DIVA TALK: Kelli O'Hara Chats About Steven Pasquale, Bridges Tony Noms, Plus Natascia Diaz on "Making Strange" in Threepenny

By Andrew Gans
May 16, 2014

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



Natascia Diaz
Natascia Diaz, a two-time Helen Hayes Award winner for her performances in the world premiere of Rooms, a rock romance and a revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, can currently be seen opposite Mitchell Jarvis in the Signature Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which continues through June 1 in Arlington, VA. Directed by Matthew Gardiner, this adaptation of the classic piece, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994, features a book by Robert David MacDonald and lyrics by Jeremy Sams and casts Diaz as Jenny with Jarvis as Macheath. I recently posed a set of questions to the multitalented Diaz, whose Broadway credits include Man of La Mancha, Seussical, The Capeman and Carousel; her answers, via email, follow.

Question: How did this role come about?
Natascia Diaz: I'm guessing Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer and associate artistic director (and director of The Threepenny Opera) Matthew Gardiner must have had me in mind for the role, and I was approached a year ago when they were planning Signature's 2013-14 season. Needless to say, I was quite excited about the offer.

Question: How would you describe Jenny?
Diaz: For me, Jenny is literally a representation and embodiment of the futility and irrelevance of love, in Brecht's version of the world. I know that sounds very heady, and potentially difficult to actually play moment to moment, but it is an archetypal idea that resonates deeply with me.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for her?
Diaz: I have a few, with and without me in them, but without question, to be able to open the show with the famous “Mack the Knife," or here, “The Flick Knife Song," is an incredible feeling. It feels like I'm doing a twisted Brechtian version of “Wilkommen.” To have the responsibility to bring the audience into the style they are about to spend the night in is very cool. Another moment is “The Pimp’s Tango,” which I perform with Mitchell Jarvis as Mack. Now, I am remiss in that I didn't have the pleasure of seeing Rock of Ages, but I was literally destroyed by the brilliance of his Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror at Studio Theatre here in DC. I was like, Who. Is. This. Guy? And, when can I work with him? What he packs in power, facility, sensitivity and intelligence as a performer is mesmerizing. Though the details of Jenny and Mack's story is somewhat tangential to the action of the show, their relationship is powerfully represented in “The Pimp’s Tango.” And, the forces that are at play between them are very interesting for me to inhabit, especially as the sort of Judas she becomes. Like Judas, her love of and ability to betray Mack coexist. Seriously, what a gift it is to be onstage with a performer like that. And, my last favorite is doing “Socrates Song." It is the most stripped-down and simple I have ever been on a stage. Another fascinating first for me.

Diaz in The Threepenny Opera.
photo by Margot Schulman

Question: What has been the biggest challenge of the role?
Diaz: Well, the goal of Brechtian acting is by definition and practice the polar opposite of everything I was taught in the Stanislavsky technique. The goal here is to achieve what Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt, or the "making stange" effect. It doesn't matter what your character had for breakfast or what happened the moment before the scene. And, most importantly, and most strange for me initially, is that you are not supposed to elicit or go for any kind of emotional empathic response from the audience. At first I was like, what?? Um, that's why I'm here! That's what theatre is supposed to do! In rehearsal, I didn't even know how to behave in scenes at first.

But Brecht's focus was to serve up the ideas, so that the audience would receive the ideas at play, and think about what they were being presented, and not get lost in the emotion of the moment. I have never experienced being onstage like that. As an actor, purely energetically, I find myself in a very restrained and subdued place, which is very interesting for me, as they are colors I don't often play. Playing Jenny, I feel no catharsis in performance as I have experienced in other highly emotional or demanding and complex material. Here you are a conduit for ideas. Period. Which is hard. But fascinatingly different.

Question: Tell me about working with your director.
Diaz: I have to be honest; my performance and understanding all of the above came as a direct result of my complete, trusting and constant open dialogue with our director, Matthew Gardiner. His guidance and shaping helped me to make this strange stance tangible and, now in performance, comfortably mine. Though I think it’s safe to say Matthew and I have been long-time admirers of each other's work — and we have worked on small concerts, readings and on other tangential projects — this was the first time we actually have worked on a full production together. I think he will agree that our association began when he saw me as Petra in A Little Night Music and then Carnival at the Kennedy Center. He then shortly after launched a "Natascia Diaz needs to play Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman at Signature Theatre" campaign, which resulted, gratefully, in an offer for the role. Since then, in numerous plays and musicals I have seen of his, I have been deeply impressed with the savvy, intellect and command of his directorial hand, and have waited for the day when we could work together. When you feel a connection and understanding as I experience with him, that's as good as it gets. The sky's the limit.

Question: Any other projects in the works?
Diaz: Nope, totally ready and available. Waiting to hear about a certain project's New York possibility (who isn't?), and otherwise I am just attending auditions both in NY and in DC, which is wonderful. I have a solo concert coming up this summer at Signature Theatre in July, and I will be going back to do a night at Brel Returns at Stage 72, formerly The Triad, July 28.

[For tickets and further information visit signature-theatre.org.]

Kelli O'Hara
Photo by Joan Marcus

Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O'Hara was greeted with balloons, delivered by her manager, the morning the 2014 Tony nominations were announced. O'Hara was recognized with a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for her work in The Bridges of Madison County, the most moving new musical of the season.

"I think, honestly, my reaction [to the news of the nomination] was relief," O'Hara, who is offering the performance of her career, said with a laugh. "People talk about it, and you can never assume and you can never expect, but people talk about it to you, and you think, 'Well…I better as hell live up to it!' It was just kind of a happy, very peaceful sigh of relief. I'm also very, very excited."

The nomination is O'Hara's fifth, following recognition for her work in Nice Work If You Can Get It, South Pacific, The Pajama Game and The Light in the Piazza. This season finds the acclaimed singing actress nominated in a field that also includes Mary Bridget Davies (A Night with Janis Joplin), Tony winner Sutton Foster (Violet), Tony winner Idina Menzel (If/Then) and Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical). "It's been such an amazing season with these performances," O'Hara said, "and by all my friends, really. It's kind of a cool thing to be a part of it. I can honestly say that these are — I don't know the woman who played Janis Joplin — but the other three are my friends. I think that I just feel grateful. I've said it in the past — you don't want to have to feel validated or you don't want to need that, but you do something that you feel really good about, and to be recognized for it at the same time is an extra confirmation somehow—it shouldn't be, but it is. You think, 'Well, okay. I'm in the right place. I'm doing what I'm supposed to do.'"

O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County.
photo by Joan Marcus

When asked about the lack of a nomination in the Best Musical category for the Jason Robert Brown-Marsha Norman tuner, which will end its run May 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, O'Hara answered, "I'm extremely proud of this show, of this role, of what's been created here. … [The exclusion of Bridges from the Best Musical category] confuses me a little bit, but the thing is is that you come to a point in your career, and you've done enough to say, 'Well, I know what I love, and I know what I believe in,' and therefore, nothing is going to change that for me because now I'm in a place where I'm not swayed easily. I know that I believe in this show, and I know that I love it, and I can't say why it's not universally embraced, but when people like you and countless, countless others say that they really loved it and were moved by it, I feel like there's something for everybody, and this is for some people, and it's not for others, and that's all I can say. I'm terribly disappointed about the people who were left out, as far as Marsha's concerned, terribly."

She also said the lack of a nomination for co-star Steven Pasquale — who is also delivering one of the best performances of the season — "makes no sense to me, no sense." In an earlier interview O'Hara explained, "I think one of the words that best describes [Steven] is he’s so consistent. He’s the strongest, healthiest — he doesn’t stand on ceremony about anything. He just comes in, does the work, it’s not a big deal, and he can do it every time. His voice is always there, and I feel like for a partner that is so important, to be able to depend on. I don’t have to worry about what I have to do to make sure he’s feeling good. I just think we feel that way about each other. We just come in and do our work."

The gifted artist, whose performance as Italian-born Iowa housewife Francesca is funny, touching and intriguing, also spoke about audience reaction to the new musical, which is based on the Robert James Waller novel and subsequent film of the same name.

"Marsha Norman set out to make this point about women's choices, whether it be between loves or between career and family, or whatever it's about," O'Hara explained. "And I get more responses as the show goes on — and we get deeper and deeper [into the material] — from people who might not agree with it morally but who see the larger picture about it being able to make choices for yourself, and that is so gratifying to know that that is what is getting across to people. It's not just about this crazy four-day affair, but it's also about the larger picture of how we live our lives. Life passes us by and how we cannot regret the choices we've made. But that's surprising to me that it's starting to actually pay off because people are talking about it that way."

[For tickets, phone (212) 239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com. The Schoenfeld Theatre is located at 236 West 45th Street. For more information visit BridgesOfMadisonCountyMusical.com.]

ON A PERSONAL NOTE: In my previous column, I wrote a bit about the loss of my beloved, nearly 14-year-old dachshund Gilligan on April 25. The morning the column launched, I came into the office and was greeted with numerous emails with the subject line "Gilligan." I was thoroughly moved by the beautiful messages of condolence, many from readers who had also lost their own pets over the years. Turns out, diva lovers are a truly kind-hearted bunch, and I thank you.

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.