A few, ahem, decades ago, Heidi Blickenstaff had a college acting teacher tell her that if she could hang in there with her acting career until she was in her 40s, “you’re totally going to blossom.”
Those were wise words.
“Good things are definitely happening,” a weary but happy Blickenstaff tells me by phone from New York just days before traveling to her hometown for a concert with the Fresno Philharmonic. “Since I turned 40, things have really started to click. I’m grateful for the marathon I seem to be on right now.”
I’ve been watching that marathon from the side of the road for a number of years now, all the way back to 2006, when Blickenstaff got a big break (and inserted herself into theater history) by creating one of the four original roles in the groundbreaking musical “[title of show].” (Actresses around the world continue to re-create the character of “Heidi” today.)
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I got to see that production in its off Broadway incarnation before it moved to Broadway, and my first impression of her was similar to what many fans (and critics) also feel: She has a sterling stage presence that lets her put a special spin on strong, wry, everywoman characters. She can play brassy or gentle, squad leader or loyal foot soldier, but it’s always with a distinctive edge that never lets her recede into the background.
And her voice: Oh, that voice, a beautiful Broadway belt, recognizable from the first note.
Blickenstaff got her theatrical start at the Good Company Players Junior Company, and she’s never forgotten her roots, which include a starring role in a mainstage GCP production of “Annie” in 1983. (There’s a reference to Dan Pessano, the company’s managing director and one of Blickenstaff’s most important mentors, in the script for “[title of show].”) After high school at Roosevelt School of the Arts and college at Duke University, she set her sights on New York, and she worked hard climbing the ladder (including various national tours and a Broadway debut in “The Full Monty.”)
But about that acting teacher: He realized her career path couldn’t go down the traditional ingénue road. She wasn’t destined to become a breakout Broadway star in her 20s. But her 40s?
That’s the ticket.
Just look at the last couple of years: In 2015, Blickenstaff originated a major role in the new musical “Something Rotten!” and stayed with that show for a year.
And when I talked with her just a few days ago, she’s just finished another grueling day in a workshop for a new “super secret” production that might become the toast of Broadway. (When she tells me the title and the other actors she’s spent the day with, I open my mouth in surprise.) On Nov. 20, she finished the world premiere run of a new Disney musical, “Freaky Friday,” in Washington, D.C., to stellar reviews.
In between her new project and recording the “Freaky Friday” cast album in a couple of weeks, she’s squeezed in a trip to Fresno.
“I’m getting text messages from friends and family out of the woodwork telling me how excited they are,” she says.
The “Freaky Friday” project is definitely high-pedigree stuff. It’s written by the composer/lyricist team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”) and bankrolled by Disney. Blickenstaff played an uptight mom who winds up switching bodies with her 16-year-old daughter. (Peter Marks, writing in the Washington Post, praised her “marvelously sung, resonantly comical central performance” along with co-star Emma Hunton.)
There are no plans to take the show to Broadway – for now. (It’s scheduled to open Jan. 31 at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, but Blickenstaff isn’t yet officially attached to the project.) But look at “Newsies,” which Disney also originally envisioned as a regional show that would go straight to licensing for community theaters. That show became a big Broadway hit.
And then there’s the secret project. Often these things don’t work out on Broadway. But often they do.
For her debut with the Fresno Philharmonic Saturday night, she’s excited – and a little nervous. It’s the hometown thing, after all. She’ll have scores of family members and friends in the audience. This will be the first time to be home to visit her parents in Fresno in two years. (Talk about busy: That’s what happens when you’re in a hit Broadway show and get married.)
“I have been so busy making musicals the last several years that I haven’t done too much concert work,” she says of concert. “I have not done much symphony stuff. I am so thrilled to dip a toe into that whole world. It’s new to me, and it’s certainly thrilling to be doing it at home.”
She and guest conductor Andy Einhorn, along with the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale under the direction of Anna Hamre, will join with the orchestra for a lighthearted selection of holiday favorites.
“There are a few surprises in there,” she says of the program. “We may give a little tip of the hat to one of my favorite Fresno roles. I’ll leave it at that.”
Along with her Fresno concert, she has a few days with her husband, Nicholas Rohlfing, to explore some of her favorite hometown haunts. (“I’m sure I’ll take my husband to Livingstone’s,” she says. “I’ll be old enough to drink now. We’ll actually have a bourbon and coke at the bar.”)
And she’s making several visits to Good Company Players, including a chance to see Pessano in “A Christmas Story” and to teach a master class.
It’s one of those trips of which aspiring actors dream: coming home to perform in front of a big audience. “It’s such an honor to sing with the Fresno Phil,” she says. “I’m just this girl who did plays at Good Company Players, and now I work on Broadway.”