News Column

Joanna Gleason going solo

June 22, 2013


June 22--It was a cold, rainy day in June 2012, and actress Joanna Gleason remembers being "completely bundled up" in "what was essentially a parka," a hood and glasses for her first visit to Provincetown during her first Cape Cod vacation. She was walking with her husband, actor Chris Sarandon, when "a distinguished-looking gentleman" in a tweed suit rode by on a bicycle and shouted "I love you!"

Startled, Gleason called "Come back here!" and the bicyclist turned around. And so began the actress' journey to her first-ever solo show after more than 25 years of saying no to the idea.

Gleason, a Tony Award-winning stage actress with dozens of film and TV credits ranging from Woody Allen movies to "The West Wing" and "The Good Wife," will premiere a mixed evening of acting, singing and chatting Friday and next Saturday at The Art House in Provincetown. After "a million years" of declining solo performances, she's excited enough about this opportunity to talk about how this show -- and maybe a second one because there was so much music she loves that she couldn't use -- is portable enough to perhaps take to other venues.

The guy on the bicycle turned out to be author/columnist Kevin Sessums, and they struck up a conversation, first there and later on Facebook and email. He wondered if she'd ever considered performing in Provincetown. She had, actually, during that visit, when she and Sarandon came upon the Art House on Commercial Street, liked the look of it and even peeked in enough to count seats in the dark.

And after experiencing Provincetown, "it seemed like the most wonderful place to do something for the first time," she says in a phone interview. "The community is so embracing " and sweet."

For a show, she thought of "Bloom," a 20-minute play by Michael Patrick King ("Sex and the City" producer) that she'd performed in a Los Angeles double bill with Sarandon in 1998. And when she met over brunch with Art House producer Mark Cortale, he mentioned shows by Well Strung, a singing string quartet. She thought, "I wouldn't be so terrified of singing if they were there."

That's much of what stopped her from other solo shows: fear. Gleason, 63, has frequently sung on stage, including winning a Tony and other awards in 1988 as the Baker's Wife in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" and a later Tony nomination as Muriel in Broadway's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." But that was singing in character. A solo show is "a whole different animal," she says. "Some girls are just built for that. They're wonderful cabaret singers."

Gleason never felt that was her. So at Art House, she will play a character for "Bloom" (a jaded spiritual guide for souls in heaven) and for the evening, though she says that character is essentially her. It's a fine line, and here's how she describes the show: "The first part is a play that's very me, the character speaking is me, me in my own comfort zone." It's comedic, yet poignant, with "the persona I'm most comfortable being on stage," talking about "stuff that means the most to me."

Then the guys of Well Strung will perform, and she'll sing. "The songs are songs I like to do, that my husband and I like to do, that are part of the theme of my life right now."

The choices won't be from her past musicals, Gleason says, because those work better in context and she's "done them, and done them at the best level." Noting the pinnacle of a 2010 reunion with "Woods" co-star Chip Zien to sing "It Takes Two" for a Sondheim tribute concert at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic playing, she laughs and says, "Why would I ever want to touch that again?"

In Provincetown, after singing, she'll sit down and chat about her life and career with host/pianist Seth Rudetsky -- the usual style of the Broadway at the Art House series. Then she's built in "a surprise from part of (her) life," and her hour-or-so show will be finished.

That "surprise" isn't Sarandon ("Dog Day Afternoon," "The Princess Bride") because Gleason readily mentions he will be sitting in playing drums. Son Aaron David Gleason will be on guitar. When the family's musical talent is noted, Gleason jokes, "Yeah, yeah, we're the Von Trapp Family Singers!"

Gleason says she "couldn't be more excited" that my first time with the act will be in Provincetown and marvels at the "fortuitousness" of circumstances coming together enough that she's "bit" now by the idea of this kind of performing.

But any future shows will have to fit in with other projects. She's due to arrive here this weekend to get ready, but will fly to Las Vegas next week to film one last scene for a movie she just did. She recently wrote a screenplay that is in pre-production for a small movie she would direct, and she also wrote a novel, which she says she's set aside while putting her solo act together.

What she has apparently not kept up on is casting news for the Disney film of her beloved "Into the Woods." When asked what she thought of actress Emily Blunt being cast in Gleason's iconic role of Baker's Wife, Gleason sounded surprised.

"I love her!" she exclaimed. "She's a brilliant choice! She'll be fantastic!"


(c)2013 the Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.)

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