Kristin Chenoweth: Lots of Attention for a Subversive Kid Sister

New York Times
March 5, 1999


  NEW YORK -- In a Broadway season packed with Electra, the Lomans and other gloomy characters, the true master of existential angst just may be a 5-year-old cartoon malcontent by the name of Sally Brown.

  "I was jumping rope, everything seemed fine," says Sally, in a martini-dry deadpan. "And suddenly, it all seemed so futile."

  The actress responsible for Sally's delectable depression is Kristin Chenoweth, a diminutive 28-year-old who has been receiving some of the season's best reviews as Charlie Brown's kid sister in the revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," playing at the Ambassador Theater on Broadway.

  Among others, Ben Brantley of The New York Times said that Ms. Chenoweth was giving "one of those break-out performances that send careers skyward" and compared her to a young Bernadette Peters. John Simon, the theater critic for New York magazine, called her performance "perfection."

  All of which, Ms. Chenoweth said, took her by surprise.

  "The word shock is an understatement," she said of the aftermath of opening night. "I got a phone call at about 3 that morning from a friend in California, and he was screaming, 'You haven't read the reviews?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'You need to read them."'

  Since then, Ms. Chenoweth has been sought after by casting directors, film studio executives and Broadway producers.

  The reviews and subsequent attention have made her happy -- "I'd be lying if I said they didn't" -- but Ms. Chenoweth said her initial reaction was mixed because the musical received less positive notices than she did.

  "It really could have been horrendous to be singled out," she said. "I just didn't want anyone else to hurt."

  But her collaborators on "Charlie Brown" say Ms. Chenoweth's appeal in the role was evident even before the show came to Broadway, when it was on a tryout run in four cities.

  "We were on the bus in Skokie, and she was flooring all of us," said Michael Mayer, the musical's director. "It was so clear to everyone that she was going to be a major player."

  A player is probably not the first thing that would come to mind when meeting Ms. Chenoweth. Just under five feet tall, she has blue eyes, blond hair and a smile that could charm a pit bull.

  "I sort of view this job like a playground for me," she said. "I just play."

  An Oklahoma native with vestiges of a Southern accent, Ms. Chenoweth has had a life colored by a wide spectrum of all-American experiences, from her early dreams of being a Nashville music star to a stint as a beauty queen contestant.

  Her favorite leisure activity is shopping, she said, preferably in malls. Her first serious boyfriend was a professional baseball player. "I think he thought this was going to be a hobby," she said of her theater career.

  She delicately sidesteps the trappings of young divahood. She doesn't especially like fancy restaurants, she said, preferring fast food. "I like places where the food's ready when you walk in," she said.

  Her dressing room holds an array of high kitsch, ranging from a set of Sally Christmas lights to a small futon adorned with Barbie sheets, a gift from her cast mate, B.D. Wong, who plays Linus.

  This all might make her easy to pigeonhole as a Kewpie doll, except that her colleagues also point to an enormous talent and uncanny comic timing.

  "There is so much more than meets the eye," Wong said.

  "I think because of the way she looks, people think A, she's dumb and B, she doesn't know what she's doing up there. But it's not a coincidence what's happening up there. She's a smart, smart performer."

  There are also hints of the subversive, if inadvertent, wit that permeates the personality of her stage character.

  "You know what I really like to read?" said Ms. Chenoweth with a smile. "Books about disaster. I love shows like 'Rescue 911.' My dream in life is to be in a 7-Eleven and to see someone I saw the night before on 'America's Most Wanted."' Then she adds, eyes glinting, "I want to find a fugitive."

  Her aspirations in law enforcement aside, Ms. Chenoweth has seen a steady succession of meaty roles. Her New York debut came in early 1997 as a tear-prone princess in Moliere's "Scapin," with Bill Irwin at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theater. Several critics noted her comic timing, a talent she said she developed partly because of Irwin.

  "Bill Irwin kind of taught me how to act," she said. "I'd had acting classes, but the main teaching came through that experience."

  From there, she appeared in the short-lived Broadway musical "Steel Pier," and made a well-received turn in "Strike Up the Band" at City Center's Encores concert series in 1998. Last summer she appeared in "A New Brain" a musical by William Finn, at Lincoln Center Theater.

  It was around that time that Mayer cast Ms. Chenoweth in "Charlie Brown," but not as Sally. The character didn't exist in the original version of the musical; Ms. Chenoweth was to play Peppermint Patty.

  But the more Mayer looked at Ms. Chenoweth, he said, the more he wanted to do something new.

  So Mayer, with the blessing of Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip on which the musical is based, discarded Patty and brought the character of Sally to the stage by culling dialogue from hundreds of Schulz's strips. He had Ms. Chenoweth in mind, and she was an easy fit.

  Wong said: "She really is nailing something about Sally that is innately in her. One of the things Kristin says all the time is, 'I don't like it one bit,' and that's the aspect of her personality she's exploited for the part. It's a kind of willingness to be petulant in a really childlike way."

  Mayer said, "Kristin's got this comic ruthlessness." He added, "She's just one of those performers who'll stop at nothing to make it work."

  Ms. Chenoweth's first taste of performance came singing as a child in her hometown church in Broken Arrow, Okla., a Tulsa suburb. Raised as a Southern Baptist, she still attends church regularly.

  She said her parents, "a chemical engineer and a domestic goddess," were surprised by her early talents. "I came from a family of intellectual beings," she said. "And then there's me."

  Her childhood idols were female vocalists, ranging from Judy Garland and Julie Andrews to Dolly Parton and gospel singer Sandi Patti. At around age 7, Ms. Chenoweth began recording her songs, thoughts and observations on a portable tape recorder. She still has the tapes and they sound remarkably like Sally.

  "My mom, she's a gripe," said a young Kristin on one tape. "I never heard so much gripe." The other side of the tape has a young Ms. Chenoweth performing in a make-believe show called "Fun With My Flute."

  In high school, Ms. Chenoweth pursued a singing career and very nearly ran off to Nashville to do so, when her father insisted she go to college. She enrolled in Oklahoma City University, a private college with a large dance and musical theater program.

  Soon, Ms. Chenoweth began to study opera, deepening and strengthening a voice that was rapidly approaching a four-octave range. She also began studying acting and doing summer stock theater.

  She began another pursuit as well. "I was Miss OCU and runner-up Miss Oklahoma in 1991," she said. "It was for money for college."

  She would need it. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Ms. Chenoweth earned a master's degree in opera performance at Oklahoma City in 1995. She was accepted by the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia for further training. But before beginning classes, she went to New York to help a friend move in.

  While in New York, two weeks before the term was to begin, Ms. Chenoweth decided on a whim to audition for a role in the Marx Brothers' "Animal Crackers" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.

  Once again, she was surprised by the reaction. "I just decided to do it to see how I would do," she said. "And then I got it."

  To her parents' dismay, she took the part and abandoned her opera aspirations. The role led to other jobs in regional theater and, eventually, to Broadway.

  And from there? Since being anointed as a star in the making, Ms. Chenoweth said she has been approached about acting in several television shows and films and is interested in that direction.

  But not for now.

  "It's only every so often you get to play a part like this," she said. "I'm kind of enjoying playing a grump."

  "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" is playing at the Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49th St., Manhattan, on Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $75. Telephone: (212) 239-6200.

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