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Rita Gardner, Original Luisa in THE FANTASTICKS, Passes Away at 87

Rita Gardner, Original Luisa in THE FANTASTICKS, Passes Away at 87

Gardner made her stage debut Off-Broadway in Jerry Herman's musical review Nightcap before her breakout turn as Luisa in the original cast of The Fantasticks in 1960.

Rita Gardner, who starred as Luisa in the original Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks, has passed away at the age of 87 from leukemia, according to friend and colleague Alex Rybeck.

Rita Gardner was a renowned singer, teacher, and actress of stage and screen with a long career spanning many years of exciting projects.

Gardner made her stage debut Off-Broadway in Jerry Herman's musical review Nightcap before her breakout turn as Luisa in the original cast of The Fantasticks in 1960.

Additional Off-Broadway credits include The Cradle Will Rock (1964), To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1969), Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1972), Steel Magnolias (1987), Wings (1993) and The Foreigner (2004).

Gardner made her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical (65 performances) A Family Affair in 1962 as Sally Nathan. She was featured in a brief 1963 revival of Pal Joey as Linda English and replaced Susan Watson soon after the opening of Ben Franklin in Paris in 1964. She held many roles on Broadway including understudying roles in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), and Morning's at Seven (2002) (understudy for Cora and Esther). She had a featured role as Rosie in The Wedding Singer in 2006, with three musical numbers including the song "Move that Thang".

Gardner's regional theatre credits include Show Boat and The Impossible Years at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania (1983), the musical Lucky in the Rain at the Goodspeed Opera House (1997), and Eleanor: A Love Story at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. (1999). She appeared in the national tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1994). She gave a critically acclaimed performance in Murderers at The Cincinnati Playhouse (2007).

In 2002 she appeared in her one-woman revue Try to Remember: A Look Back at Off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York City on Saturday evenings. The revue includes ballads from The Fantasticks. She performed the revue at the Metropolitan Room in New York City in 2011 and had to cancel the revival of the revue in 2020 due to Covid-19.

Gardner's television credits include appearances in Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (on season one episode 18) and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

She studied acting at HB Studio in New York City and later taught there as well. She has been a guest teacher in acting and singing at many colleges and universities.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride

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