Patricia Dell Stars in ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE at Open Eye Theater in the Catskills, Beg. Tonight
"What a challenge! It's very daunting," commented the 62-year-old Dell. "But it's been a wholly positive experience. I'm very happy about it."
The Open Eye--a professional theater founded by the late world-renowned expert on myths, Joseph Campbell (famed for coining the phrase "Follow your bliss!") and his wife, director Jean Erdman-is run today by their hand-picked successor, Amie Brockway. Both Brockway, who is directing this production, and Deffaa, who is serving as a consultant, agree that Dell will eventually perform the show in New York City.
Deffaa directed the original production of "One Night with Fanny Brice," which opened Off-Broadway in New York in 2011 at St. Luke's Theater and subsequently transferred to the 13th Street Repertory Theater, where its played in repertory since then. (It's currently on summer hiatus at that theater.)
Deffaa reflects: "I've been fascinated, watching Dell rehearse this show. Her take on Fanny Brice is different from that of any of the actresses who've done my show in New York City or regionally; she's focusing more on the drama, and she brings a wealth of acting experience to the part. Eventually, we want New York City audiences to see her interpretation. It's just a matter of timing. Chloe Brooks, who's played the show in New York in 2013 and 2014, will be returning go the 13th Street Theater in the show in September and October; and then Mary Cantoni Johnson, who's done the show, regionally and in New York since 2011, is expected to return in the show. So it's like airplanes stacked up, waiting to land on a runway. When the timing is right, she'll play the show-just as she's doing it now in the Catskills--in New York City. She's a terrific actress. I've enjoyed her work in the past, at places like New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, and she choreographed one of my shows. But I'm seeing a whole new dimension in her now."
Dell is happy to be performing "One Night with Fanny Brice" in the Catskills now. "It's kind of like an out-of-town tryout," Dell says. "We're in Margaretville, New York, which is a little bit under-the-radar. Amie, who's long been familiar with my work, is a fabulous director. She gives me so much freedom to do what I feel is natural. And then she tweaks it. She never gets in my way. We're both on the same page. And more importantly, she is nice. I've worked with some directors whose whole reason for being a director is their own ego, not the project. But she's very supportive. And works on every scene with great care."
Dell was born in 1951, the same year Fanny Brice died. "My only real knowledge of her came from the film about her life, 'Funny Girl.' But when I read Deffaa' s script, I said, 'Whoa! There's a lot more to Fanny Brice than was in 'Funny Girl.' And I could relate to her." Brice toured in vaudeville and burlesque-famously "learning by doing" out on the road before achieving stardom in The Ziegfeld Follies and other Broadway shows, and scoring success on radio as "Baby Snooks." She rose from poverty -- singing on the sidewalk for coins with her brother as a kid-to became America's highest-paid singing comedienne.
Dell, who began taking dancing lessons at the age of two, performed with her family as a child-carnivals, fairs, wherever "the Dell Family" could land gigs. By her early 20s, she was doing national tours of shows, from "The Student Prince" to "Fiddler on the Roof." Over the years, in regional theaters, she's starred in one musical after another, playing such coveted roles as Mame Dennis in "Mame," Desiree in "A Little Night Music," Dorothy Brock in "42nd Street," Anna in "The King and I," Fraulein Schneider in "Cabaret," and Florence Foster Jenkins in "Souvenir." She's also appeared in assorted operas and may be heard on several CDs and DVDs. (The cast album for the original Off-Broadway production of "One Night with Fanny Brice" is available on Original Cast Records. There's talk of also making a new album, featuring Dell.) And when not performing, Dell can be found teaching acting students how to sing at NYU.
But she's never had a challenge quite like this before. "In this one-woman show, I'm not just portraying Fanny Brice-there are moments within the show when I'm playing all of the different people in her life, from her mother to Flo Ziegfeld, to W.C. Fields, to Nicky Arnstein. I love playing real people. As an actor, it's a real challenge."
Deffaa observes: "Patricia Dell is the exact same height as Fanny, looks quite a bit like her, and conveys well that sense of fitting a bit awkwardly into the world." Dell can relate to Brice's sense of overcoming awkwardness to become an unlikely star. "I was born with clubbed feet-and yet became a dancer and singer." (She gets to tap dance a bit in the show, too.) "I understand Fanny's sarcasm, the way she saw herself on stage, I understand what she was trying to do. I've enjoyed getting into her skin. I know the audience has expectations. Many people, familiar with the movie 'Funny Girl',' will be coming to the show, expecting to see Barbra Streisand. But I want to show them who Brice really was,. Make people laugh, make people cry. Move them. That's really what people come to the theater for."
Dell will give talkbacks on Brice after every performance at the Open Eye Theater. She will be joined by Deffaa-who's traveling back and forth between the Catskills and New York City -- where he's developing his show "Irving Berlin's America" -- on Saturday, July 12th.