Back in the day, when impresario Zev Buffman was Mr. Broadway in South Florida and the region’s sprawling theater scene wasn’t much more than a dream, finding stars on local stages was easy. Big names drove ticket sales, or so the thinking went.
Now, the shows themselves — think The Book of Mormon or The Lion King — are the stars. And the region has a robust theater community in which locally based artists can shine.
Still, every so often, a star decides that acting in South Florida in the winter sounds pretty sweet.
Ten productions are opening on stages from Miami to Jupiter during the first week in December, and two of them feature women whose long, varied careers have taken them to the top of their profession.
Leslie Uggams, an Emmy and Tony Award winner, is playing the title role in the musical Mame at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. Oscar winner Estelle Parsons is at Palm Beach Dramaworks starring in the Israel Horovitz play My Old Lady. These are vibrant, seasoned actors — Uggams is 71, Parsons 87 — each with her own reasons for headlining a regional theater production.
Uggams has been in showbiz since she was just 6 years old. Mitch Miller helped make her famous when he cast her on TV’s Sing Along With Mitch, and she hosted her own variety show in 1969. She earned an Emmy nomination and demonstrated the depth of her acting talent playing Kizzy in the 1977 miniseries Roots, won a best actress Tony for the musical Hallelujah, Baby! and earned another Tony nomination for her work in August Wilson’s King Hedley II.
Throughout her career, Uggams has also taken on starring roles not traditionally played by black actors — in Anything Goes, On Golden Pond, A Little Night Music, Call Me Madam, Into the Woods and Gypsy, in which she had a star turn as Mama Rose. She became close to Mame composer-lyricist Jerry Herman when she starred in Jerry’s Girls on Broadway, and Herman had long urged her to take on Mame, which was based on the novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis.
“The estate didn’t think an African-American could do it,” Uggams says during a rehearsal break. “There’s a section set in the South, and not only would Mame be a Yankee but she’d be a chocolate Yankee.”
Herman, speaking from his home on Miami Beach, thought that those objections to casting Uggams were ludicrous.
“I said to them, ‘Haven’t we gone beyond that?’” says Herman, who plans to catch a Mame performance during the run at the Wick. “Her voice is such a gorgeous instrument. She acts a lyric like no one else. … I have such complete faith in her taste and ability. She’s such a delight to work with. She’s tireless.”
Uggams, whose fellow actors in Mame include Carbonell Award winners Lourelene Snedeker, Irene Adjan and Jim Ballard, has been singing songs from the show for a long time; Herman cites her rendition of If He Walked Into My Life as a highlight of Jerry’s Girls. And she’s happy to be playing, at last, the irrepressible Mame Dennis, a free spirit whose life changes in so many ways when she becomes her young nephew’s guardian. Or as Uggams says, “A child comes into her life, and she has to be a mother.”
She’s also a Pied Piper in glamorous gowns.
“It’s a great role. She’s fabulous, full of life, and people love her,” Uggams says. “The score is all classics. Jerry’s music does lift you up. He’s an optimist. Who wants to be down in the dumps?”
As for My Old Lady at Palm Beach Dramaworks, each of the three performers in the cast has ties to New York’s famous Actors Studio. Parsons served as artistic director from 1998 to 2003. Angelica Page, the daughter of Geraldine Page and Rip Torn (she legally changed her last name to Page from Torn in 2011), and Tim Altmeyer are both members of the Actors Studio. Both have worked with Parsons before — Page in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Altmeyer in Horton Foote’s The Last of the Thorntons.
“Estelle said that what’s very important is who she’s onstage with,” says William Hayes, Dramaworks’ artistic director and the person who’s staging My Old Lady. “You can’t deny that this person is an icon and a master of her craft. … This is an organization built on and thriving through utilizing local talent. But she came to us, expressing interest in doing [the play]. And we can’t deny that it will raise our national profile.”
The prolific Horovitz, whose work has been done in South Florida at a number of theaters, directed Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas in the recently released film version of My Old Lady. The play and film center on Mathias, a thrice-divorced New Yorker with a drinking habit. His estranged father has died, leaving him some books and a Paris apartment, which he intends to sell.
But when he arrives there, he discovers that the place is occupied by Mathilde, a widow in her 90s who teaches English, and her middle-aged daughter Chloe, another teacher. Worse, he finds out that the place is protected by a viager, meaning that Mathilde can live there until her death with Mathias required to pay her an annuity.
“When I first discovered the viager, I thought it was barbaric, like betting on someone dying,” says Horovitz, who has a place in Paris and is widely produced in France. “But I came to see it as providing someone old with a steady income, and insuring that they’d never have to leave their home.”
First produced in 2001, My Old Lady was the result of Horovitz wanting to write “a love letter, a thank you letter for this mysterious French life I had.” But the play deepened and, with a blend of comedy and drama, became more about the lasting damage parents can do to their children. Mathias, Horovitz observes, “is a character joking away his own pain.”
Altmeyer, who teaches acting at the University of Florida as well as performing on Broadway, on tour and in major regional theaters, joined the cast at Parsons’ invitation. He says he sees Mathias as “friendless and alone … He needs to hit bottom … He’s just so raw.”
Parsons, who notes she’s been doing theater since 1958, says she’s involved in a half-dozen projects at the moment. So she’s not doing My Old Lady for want of work but had long been interested in the play and the role of Mathilde. She acknowledges that most people know her for her Oscar-winning role as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde or for playing Beverly on the TV series Roseanne. And though she says that “theater isn’t sexy anymore,” she’s a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame who finds working onstage fulfilling.
“Since I started working on this, I’ve had a strange peace of mind, which is unlike me,” Parsons says. “I’m old but very active. It’s easy to get very, very depressed. The older you get, the more things affect you. Now, I’m scared of everything.”
Parsons has played Page’s mother twice before and says of the younger performer, “She’s a magnificent actress but she doesn’t appreciate it. She takes my breath away.”
Page has a bit of a history on South Florida stages. She played Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sylvia Plath in Edge at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Marie Curie in The Radiant at New Theatre. She’s in West Palm Beach, she says, “because of Israel and Florida and Estelle.” Not that the process is ever simple.
“It’s not the easiest thing, working with Miss Parsons. It’s intense. But I don’t know that theater should be relaxing,” Page says. “The character I played in August: Osage County was very timid and didn’t stand up to her. This character has a different dynamic. I get to be bossy with her.”
If you go
What: ‘My Old Lady’ by Israel Horovitz.
Where: Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 4 (some holiday variations).
Information: 561-514-4042 or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
What: ‘Mame’ by Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
Where: Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton.
When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 28.
Information: 561-995-2333 or www.thewick.org.