Chloe Brooks, 17, Stars as FANNY BRICE at 13th Street Rep
Playwright Chip Deffaa says he never dreamed, when his musical play "One Night with Fanny Brice," first opened Off-Broadway at St. Luke's Theater in the 2011-2012 season, that the starring role would someday be played by a teenager. Over the past three years, stars in their 30s, 40s, and 60s have played the show, which transferred in 2013 to the 13th Street Repertory Theater. Chloe Brooks, who now stars in the show, after previously serving as an understudy, is just 17.
"And it's an exceptionally demanding role," stresses 97-year-old Edith O'Hara, who has long run the 13th Street Rep and has long believed in championing new talent.
No one was more surprised than Chloe Brooks herself when she was given the role. The decision was jointly made by O'Hara, the theater's venerable founder/artistic director; Sandra Nordgren, the theater's producing artistic director; and Deffaa. "Chloe is a remarkable talent," says Deffaa,. "She is, along with Emily Bordonaro, who's done assorted shows and recordings for me, one of the two most talented teenage singing actresses I've ever worked with. She showed up out of the blue, at an open-call audition when she was just 15. I told her, when she walked into the theater back then, that if she wanted to audition we'd let her-but I could never imagine a teenager carrying this challenging solo show."
Brooks notes: "I'm thrilled to be playing Fanny Brice now. She's an incredible figure. 'Funny Girl'-based on her life--was one of favorite movies as I grew up. I became enamored with the song 'My Man.' And I loved the whole story depicted in that film, especially the romantic and--as it turned out--not-so-truthful story about Fanny's life with Nicky Arnstein. So when I read about the auditions for this one-woman show, 'One Night with Fanny Brice'-back in early 2013--I was thrilled. I thought it was totally impossible for me to ever get the part--but I figured I'd give it a shot anyway. My mother said, 'Chloe. you're just too young, it's never going to happen.' But I just prepared my songs, and I thought I'd at least try, It was an open-call audition-which meant they'd have to see me; I could at least make it into the room. To me, that seemed very promising."
Deffaa notes: "I explained to Chloe that while I would be happy to see her, just to know what she's like for other possible future shows, we already had found a first-rate actress in her 40s, Mary Cantoni Johnson, to play Brice. And this show-with nearly 30 songs, and book scenes of great drama, humor, pathos-was simply too tough for any teen. Then she sang 'Maybe This Time' and 'I'll Get By.' And all of us at the theater-from Edith O'Hara to Sandra Nordgren, to Rayna Hirt (who was helping me run auditions), to myself-felt she had something really special. A rich voice, an emotional honesty, great natural presence.
Although she was by far the youngest artist to audition, she was the strongest artist (apart from Johnson) to apply for the role. And there was a rare intelligence behind the singing; she was acting, not just hitting notes. I offered her, without hesitation, the job of being Mary Cantoni Johnson's understudy, playing 'Fanny Brice.' Chloe was just 15-certainly the youngest understudy in New York for any adult starring role. She said yes immediately. She seemed fearless."
"I was terrified!" Brooks says. "I'd never done a one-woman show before. And learning that 66-page script seemed like such an imposing task. But I read the script. And this was such a great show, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity. In our family's apartment in SoHo, there isn't a lot of privacy. But I would lock myself in the bathroom and repeat lines, over and over, to learn the script, and I'd try out different voices for the different characters in the show. Besides being Fanny Brice, I had to be, at one time or another, 15 other people, from Fanny's mother and father, to Nicky Arnstein.
"I practiced a couple hours a day; I was very busy with school. The songs came a lot easier than the lines. But there's a rhythm to the lines that made them a joy to learn-no dramatic breaks; it flows; learning the show was easier than I thought it would be. And my director, Rachel Hundert, was wonderful." Brooks liked the show's older-style songs. "I go in for the old-fashioned music I'm all about Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra Ray Charles. It's just beautiful. I think the older songs have a lot more feeling and more melody-and sometimes a heartbreaking quality. The older songs always have appealed to me more than modern music.."
Months passed before she got her first chance to actually go on. "It was three days after I turned 16, in June of 2013. "I was very fearful--very, very, very fearful. The night I was supposed to perform for the first time, I was really ready to bolt, right up until the show started. But once I was on stage, it was amazing-the show took on a life of its own. This was the first time I'd performed it in front of an audience. I got laughs. I wasn't expecting that. I got applause. Everyone seemed to enjoy it even though I was scared out of my wits. And I didn't forget anything, which was astonishing to me.
"For all I knew, I had spent all that time learning the entire script and songs just for this one performance. But after the performance was over, Sandra mentioned that maybe someday I could have an actual run, starring in the show. To me that seemed like such a remote possibility. I was very surprised when I eventually got an Email from her, saying I could star in the show, not just be an understudy, but have a run of my own in the role." Brooks took over the role last Spring, just before turning 17. As she performed more and more times, she notes, "I took more risks in my characterizations and the songs."
Deffaa has enjoyed watching her progress. "She's a very unusual young person. She reads Latin and ancient Greek, and has performed 'Antigone' in ancient Greek. She's doing independent study on Emily Dickinson and the transcendentalists. She's done seven Shakespeare plays. Her interest in-and love for-serious acting-makes her musical-theater work that much richer. I'm enjoying getting to know her a bit. But the instinct I had-the very first moment she first auditioned-was really strong. And she's lived up to my hopes. Once in a while, you see a performer's great potential almost instantly, and I saw it in her. Just as I saw the potential within moments of meeting Jon Peterson, who starred in my Off-Broadway show 'George M. Cohan Tonight!,' or Giuseppe Bausilio, who costarred in my 'Irving Berlin's America,' or Santino Fontana or Danny Koelho or a few others..... The script has just been published, by Leicester Bay Thatricals, and in the published script, I give thanks to 'the astonishing Chloe Brooks.' She's not just terrifically talented, she had the courage to say yes when offered the opportunity, despite any fears she might naturally have had.. That's essential, and rare in one so young, And everyone likes her work."
After taking some time off for a brief summer vacation, Brooks will be starring in 'One Night with Fanny Brice' this Fall at the 13th Street Theater (50 W. 13th Street). She will be performing the show in repertory with Israel Horovitz's "Line" (the longest-running play in New York City, now in its 40th year), and Deffaa's new musical comedy, "Theater Boys." (Performances resume September 13th.) And while appearing in "One Night with Fanny Brice," Brooks will also be rehearsing for Deffaa's forthcoming "Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue." opening at the theater on November 9th. "I'm glad to include her in any show I can," says Deffaa. "I have enormous faith in her."
For more information, please visit: www.13thstreetrep.org. .