Playing It Sweet, if She Needs To, or Sexy-Funny
New York Times
March 8, 1998
By ANITA GATES
Rebecca Luker in a 1997 Encores revival of ``The
Boys From Syracuse.'' (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
There she was, almost four years ago, on the top deck of the
Cotton Blossom, singing her heart out to Gaylord Ravenal in the moonlight in
"Show Boat." Had there ever been a sweeter, purer Magnolia who deserved her
miserable fate less? The critics adored her voice, a bell-like soprano, but
found her acting on the wooden side.
Then, last spring, there she was again, strutting sexily across City Center's
stage in "The Boys From Syracuse" -- the Encores series revival -- as a lusty
wife in a 1930's slither version of an ancient gown. The critics were entranced.
Where had this flair for sophisticated comedy come from?
And where will it go when Rebecca Luker, the actress in question, opens on
Thursday night on Broadway in "The Sound of Music" as the quintessentially
saccharine Maria soon-to-be von Trapp?
Maria is, of course, the young would-be nun in the Rodgers and Hammerstein
musical who becomes governess to the seven musically gifted children of the
brooding but charismatic Captain von Trapp (played by Michael Siberry). The two
find true love just before the Nazis march into Austria.
The director, Susan H. Schulman, said Ms. Luker was right for the role,
having worked with her several times before. "There is that effortlessness to
her voice," the director said. "You can believe she's singing at the top of an
Alp. And not everyone can be convincing in braids and a dirndl."
Rebecca Luker, who won praise as a lusty wife in `The Boys From Syracuse,'
has also been cast as the pure Maria in `The Sound of Music.'
Ms. Luker might not find that a compliment. "I'm trying to get out of the
mold," she said, referring to the sweet young things she has played.
But she isn't alone in being considered for such parts. "The Sound of
Music" might not have been revived at all if Melissa Errico had not wowed
audiences herself two years ago in another Encores hit, "One Touch of Venus."
Jay Binder, a producer, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization decided
then to revive "The Sound of Music" with her, according to Theodore S. Chapin,
the organization's president. But when Ms. Errico was cast in the musical "High
Society," which opens on Broadway in April, Ms. Luker got the role.
Her friends joke that because of all the period costumes she has worn,
nobody, as Ms. Schulman put it, "has ever seen Rebecca Luker's legs." "The Boys
From Syracuse," which Ms. Schulman also directed, didn't change that, but "at
least you saw that she had a body," the director said. In "The Secret Garden" in
1991, Ms. Luker, again directed by Ms. Schulman, played a ghost in a
Over tea near her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Ms. Luker,
36, looks like a fresh-faced head cheerleader from the heartland. Her blond
hair, out of braids, is loose, and she displays the kind of friendly sincerity
that really good beauty-pageant contestants do so well: they seem to like you,
but you can never tell what they are thinking. (She was first runner-up to
Alabama's Junior Miss in 1979.)
Speaking of her role as the neglected but knowing wife in "The Boys From
Syracuse," Ms. Luker said, "For the first time in my life, I got to do a bit.
Learning to turn to the audience, learning to hold for laughs -- I ate it up
with a spoon."
The actress, who saw the movie version of "The Sound of Music" as a child,
said she had always hoped to play Maria, but not so late in life. Actually, it's
not that late. Yes, Julie Andrews was a baby of 24 when the film version was
released, but when the original Broadway production opened in 1959, Mary Martin
was a very mature ingénue of 46.
That original show had a dark side, which the cheery film version eliminated.
Two songs from the original -- "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It,"
both of which allude to the Nazi threat -- have been restored in the version at
the Martin Beck Theater. And the von Trapps now sing "Edelweiss" in front of a
At the same time, the musical is being marketed as a kind of heirloom. A
television ad shows a mother telling her daughter about having seen the show
when she was a child and the wide-eyed daughter responding eagerly, "Do I get my
Ms. Luker never had that childhood experience. There was virtually no theater
where she grew up, in Helena, Ala., a small town outside Birmingham. Her father,
who died 14 years ago, was in construction; her mother is the treasurer of the
local high school. Two brothers and a sister still live in the South. Ms. Luker
did, of course, sing in the church choir (First Baptist of Alabaster). And she
wanted to play "one of the drugged-out teen-agers" in a high school production
of "Go Ask Alice," but the drama teacher said she would never be believable.
At the University of Montevallo, a small college near Helena, Ms. Luker began
performing in musicals and took a year off to work with the Michigan Opera
Company. After graduation, she headed for New York. She remembers being "poor
for two years," but eventually was cast in the ensemble of "The Phantom of the
Opera" and as an understudy, taking over the lead soprano role in 1989. "The
Secret Garden" followed and then "Show Boat."
Much has been written about the dearth of career opportunities for young
performers on Broadway in new musicals: there isn't much work to be had. But Ms.
Luker, who said she doesn't "necessarily want a career like Mary Martin's," has
had roles in several original shows. In addition to "The Secret Garden," she
starred in a musical version of "Time and Again," Jack Finney's much-admired
time-travel novel, at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in 1995. The show has
not made it to New York, but another original may: Barry Manilow's "Harmony,"
performed last summer at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.
In both she worked with Danny Burstein, a fellow cast member. The two
appeared in "The Boys From Syracuse" last May and in December decided to move in
together. Ms. Luker is divorced from the actor Gregory Jbara.
With a growing list of recordings, Ms. Luker said she might even consider
going back to the operas of her student days. But a lot has changed. "I'm
starting to like this acting thing," she said.
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company