Nearly 10 years ago, I sat in a little coffee shop on Post Street in San Francisco and chatted with Betsy Wolfe.
The former Visalian was starring at the time in the West Coast premiere of the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” It was the latest in a series of career breaks for this diligent and talented musical-theater actress, who returns to Visalia on Friday, Feb. 13, to headline a fund-raising concert for Hands in the Community.
The interview came just after Wolfe’s Broadway “debut,” which had sort of an asterisk next to it. She had been selected to fill in for a few weeks as an understudy on Broadway for the role of Rona, the kind-hearted emcee in “Spelling Bee,” which was still playing in New York. She never got to go on for the role, but she was thrilled at the experience. Yes, it was technically her Broadway debut, and I wasn’t going to quibble.
What I remember most is how confident she was that it wouldn’t be her last time on Broadway.
Man, was she right.
Today she laughs at my memory of her Broadway “debut.”
“The funny thing is I don’t even list that Broadway credit on my resume anymore,” she says in a phone interview.
She doesn’t have to. The impressive Broadway roles have piled up over the years: “110 in the Shade,” which starred Audra McDonald, one of Wolfe’s childhood heroes; “Everyday Rapture,” which grabbed the attention of critics; “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which I regret to this day not getting to see Wolfe’s acclaimed performance in New York; and her latest, the Woody Allen musical “Bullets Over Broadway,” in which she starred last year with TV star Zach Braff and the celebrated musical-theater actress Marin Mazzie.
Along the way she squeezed in her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2014’s “Die Fledermaus.”
Wolfe also made a big splash Off-Broadway in the 2013 revival of “The Last Five Years,” which has been turned into a movie (opening in limited release Feb. 20) starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. Wolfe has a memorable cameo as a stripper with a snake named Wayne.
“They asked if I’d be willing to appear in a bra and willing to handle a live snake,” Wolfe says. “Normally, either one of those would have been terrifying. But I just did it.”
She will reprise her role in “The Last Five Years,” joined by her co-star, Adam Kantor, in a concert version at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre that will play three performances March 27-28.
She plans at her Visalia concert to offer an eclectic program.
“I wanted to do material that represented what inspired me growing up,” says Wolfe, who graduated from Golden West High School in 2000 and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 2004.
Along with musical-theater offerings, the audience will be treated to mainstream songs from Billy Joel and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others.
“I took countless family car trips with Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Something to Talk About’ playing on cassette,” she says.
Looking ahead, Wolfe has roles in two potential Broadway productions percolating. (She can’t name titles just yet.) One is built around her in a starring role.
“The (creative) team has a magnificent pedigree, and I pinch myself thinking I get to work with these people,” she says.
Sounds like there are great things to come.
I can understand why you could be skeptical when I look back at an interview conducted with someone before that person hits it big and say: I knew she was going places.
But, honestly, I really did feel that way with Wolfe. (I wrote that her vocals as Rona in San Francisco were better than what you hear on the original Broadway cast album.) At the time, her confidence was as robust as a Nathan Lane laugh. I could sense the determination coursing through her veins. Yet on that day 10 years ago in San Francisco, her confidence and work ethic were tempered with a sweet unpretentiousness and warmth.
As the years went by and I saw Wolfe in other roles, including the world premiere of the musical “Tales of the City” at American Conservatory Theatre and in “Bullets Over Broadway,” I was reminded how her charisma — which has blossomed into an impressive radiance on stage — makes her the real deal.
As she prepares to return to her roots for a hometown concert, she reflects on the Visalia girl who dreamed of going to Broadway.
She always hoped she would have the opportunity to create new roles and work with talented composers. She made a conscious effort to choose projects, she says, that spoke to her as an artist and put her in an environment in which she would be working with the best.
“That little girl is still very much a part of me,” she says.