GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Amanda Kloots-Larsen of 'Follies'
Like many bloggers, Amanda Kloots-Larsen has turned a hobby into the subject of a website. For Amanda, that hobby is eating sweets. It's something she's been doing since her childhood in Canton, Ohio, where she lived next door to a Dairy Queen. This "addiction" may even be genetic, Amanda says—she had a grandfather who topped off dinner every night with ice cream. For four years now, Amanda has been co-writing the blog Just Desserts NYC and attracting the notice of such mainstream media as the Today show with it. It's even been pitched to the Food Network, Cooking Channel and Travel Channel as a TV series.
A blog success story like that isn't so extraordinary anymore, however. What makes Amanda's story extraordinary is her day (night) job—which might seem at odds with being a dessert aficionado. She's a dancer on Broadway, and at 5 foot 10 inches tall, the type of dancer who's often cast in showgirl roles. That means lots of costumes that bare her limbs and sometimes midriff too. She's one of the Follies girls in the Follies revival currently in previews at the Marquis Theatre. Her featured bit in her Broadway debut, Good Vibrations, was a part called Bikini Girl. She was a Rockette, for pete's sake!
So how does Amanda and her blogging partner, Beth Johnson Nicely (who's also a dancer), stay in stage shape while regularly indulging in calorie-laden treats like—to cite a few recent blog posts—Oreo cheesecake, white chocolate- and sugar-crystal-coated cake pops and a big chunky Birthday Cake cookie? "We live at the gym," she admits. "Beth and I are very good about balancing out our sweets-to-working-out ratio."
She also manages by practicing portion control—sharing a dessert with Beth or whoever dines with her—but exercise is the key ingredient. "I know that I have to do that if I want to continue my website," she says. Amanda works out at New York Sports Club six days a week and frequently takes classes at Broadway Dance Center or Steps as well. She used to depend on the machines at the gym but now favors Zumba and other classes like Total Body Conditioning and Cardio Jam. If she knows an expedition for the blog is coming up soon, or there's a box of goodies from a bakery awaiting her at home, she'll do even more than usual.
Lest that mislead you about Amanda's priorities, she emphasizes: "Don't get me wrong. I love sweets. I have them every day. They will always be a part of my life." She and Beth met on Amanda's first professional job in theater, the national tour of 42nd Street. They were both in the chorus and they're both from Ohio, but that's not what sealed their friendship. "We bonded immediately over our love for sweets," recalls Amanda, a blonde. Beth, a brunette, came up with the idea for a blog, and they now even film webisodes for it—billing themselves as Brownie & Blondie (For more about Just Desserts NYC and some of Amanda's recommendations, see below.)
As for Kloots-Larsen's live performances, Follies is her third show on Broadway, following the 2005 flop Good Vibrations and the last few months of Young Frankenstein's run in late 2008. She was on the Spamalot tour for most of 2006 and the Young Frankenstein tour in 2009-10. Her regional work includes Carnival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Massachusetts' Cape Playhouse; and Crazy for You at the John W. Engeman Theater on Long Island. And for two Christmas seasons, she was a center Rockette at Radio City Music Hall.
Her career began with 14 months on the 42nd Street tour—a job she got two days before her graduation from AMDA, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, in 2002. Though her parents had lobbied for a four-year college, Amanda chose the two-year conservatory because it was located in New York City and "focused on singing, dancing and acting, and I knew that I needed to concentrate on those things in order to be in this business." The second youngest of five, Amanda is the only one of her siblings who didn't attend a four-year college, and she knows her "mom cried the whole way home when they left me [at AMDA], saying it was a big mistake." But the school "turned out to be exactly what I needed," Amanda says, and she appreciates her parents letting her go: "If it wasn't for their courage and belief in me, I would not be in this business."
She'd started dancing around age 9 when she enrolled in a performing arts-oriented primary school, which she attended for fourth through eighth grade. Her siblings all went to that school too, and they all also sang in choir in high school, but Amanda's the only one who pursued performing beyond that. During high school, she trained and performed with Canton Ballet, a preprofessional company.
When she was in middle school, Amanda was in swing choir, and she remembers a showtune medley they performed that included "Broadway Baby"—a song she knew nothing about at the time. Now she's appearing in the musical where it originated, although she still wasn't familiar with Follies when she auditioned for this revival (which premiered at the Kennedy Center last spring and is set for a Sept. 12 opening on Broadway). "I had no idea what it was at all," she says.
She didn't really learn about the show until she'd been cast, and one of the things she quickly learned is that, like most Stephen Sondheim creations, it can set off a fervor among fans. "Anyone I talked to was like [in awe], 'Oh, you're doing Follies!' People are obsessed with this show and have very strong opinions about it." As one of the Weismann Follies girls "haunting" a reunion of former showgirls, Amanda is on stage for most of Act 1, wandering the upper level of scaffolding in the play's rundown Weismann Theater. She's also in the numbers "Loveland" and "Live, Laugh, Love" in Act 2.
Her audition for Follies entailed a good amount of dancing, including tap and jazz combinations, but it's not a dance-heavy show. "When I had my first costume fitting and saw the shoes and the hat, I was like, 'I don't think I'm going to be doing much dancing in this show,'" says Kloots-Larsen. Between the very high heels and large headpiece of her first-act costume, "I'm eight feel tall from top to bottom," she says. Walking around in that getup on the scaffolding "took some getting used to," she adds. The set had not been completed when they began rehearsing on it: "They didn't have any of those bars or cables to grab on to, and when I first got up there I was scared for my life."
While Kloots-Larsen and the other young showgirls in Follies may not do any big dance routines, their presence is crucial as the main characters relive—and lament—their experiences during the Weismann Follies' heyday. "I had to get used to being very stoic and ghostly and inhabit a whole new kind of character," Amanda explains. "But it's a really nice change...that I get to kind of watch a show." From her perch on the onstage balcony, she's able to watch the performances by Bernadette Peters and the other Follies stars—which she couldn't do if she were dancing. "It's cool to be on stage and get to see these amazing actors do their show every night and hear the audience react, to hear the applause when Bernadette walks in every night," she says. "Most of the time you'd just hear it in your dressing room."
In addition to Tony winner and Sondheim icon Bernadette Peters, the Follies cast is headlined by Tony nominees Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Jayne Houdyshell and Dan Correia and West End legend Elaine Paige. Kloots-Larsen worked with some legends in her last show too: She was in the all-American cast of Paradise Found, a new musical produced last year by the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Set to the music of Johann Strauss, Paradise Found was co-directed by Harold Prince and Susan Stroman and starred Tony winners Mandy Patinkin, Judy Kaye and Shuler Hensley.
As exciting as it's been for Amanda to perform alongside such luminaries, it can't match the impact that working with another young Broadway newcomer in the cast of Good Vibrations had on her. The performer—one of the show's leads—was David Larsen, with whom Amanda (as Bikini Girl) sang and danced to "Fun, Fun, Fun" at the top of Good Vibrations. They started dating toward the end of the show's run and married in September 2007. Right after they got married, Amanda and David performed together in Kiss Me, Kate at St. Louis Rep, the only time besides Good Vibrations that they've worked together. Today Larsen is in the company of Billy Elliot, which is playing right around the corner from Follies. The couple ride to work together from their Upper East Side home on their Vespa.
Good Vibrations, a Beach Boys jukebox musical, was unanimously panned and closed in less than three months. For Amanda, making her Broadway debut and meeting her husband in the show helped counteract its brutal reception among critics and the public. "It was an amazing learning experience, for sure," she says. "Because it was my Broadway debut and I was so young, I guess I didn't realize everything that was going on—that bad reviews equals your show's going to close. I was just so excited to be there and be part of it.
"A lot of us were making our Broadway debut in that show," she continues. "I don't think anyone was over the age of 25 in that cast—we were young—so we were just having a blast being all together. Half the cast was at our wedding; we're still good friends with so many of those people. So despite it getting the reviews that it got, it was probably one of the best times of my life, because of all the good that came of it. It was fun. I still wish to this day we could just do it one more time."
Before she even landed on Broadway, Amanda had two other professional dreams come true. The first was being in 42nd Street, which she went to see on Broadway about ten times while attending AMDA. "I would go all the time with my student ID," she says. "I was always in the front row watching, and when I finally got to do the show, it was like the best thing ever." She was so happy being in the show, she didn't know enough to be disgruntled at the lower pay scale of Equity's so-called experimental contract, which was created to discourage non-Equity tours and inaugurated with the 42nd Street tour. "I remember our first payday, I turned to Beth and we were both like, 'Oh, yeah...we get paid for this!'" Amanda laughs. "We didn't know anything; we were just there to dance. We were like, 'We love this show. We'll do it for free!'"
She left 42nd Street for another dream job: member of the Rockettes. She'd wanted to be in the Rockettes since she was 6 years old and saw the Easter show at Radio City Music Hall on a family trip to NYC. She tried out twice for Radio City's touring company and made it to an advanced stage of the audition before getting cut. Once she was in 42nd Street, though, she had former Rockettes among her castmates to coach her in advance for the audition. They taught her everything from how to kick to what to wear and practiced with her over and over again. Alana Salvatore, an ex-Rockette who played Anytime Annie in 42nd Street, was especially helpful in "putting me through 'boot camp,'" says Kloots-Larsen, who performed in the 2003 and 2005 Christmas shows at Radio City—right in the middle of the line, where the tallest Rockettes always go.
While she's attained many of her career goals, Kloots-Larsen has also had a few dry spells in her career. In 2004, she worked behind the scenes as an assistant casting director for the MTV reality show Damage Control, after initially approaching the network to appear on a different reality show. And for the first half of 2008, when she wasn't getting cast in anything she auditioned for, she took a job as an airbrush artist at Beach Bun Tanning—whose clients included some Broadway performers. "You have to take the good with the bad in this business," Amanda says in looking back on that down period, which ended with her role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Cape Cod. "It's a roller-coaster ride: Sometimes you're at the top of the hill and riding high, and then you're at the bottom. It's filled with lots of twists and turns, and you're either on the ride or getting off."
Photos of Amanda (from top): performing "Live, Laugh, Love" in Follies, with Lawrence Alexander behind her; outside the Marquis Theatre during Follies' previews; in Follies' "Loveland" number; offstage in London with Paradise Found costars Nancy Opel, Shuler Hensley and Mandy Patinkin; with her future husband, David Larsen, in Good Vibrations; far right, in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, with fellow Rockettes Krista Saab and Jennifer Voss Duran. [Follies photos by Joan Marcus; Good Vibrations photo by Carol Rosegg]
AMANDA SHARES HER SWEET EXPERTISE...
Don't let Amanda's slender figure fool you—this girl knows her sweets! You have to have eaten a lot of ice cream sandwiches to form an opinion such as "I hate when...the ice cream spills out over the cookies as I bite in or when I can't even bite in because the cookies are frozen solid!" (that's from Amanda's blog praising Melt Bakery's Cinnamax ice cream sandwich, with which neither occurs). And she's not afraid to double up on desserts either, creating what she called "the perfect dessert pairing" at Cafe Cluny recently: a brown butter pecan tart with maple bourbon ice cream and the caramelized banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
Though their blog is called Just Desserts NYC, Amanda and Beth also document their discoveries in other places. While performing in Crazy for You at the Cape Playhouse last month, for example, Beth blogged about Relish bakery and the Nut House ice cream shop in Provincetown. They also cover news about dessert-related products and events.
Asked about her favorite genre of sweet, Amanda points to ice cream. She insisted on a make-your-own-sundae bar at her wedding reception, after all. "If I could have one last dessert, it would probably be an ice cream sundae," she tells BWW. "Some gluttonous amount of ice cream, topped with peanut butter, hot fudge, all kinds of candies, maybe throw a brownie in there..."
Another favorite is clearly peanut butter-flavored...anything. When she has to satisfy her sweet tooth with a supermarket item, she prefers peanut or peanut butter M&M's and Reese's Pieces. She mentions Peanut Butter & Co.'s Death by Peanut Butter sundae as one of her favorites in the whole city. And in a segment featured on the Today show's website, she recommended bypassing the cupcakes for which Magnolia Bakery is famous and ordering Magnolia's peanut butter pie instead. Today cohost Hoda Kotb then picked it as her favorite of four desserts presented to her by Amanda and Beth.
Amanda's other top picks in Manhattan include the chocolate cake with buttercream frosting at Alice's Tea Cup, the lemon cake at Del Frisco's (ask for it if you don't see it on the menu) and Dylan's Candy Bar for making "a monster of a sundae." Or just head down to Bleecker St. and 6th Ave. in Greenwich Village, where Amanda points to a bunch of great dessert options nearby. The newest arrival, on Bleecker between Carmine St. and 6th, is Molly's Cupcakes, a Chicago import specializing in filled cupcakes—have one of their premade varieties or design your own by choosing the cake flavor, frosting, topping and filling (Amanda's blogged about Molly's twice; read them here and here). Grom gelateria is across Bleecker, and a few doors down Carmine in one direction is Popbar, for gelato on a stick, and in the other direction is Victory Garden, purveyor of goat's milk frozen yogurt. One block further south on Carmine is Sweet Revenge, a cafe that pairs wine or beer with cupcakes. Heading toward 7th Ave. on Bleecker, you find Rocco's for Italian pastries, Amy's Bread for American pastries and Phileo for self-serve, pay-by-the-ounce frozen yogurt and toppings. And around the corner on 7th is L'Arte del Gelato. Follow Amanda and Beth on Twitter @JustDessertsNYC.