Diva songs and stage stories
The women who are appearing in "Broadway Divest."

Courtesy photos

Diva songs and stage stories

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
1/11/2018


Five female leads who rocked Broadway in “Wicked,” “Miss Saigon,” “Cats,” “Chicago” and “The Lion King” will take their places on the stage of Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts next Friday to sing songs from musicals they’ve starred in, reveal behind-the-scenes anecdotes and take questions from the audience. They’ll be accompanied by musical director/accompanist Wendy Bobbitt Cavett, who is taking a night off from the monster hit “Hamilton.”

“Broadway Divafest,” a brainstorm of producer/director Stephen DeAngelis, who will also host the show, is a first for Patchogue Theatre’s main stage.

 “I had not met [executive director] Gary [Hygom] but heard there was a change and knew some of the board members, so I reached out and asked if he was planning on expanding their program,” DeAngelis said. 

DeAngelis is a kind of Broadway concert force of nature, producing over 250 in New York and across the country, featuring Broadway stars — many with Tony and Drama Desk award gravitas — as well as actors from hit television shows and films with Broadway musical roots. (He also produces award-winning commercials.) He’s worked with all the divas for this show: Jennifer DiNoia, Rona Figueroa, Sara Jean Ford, Bianca Marroquín and Kissy Simmons, who have each played numerous leads. It’s a diverse roster of talent; Marroquín starred as Roxie in the Mexico City production of “Chicago” and played the same role on Broadway. (She is the first Mexican to perform on Broadway.) Simmons played Nala, the adult female lioness, in “The Lion King” on Broadway for nine years. 

“While I have done all-female concerts, these women hadn’t performed together before and the idea of doing ‘Divafest’ came from my discussion with Gary, and also it was based on his audience,” DeAngelis said. “I thought it would have an extra fun touch to have Wendy come out and be the accompanist. It’s a fun tip of the hat. You get a female’s perspective on their role in theater.” 

The idea of combining multiple singers with anecdotes and a question-and-answer session is pretty unusual. Was it his idea or did he bounce it off his leading ladies?

(P.S. It was his.)

“I love to strip down the distance between the performers and the audience, so by the end of the evening they really know the artist,” he explained. “They’re all very personable and audiences love to cheer them. I have a question-and-answer session during the second act and my goal is to create something totally new for that evening — the song choices, the questions, the anecdotes — so what you are seeing is a bundle of lightning.”

The discerning elements for his selections were “equal parts their level of talent — it’s exceptionally high — [as well as] my knowledge on how they got to where they are, and the fact that they are very open performers and their warmth,” DeAngelis said. “Also, I want to have a multi-ethnic experience, different vocal ranges and different songs.” 

DeAngelis is also producing artistic director and host of “At This Performance,” a concert series showcasing the talents of over 900 Broadway standbys, understudies and alternates since 2003.

After attending auditions and witnessing major talent, where the producer or director didn’t hire an actor who wowed everyone just because they had only played an understudy or they wanted someone with better credits, “I was so upset about this I decided to do one night of understudies,” DeAngelis said. “So I did one in 2003 and the next day my phone was ringing with actors who said, ‘how come you didn’t ask me?’” 

The list will have broken 900 by the time this article comes out, but names like Cheyenne Jackson (“All Shook Up,” “Finian’s Rainbow”), Bryce Pinkham (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn”), Sara Esty (“An American in Paris”) are on it. Also, one of the ‘Divafest’ women.

Sara Jean Ford, who is an “At This Performance” alum, just finished “Cats” as Jellylorum, Dec. 30.  She was heading out to teach singing lessons after speaking with the Advance.

“I think I was doing ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ a short-lived gem, understudying for Kate Baldwin and I had just come off from starring as Christine on the tour in ‘Phantom,’” she recalled. “My agent had asked me about understudying for Kate. I admired her a lot and felt I could learn from her and I think I was asked to do [‘At This Performance’] then. I think any kind of opportunity trying to be seen as the leading lady gives you the confidence to lead into the light. “

Ford gave a peek at what she’ll be singing.

“Stephen and I spoke about the different things we could both offer,” she said. “I’m singing with Jennie DeNoia. I opened the first company of ‘Wicked’ and understudied as Glinda. We’ll be singing a duet from ‘Wicked,’ of course something from ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Til There Was You’ from ‘The Music Man.’ I’m sort of a mishmash of talent, a comedian in a soprano’s body, so I’ll also sing ‘The Girl in 14G,’ a stand-alone song written for Kristin Chenoweth.” The song is a hilarious take on a new Manhattan apartment resident with a supposedly perfect space, great for quiet Jane Austen reading and crocheting, until assaulted by a barrage of operatic arias from practicing neighbors.

The heft of the divas’ experiences are each stories unto themselves. Ford played Christine Daeé, the intense dramatic lead as the chorus girl who becomes the object of obsession in “Phantom” for a year and a half, before switching to a comedic role in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Marroquín is a Mexican superstar of stage and screen who is currently a judge for “Bailando por un Sueño,” a reality competition show on Univision. “She’s the nice Paula Abdul-type judge,” DeAngelis said. “When she learned the musical ‘Chicago,’ she learned it in Spanish and then came to Broadway and had to relearn the whole show in English. Jennifer [DiNoia] has played the role of Elphaba everywhere [in four countries and seven companies]. There’s some valuable insight on how it was doing it all over the world.” 

 “Broadway Divafest” is playing at Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts on Friday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit: 

www.patchoguetheatre.org or
call the box office at 631-207-1313.