Donald Munro

Nothing ‘Rotten’ about a starring role on Broadway

John Cariani, left, Brian d’Arcy James and Heidi Blickenstaff star in ‘Something Rotten’ on Broadway.
John Cariani, left, Brian d’Arcy James and Heidi Blickenstaff star in ‘Something Rotten’ on Broadway. Special to The Bee

I have a delivery for Heidi Blickenstaff from a very special person in Fresno.

It isn’t a balloon bouquet, vase of roses or box of chocolates. It’s not the type of congratulatory gift you’d expect going to the Broadway dressing room of someone starring in the new hit show “Something Rotten!”

After climbing several floors of narrow stairs in the St. James Theatre, I greet Blickenstaff, whose career I’ve followed for years — and who at the moment is enjoying a bit of sushi before her evening show — and hand her the bag.

She puts dinner aside and looks inside. She breaks into a wide and ever so slightly embarrassed grin, the kind you reserve for a proud dad rattling on about one of his kids’ accomplishments, and says, “Oh, Dan, Dan, Dan.”

That would be Dan Pessano, managing director of Fresno’s Good Company Players, who played Daddy Warbucks to Blickenstaff’s Annie in 1983 and was an important mentor to her.

It’s no wonder Pessano wants to mark the occasion. The week before my visit in early May, Blickenstaff opened in her biggest role yet on Broadway.

“Something Rotten!” is nominated for 10 Tony awards, including best musical. The director and choreographer is Casey Nicholaw, who has two other big musical comedy hits running on Broadway right now (“The Book of Mormon” and “Aladdin”) and is responsible for such gems as “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Spamalot.”

10 Number of Tony nominations for ‘Something Rotten!’

As a laugh-a-minute alternate history of a raucous William Shakespeare (the Tony-nominated Christian Borle), the show positions the Bard as a sex symbol-slash-plagiarist wearing a very large cod piece. The book, by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, is stuffed with broad and bawdy humor, and the songs — with music and lyrics by Kirkpatrick and his brother, Wayne — contain lots of clever insider theater references.

Blickenstaff has been through the whirl of Broadway openings before, including playing herself in the quirky little “[title of show],” which told the story of four friends creating a musical. But that show was a scrappy upstart. (She calls it her first real Broadway break.)

Her Broadway shows, including stints in “The Full Monty,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Addams Family,” have not been steady, and she’s bounced between them and regional theater. “Something Rotten!” is the first time she’s had the chance to originate a role in a big, splashy Broadway show.

As Bea, the high-spirited and before-her-time feminist wife to Shakespeare’s playwriting nemesis, Nick Bottom (the Tony-nominated Brian d’Arcy James), she came to the role relatively late to the process and worked through a couple of frantic months as her character finally gelled. One major scene for her was rewritten just four hours before the show went before critics.

“I have never in my life had an experience like this being thrown in the deep end,” she says.

On top of all that, Blickenstaff and her longtime partner, Nicholas Rohlfing, got married in their backyard the day after “Something Rotten!’s” official opening night. Yes, the biggest Broadway opening in her career and a wedding, all within 24 hours.

“It’s been crazy,” she says. “But it’s great crazy.”

SURPRISE PHONE CALL

When I watch Blickenstaff on stage, I’m often caught up in the comic energy she can bring to a scene. There’s something about her distinctive, slightly husky speaking and singing voice that can add texture to a flat-out wacky moment, giving it more warmth than just a simple gag.

Bea isn’t exactly the most rounded female character you’ll see in a Broadway musical. But for such a notably male-dominated show, Bea’s willingness to trample on gender roles (especially in 16th century England) makes her stand out. (She volunteers to dress as a man and work to support the family while her husband tries to write the world’s first musical.) You need someone in the role who can juggle briskness and empathy.

Blickenstaff does that — and more — in “Something Rotten!” And she has a “Broadway belt” voice that won’t stop.

Nicholaw, the director, had worked with her in the past, including one of the early workshops for “The Book of Mormon.” Even with that history, though, she was stunned by the call she received from him late last year asking her if she’d be interested in the role of Bea.

She remembers thinking: “Hang on for one second: You’re calling me to offer me a lead in a Broadway show? Because I’ve never gotten that kind of a call before. I’m usually the kind of girl who has to audition five, six, seven times — and replaces a cast member, at that.”

She tried to be cool about it, but she finally screamed: ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest phone call of my life!’ ”

Broadway projects usually have long percolation times, and “Something Rotten!” was no exception. The creative team had been working on it for more than a decade, and efforts began in earnest to produce it two years ago. Throughout the process, the well-known actress Beth Leavel (who played the title role in “The Drowsy Chaperone”) had the part of Bea. But then the writers decided that the character needed to be younger so she could become pregnant, a key plot point.

Originally the play was scheduled for a pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle. But a reading in November went so well that producers canceled it. They decided to use the preview period in New York to work out the kinks of the show, a major one of which was Bea and her new, younger, incarnation. That meant lots of rewrites — and input — for Blickenstaff.

The toughest day came in the second week of previews. Nicholaw called her over and broke the news: He was cutting the prettiest song in the show, “Lovely Love,” one of the high points for Blickenstaff vocally.

She blurted out: “Oh my God, no!” (Later she couldn’t believe she said it in front of him.)

The reason: While a beautiful song, it weighed down the book at that point in the action and needed to be replaced with something that advanced the action, he told her.

“That night was a really tough night,” she says. “I cried in my costume. But Casey was right. He was totally right. He kept throwing me in that deep end.”

As for getting married, well, why not? Blickenstaff and Rohlfing, an entertainment lawyer, had been dating for years, and their families were going to be in town for the opening of “Something Rotten!” anyway.

“It’s a second marriage, and neither of us wanted to do a big thing, so we said, let’s just do it now. It was exactly what I wanted — it was a very authentic experience. My parents were there, my brother was there, Nicholas’ mom was there, our dearest friends.”

She’s now proud stepmother to two sons, ages 14 and 11.

Talk about a concentrated rush of excitement: She awoke after her opening-night party to get ready for her wedding. In a way, having both events at the same time helped her cope.

“When this” — she points to her dressing room — “started getting overwhelming, I would think about the wedding. When the wedding would start to get overwhelming, I would think about this. I was able to juggle those two things and escape to both of them.”

CHILDHOOD RITUAL

Now, as far as that bag from Dan Pessano goes: Let’s watch Blickenstaff open it. She takes out two travel-size Cabbage Patch dolls. Both are tied up with small bits of rope, and both have tape affixed to their mouths.

They look like something that would be confiscated for evidence in an episode of “CSI.”

I’m glad I was carrying the poor stuffed creatures in my checked baggage and didn’t have to explain them to airport security.

Here’s the back story: When Blickenstaff played Annie at GCP, it was smack in the middle of Cabbage Patch fever. The girls in the cast obsessed about their individual dolls. As Warbucks, Pessano had a lot of time to kill backstage during the first act, and he started hiding the dolls — to the delight and faux terror of the girls.

He had a key to the soda machine, and one time he removed the drinks and put in the dolls instead so their little faces could be seen through the display windows.

Pessano sent her a doll for the opening of “[title of show],” too.

He remembers that when he made it back to New York for that show — in which his name is actually part of the lyrics — Blickenstaff spotted him in the audience. When she took her bow, she made eye contact with him and waved. It brought him to tears. It’s those little things that can get to Pessano the most. He brought a doll, but she gave him a bigger gift.

He hopes to get back to New York to see “Something Rotten!” in June.

I’m glad that in very special cases, yes, I do deliver.

  Comments