GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kirsten Wyatt of 'A Christmas Story'
"I've carved my niche," says Kirsten Wyatt. Lots of actors can say that. But none has carved a niche quite like Wyatt's. She is (presumably) the only person ever to play an elf in three different Broadway shows.
This year she's the surly head elf in Higbee's department store during Ralphie's nightmarish trip to see Santa in A Christmas Story: The Musical. Wyatt was also an elf-but for the real Santa-in Broadway's last new Yule-musical before A Christmas Story, 2010's Elf. And she played a fairy-tale elf in Shrek.
Don't think for a minute she approached all these roles the same. The almost-5-foot-1 Wyatt explains her Method: "In Shrek I was the Shoemaker's Elf. I was displaced, I was a little lost, perhaps a little ditzy, and slightly disgruntled. My elf in Elf was very happy to be an elf. You're Santa's elf-that's like the top of elfdom! This one, she's not happy to be an elf at all. She prefers to drink rather than be an elf and push children upstairs."
Ralphie's encounter with Santa is one of the many classic setpieces from the 1983 movie that have been reproduced in the stage musical, which opens tonight at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. A Christmas Story's leg lamp, pink bunny suit, Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and the triple dog dare that results in a tongue frozen to a pole are there too. Wyatt was familiar with them all before she got cast in the show. "I have been a giant fan of A Christmas Story ever since I saw it as a little girl. I've seen the movie so many times that I can pretty much quote it word for word," says Wyatt, who first did A Christmas Story on stage last year when it toured (it had been produced in previous years at Kansas City Rep and Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre). "As an unofficial expert on the movie, I think we do justice to every single one of these iconic moments."
Wyatt even thinks the stage production improves on one scene: when Ralphie gets a C+ on his 'What I want for Christmas' essay. In the movie, Ralphie envisions his mother and teacher as a jester and witch, respectively, mocking him ("Honestly, that part always struck me as kind of weird," Wyatt says). In the play, the fantasy sequence becomes a huge nightclub-set dance number called-what else?-"You'll Shoot Your Eye Out."
Those big production numbers in A Christmas Story-there's one involving leg lamps, too, as well as a Wild West fantasy where Ralphie puts his coveted Red Ryder rifle to use-give Wyatt additional parts to play besides elf. She even has a speaking part as neighbor Mrs. Schwartz. Oh, yes, Wyatt can play someone other than an elf...though she's also played kids repeatedly as an adult. Her characters were children in her first two Broadway shows, Urinetown and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and she played a teenager in Grease (a decade after college).
All told Wyatt's been in eight Broadway shows. Originally a vacation swing in Urinetown, she eventually had a regular track in the ensemble that included the role of Little Becky Two Shoes, which she also played on the Urinetown tour for a few months after the show closed in New York in 2004. She returned to Broadway in 2006's The Pajama Game revival, filling in for various cast members on leave. Later that year she was part of the original company of High Fidelity.
She's also done innumerable regional productions, and had principal roles both in New York and regionally. She was Frenchy in the 2007 Broadway revival of Grease, and earlier this year portrayed Agnes Gooch in Goodspeed's Mame as well as Paulette in Legally Blonde at the Cape Playhouse. Her Gooch was honored with an Outstanding Performance award from the Connecticut Critics Circle. Other regional credits include My One and Only, both at Goodspeed in 2011 and years earlier at Rhode Island's Theatre by the Sea; The Boyfriend, directed by Julie Andrews, also at Goodspeed; Godspell and A Christmas Carol at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; and High Society at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco.
Clearly, comedy is Wyatt's forte-and she names such legendary TV comediennes as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Megan Mullally as idols. But even more: Gracie Allen. Wyatt knew almost nothing about Allen other than she was the partner of George Burns when she caught a clip of them at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria (where Wyatt lives) and was intrigued. She started watching more and more clips of Allen and reading whatever she could find about her, and now adores the nasally television pioneer. "Maybe it's the voice," says the slightly squeaky Wyatt with a laugh.
Wyatt has appeared on TV herself, most memorably in a guest spot as an overeager publicist on the Nickelodeon sitcom The Naked Brothers Band. She's also had bit parts on such soap operas as As the World Turns and All My Children. Wyatt is now developing her own series, to air online, in which she will visit performers in their homes, chat and cook with them. Titled Broadway Bites, the show brings "my two favorite things together: food and theater," Wyatt says. She's filmed the first episode-featuring Dogfight star Lindsay Mendez, Wyatt's good friend since they were in Grease-and hopes to have it online by the end of the year. "I love to eat, I love to cook, and I love to perform," says Wyatt, who on her only day off the week before A Christmas Story's opening made turkey tetrazzini for dinner.
A West Virginia native, Wyatt grew up in a musical home-both her teachers taught music in local public schools-and she still lives in one, as her husband of nine years, Sean Nowell, is a jazz musician. Nowell plays everywhere from downtown clubs like Smalls and the 55 Bar to concert venues like BAM to Broadway pits-including, as an occasional sub, for Grease while his wife was up on stage. The tenor saxophonist's band, the Kung-Fu Masters, is set to release an album early next year.
Nowell and Wyatt met through friends, and the only other time they've worked together was before they were married, in a 2001 production of Beehive at Cincinnati Playhouse. After Wyatt was cast in Beehive, she informed the producers that her boyfriend knew the score because he'd done it at another theater, but they told her they generally hire local musicians. "Then 9/11 happened," Wyatt relates, "and a couple of days after, the music contractor called and said, 'Now's the time you have to be with the people you love'" and offered Nowell a job. Personally, it ended up serving as a "trial period," Wyatt says, as that was the first time she and Nowell lived together.
She'd already made her Broadway debut by that time. Just a few years out of college, Wyatt was the understudy for Lucy and Sally in the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She went on in both roles, fairly frequently as Sally (covering for Kristin Chenoweth, who earned a Tony and stardom for her performance). A couple of years earlier, Wyatt had had her first job in NYC singing and dancing in a Disney revue that was presented at the New Amsterdam Theatre prior to screenings of Disney's movie Hercules. One of her parts in that show was-foreshadowing-a dwarf.
A musical-theater graduate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Wyatt attended the prestigious school at the same time as such future Broadway performers as Leslie Kritzer, Shoshana Bean, Tyler Maynard, Lisa Howard, Kristy Cates and her best friend since freshman year, Eric Sciotto (currently in The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Wyatt had been pointed in CCM's direction by Rebecca Timms, the daughter of one of her childhood dance teachers who was then performing on Broadway in Cats. Yet when Wyatt first began thinking about college, she wasn't even sure she would pursue theater. "I was a very good student," she says, "and pretty practical. I remember when I was a junior in high school, my dad asked, 'What are you thinking [regarding college]?' and I said, 'Well, I love the theater thing, but maybe I should be a teacher or a doctor...' And he said, 'You know what? If you're going to go for it, now's the time to go for it.'"
Her parents had encouraged her early on as well. "We always had music in our house," says Wyatt, whose younger sister, Alissa, is now a voice teacher in Westchester County. Wyatt also was inspired by her grandparents, who lived in the same town (Clarksburg, W.Va.) and performed in community theater. She started taking dance classes in third grade, and was spending most days in the dance studio by high school. But amid NYC's talent pool, Wyatt says, "I'm not really a dancer dancer; I consider myself an actress who moves well." Growing up, she also performed in community theater and school plays.
Wyatt chuckles remembering her roles in high school: Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Lola in Damn Yankees-"things I would never play now, not in a million years." (She actually played Eliza again during college, at the Quisisana resort in Maine, where you worked on the hotel staff by day-Wyatt was a chambermaid-and entertained the guests at night.) That she doesn't get considered for such roles professionally doesn't bother Wyatt. "We have to embrace who we are," she states. "I am what I am, I like my type, I have a good time with it. I like to go where the work is."
After Grease closed in early January 2009, Wyatt had a bit of a hard time finding where that was: She didn't get hired for six months. "I wasn't auditioning well. I went through kind of a funk," she explains. "I sort of had to mourn Grease, mourn that role and that process. I was with it for two years, and I loved going to work every day. I felt it was a great ambassador for Broadway in a lot of ways, because we reached an audience that doesn't normally come to Broadway shows."
Though at other times Wyatt has made ends meet working as a waitress at the Jekyll & Hyde theme restaurant in Greenwich Village or temping for the homeless advocacy organization Project Renewal, she got by on unemployment during the post-Grease slump. It was worse psychically than financially. "I was going through a period of doubting myself and my talent and wondering if I really belonged in this business." Then, during the summer of 2009, she was cast as a replacement in Shrek. "It gave me the validation that I was needing."
Grease itself had been something of a savior for Wyatt, as it was her first job after High Fidelity flopped big on Broadway-probably Wyatt's first major professional disappointment. The film-to-stage adaptation got mixed reviews during its out-of-town tryout in Boston, then closed after just 10 performances in New York. The week before Christmas. Still, Wyatt describes High Fidelity as "to this day one of my favorite things I've ever been in. It was the first time I originated a role. It was this fantastic group of people who clicked. It was a great team: Will Chase, Jenn Colella, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, David Lindsay-Abaire, Walter Bobbie. I had so much fun doing that show every night."
Six years later, however, Wyatt finds herself in a much more suitable place for the holidays. She's in a Christmas-themed show for the third year in a row, and while her elf on stage is grinchy, off stage Wyatt loves the holiday season. Her grandfather used to own a Christmas tree farm, so she still makes sure to have a live tree in her apartment. And she decorates it with ornaments she's acquired as souvenirs of her shows and travels. Her performance schedule doesn't allow her to visit her family, but they manage to celebrate together anyway. "Last year we Skyped Christmas," she says.
Photos of Kirsten, from top: as a department-store elf (the one squatting closest to Ralphie) in A Christmas Story, with (clockwise from left) Tia Altinay, Charissa Bertels, Jose Luaces, Eddie Korbich as Santa, Andrew Cristi, Lara Seibert and Johnny Rabe as Ralphie; left, performing "Ralphie to the Rescue!" in A Christmas Story, with (clockwise from left) Nick Gaswirth, Dan Lauria, Erin Dilly, Mark Ledbetter, John Bolton, Johnny Rabe and Zac Ballard; right, as Agnes Gooch in Mame with Judy Blazer (left) and Louise Pitre as Vera and Mame; with her husband, Sean Nowell; as the Shoemaker's Elf in Shrek; her second time as a Broadway elf, in Elf. [Christmas Story photos by Carol Rosegg; Mame photo by Diane Sobolewski]