Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer
Suggested Title: Performer with local ties sparkles in “ Spamalot ”
Posted on 9/02/09
According to various versions of the Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake is either a positive force or a negative one, a demon or a sprite. In “ Spamalot ,” she’s a diva.
She didn’t appear in the 1975 film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but she’s the sex object, female lead and the only woman actually played by a woman in the musical version that was, as the creators say, “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture.” In her knockout second-act solo, she sings the “Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?),” bemoaning her significant offstage time.
This Lady of the Lake may be able to give a guy a piece of metal and turn him into a King, but she’s really hellbent on getting Arthur to marry her, going so far as to have a dress that converts into a wedding gown in a single motion. Now that’s magic. At the end, her real name is revealed to be… oh, why should I ruin it for you? “Monty Python’s Spamalot ,” the 2005 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, will only be in town for six days/eight performances, and you should see for yourself what L.A.’s “Backstage” recently called an “irresistible orgy of madcap medieval mirth.”
Earlier this year, the show closed on Broadway, and not a day later, the Lady of the Lake took to the road.
Merle Dandridge was the last Broadway ‘Lady,’ and the first on the national tour. The role has a San Diego connection, and so does the performer.
The Lady of the Lake was created on Broadway by Sara Ramirez, a San Diego native who graduated from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. Ramirez gave a powerhouse performance that earned her a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.
They were tricky (amphibious) shoes to step into, but that wasn’t a problem for Dandridge. Or for Mike Nichols, who won a Tony for his inspired direction of the supremely silly but wildly entertaining show.
“I was blown away by Sara’s performance,” says the bright, warm and witty Dandridge. “She was incredible, and I was honored to do the role somebody like her created. I hope I honor the work.”
The esteemed and acclaimed Nichols trusted her to do just that – and to bring her own personality and spin to the mix.
“The great thing about a really awesome director,” says Dandridge, “is he gives an actor room in a role. He loves and respects what I brought to the table. He’s a classy, wonderful director.”
Broadway and La Jolla
Dandridge has been wowing directors and audiences since her 2000 Broadway debut in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” She went on to appear on Broadway as “Kala in “Tarzan,” Aida in “Aida,” Joanne in “Rent” and on tour with “Smokey Joe’s Café (U.S. tour), “Aida” (first national tour), and “ Ain’t Misbehavin ’” (European tour).
In 2007, she was at the La Jolla Playhouse for the workshop production of “Most Wanted,” the musical version of the story of Andrew Cunanan , the young, Filipino former resident of Chula Vista who graduated from the Bishop’s School and wound up on a killing spree that culminated in the murder of international designer Gianni Versace.
“That was one of the best creative experiences I’ve ever had,” Dandridge says of the first experimental EDGE project at the Playhouse, a production helmed by former La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif.
“It was creative Nirvana, to be in San Diego, to work all day on a new piece, then drink wine and talk about it late into the night, get new changes and go back and do it all again the next day. The work was great, the place was amazing. I still count it among my favorite experiences.”
Dandridge played the Reporter, the woman who knew, every step of the way, what Cunanan was up to, but didn’t divulge it to the police, promising confidentiality to the serial killer and socking away the facts for her subsequent best-selling book.
“You walk with her. You take that journey with her, about whether or not you compromise yourself. She has a lot on the line morally. The creative team’s talkbacks with the audience were so amazing; sometimes I’d just sit backstage and listen. I really related to (the show’s co-writer) Jessica Hagedorn , a powerful, smart, wonderful woman. She’s Filipino and I’m half Asian; she has a great embrace of her culture in her work.”
Dandridge is what her friend calls a “one-foot,” culturally and racially neither here nor there.
She was born in Okinawa , Japan , to a mother of Korean and Japanese descent and a Memphis-bred African American father. Dad was in the military, with the Strategic Air Command, and they moved to Bellevue , Nebraska , where Merle grew up. It wasn’t a very culturally diverse environment, though her best friend from elementary school – still her best friend – is half Thai and half white.
“It was easier for her, cause she was half white. I never felt even remotely pretty or interesting till I left. But I got a great moral upbringing there, and a great education. I’m proud to have grown up there — and survived. I’m probably a tougher broad than most, because of that experience. When you don’t know how you’re going to be accepted in your daily life, you have to run at it, give up all inhibitions, jump in the pool and hope the water’s okay. That kind of courage allowed me to be a riskier, more exciting performer. I can allow myself to be a little more raw . I always cross the line, always want to grow and stretch.”
Which brings her to the Lady of the Lake .
The Lady and the Lakers
“In the source books the Pythons used for the show, she’s described as a ‘glittering Semite,’ who comes up out of the water. In the musical, she’s the leading lady, with some big production numbers. But as soon as you think you’ve got her pegged, she surprises you. Every time she comes out, she’s not the same person. That’s very exciting to me. As soon as she goes over the top, she pulls back in a dramatic moment. She’s what I call a ‘hit it and quit it’ character. She gives the maximum punch and then she’s out. She’s a really funny character to play.”
At the start of its 9-week run in L.A. , the Times critic praised Dandridge’s “vocal pyrotechnics,” as she spoofs every Broadway coloratura, from Merman to Brightman , backed by the scantily clad, cheerleaders called, aptly enough, the Laker Girls.
“This cast,” Dandridge exclaims, “is terrific. Really smart, very talented. I respect them all so much. Being around smart actors like that always ups your game. Christopher Gurr , who plays King Arthur, is one of the smartest actors I’ve ever met. He keeps me sharp. He teaches me, though he doesn’t know it. I always look to learn from people I work with. His timing is impeccable. He drives the show at a pace that makes everyone stand up and get alert.”
So, let’s say you don’t know too much about the Pythons. You don’t have to, to enjoy the show. But just in case, here’s a little background info.
Let Pythons be Pythons
The group was first seen on British TV in 1969, in the series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” They were Oxford-educated young Brits – John Cleese , Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle (he’s the one who created “ Spamalot ,” with composer John Du Prez ). And there was one American in the mix, their soulmate Terry Gilliam. As New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley put it, they “combined the anarchy of the Marx Brothers with a rarefied British spirit of absurdity and a straight-faced irreverence regarding all sacred cows.”
The Python musical, like most of their work, creates a topsy-turvy kind of world, filled with mixed messages, references and sensibilities. All marshaled for a warped retelling of the myth of King Arthur and his famous Knights of the Round Table. There’s even a cow (though not a very sacred one) in the mix. Those familiar with the film will be glad to know the Nih -people are there, and the fulminating Black Knight, as well as the decapitating rabbit, the flatulent, foul-mouthed Frenchman and the 10th century, plague-infested ‘Bring out your dead’ scene, too.
“I was initially drawn to the show because I’m a Python fan,” Dandridge admits. “But you definitely don’t have to be.” The snarky humor, delicious irreverence, groaner puns, musical theater spoofs and twisted history can appeal to just about anyone.
After six months on Broadway with “ Spamalot ,” Dandridge went directly on tour. Eight performances a week, coming up on a year (her current contract runs through mid-October). But she remains refreshingly upbeat, and eternally awed by all she’s had the great fortune to see and do.
What she takes away from the tour are indelible memories of places she’s been: snowmobiling out to a glacier in Alaska , hiking in the Rockies, and enjoying Oregon , “where the air is so sweet you can chew it.”
“Once or twice in every city,” she asserts, “I have to do something uniquely indicative of that place. I have to put a stamp on my spirit of that place.” She still recalls kayaking in La Jolla , surrounded by leopard sharks.
Dandridge has a singular way of looking at the world and expressing her thoughts. Nichols, Greif and Hagedorn have been encouraging her to write a book, about her mother’s experiences – or her own. She definitely has a marvelous way with the language. But right now, she’s focused on her career.
“The theater is my soul,” she avers, but she’s heading in the direction of more TV and film work. She’s already appeared in three pilots — “I’m Paige Wilson” (ABC), “Pros and Cons” (ABC) and “The Line” (UPN) — as well as episodes of “NCIS,” “Third Watch,” “Angels,” “All My Children,” “Guiding Light” and “Nothing But the Truth.” She garnered praise and awards for her performance as Alyx Vance in the Half Light 2 game series. Now she’s looking for a medium for her message.
“The camera and I are still figuring each other out,” says the ebullient 34 year old. “I’m messing around with a videocamera , I bought a new guitar, I’m experimenting with photography. I need to let my thoughts and feelings out, to leave a piece that’s aimed directly from me to other people who come from troubled cultures or feel they didn’t completely fit in. I want to be able to communicate to them, so they feel powerful in who they are, encouraged and able to celebrate who they are. That’s what I’d like to be my legacy.”
Meanwhile, she’s in the business of making people laugh.
“When we began this tour,” Dandridge recalls, “we started in Detroit . It was the pit of the Recession. You could feel the weight of it all when the audience walked in. And then, you could feel the lightness when they walked out. As an entertainer, that’s a great gift to be able to give.”
WHAT: The national tour of “Monty Python’s SPAMALOT,” brought to us by Broadway San Diego
Note : For Mature Audiences only, “due to immature strong language and gestures.”
WHEN: Tuesday & Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m. ,
Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., September 9-13
WHERE: Civic Theatre, 3rd & B St. downtown San Diego
CONTACT: (619) 570-1100 or Ticketmaster: (800) 982-2787; www.broadwaysd.com
MULTIMEDIA: See youtube /video sent to Steven Bartholow