She’s tough. It’s a good thing for the role. My God, she’s a triple threat and yet such a generous person. It’s a delight to be her mom because ours has become such a very sweet relationship. She’s like really becoming my daughter.”
When told of Robins’ remarks, Powers returns the affection. “I love Laila and am beyond grateful to have her as a scene partner and ’my mama’ through this process. She is a consummate actress and such a beautiful singer. This is her first musical! She has been an invaluable support and inspiration to me both on and off stage.”
Kaller and Dietz say it is Powers and McGinnis who have acted as team captains of this company, setting a tone of inclusiveness and camaraderie.
“In my experience, cast bonding, chemistry and morale are vital,” Powers stresses. “All of us take care of each other and cheer for one another both on and off stage. We’re in this together. I wish I had more energy and time to throw game nights and bake goodies for everyone. My mother recently asked me if I had baked my ‘Maui Wowee Bars’ for the cast. I said, ‘Mom, first I need to bake the show!’”