ESCONDIDO — "Comedy for me is like falling off a log. It's easy," said actress Suzanne Keiper, backstage at the Lawrence Welk Village Theater. "If I had somebody to write my material, I'd be a stand-up comic."
Keiper's flair for comedy has helped her land a succession of acting roles in Southern California. But it was her all-around excellence in musical theater--particularly her ability to belt out a show tune--that earned her a Mary Martin scholarship last year.
While competing for tuition and expenses to IASTA Musical Theater School near Dallas, Keiper had an opportunity to strut her stuff before a panel of judges headed by the legendary Broadway star. And Keiper is still crowing about her triumph.
"I knocked her socks off. When I walked out of that place, I just knew I knocked her socks off," Keiper said, savoring the memory.
To win the summer scholarship, the 24-year-old resident of Bonsall had to beat out the competition in singing three musical numbers and performing a scene from a Gilbert & Sullivan work.
"It was one of the highlights of my life," Keiper said. "Winning that scholarship has meant a lot to my career."
Keiper is back for her fourth role in a Welk theater production. She plays a dotty baseball fan, Sister, in "Damn Yankees," which runs through Sept. 14 at the Escondido dinner theater. The zany role showcases Keiper's comic gifts, but, ironically, this staging of the musical comedy has no vehicle for the singing voice that knocked the socks off Mary Martin.
"They cut out the only song she gets in the show," Keiper said. "But even though Sister is only a minor role, it's memorable. There are a couple of real funny lines--and I'm playing her as 55 or 60 years old, so it's a challenge."
Keiper, who describes herself as "naturally spastic," has had to slow herself down to be convincing as the aging scatterbrain.
"I try to be as little-girlish as possible in the role, because women tend to act more like children as they get older," Keiper said.
When "Damn Yankees" pulls up stakes in September, Keiper will take her second stab at matrimony.
"Thank God, my fiance is not in show business. He wants to be a professional golfer," she said. "My first husband was in the theater, and it was a constant battle if one of us got into a show and the other didn't. But this time, I have someone who is very supportive of my career."
And Keiper is getting ready to test her mettle in the big time.
"I've been pretty lucky to stay around here and really only do dinner theater for the past few years," she said. "I don't know what's keeping me here, but after I get married and the bills are totally paid off, I'm gonna start really beating the pavement. It's time for me to get going."
Keiper is concerned about her chances for Broadway success "because I'm not a triple threat. You have to be a better dancer than I am--I guess I shouldn't say that. I'm also afraid of falling into the chorus trap. I want to go to L.A. and do commercials and work in radio. But really all I want is to be able to work and get paid for what I like to do."
When Keiper tried out for her first role in community theater, she was 17 and barely aware of her theatrical powers.
"I finally decided to audition for the North County Community Theater in 1979, when I was still in high school," she said. "I felt I had done really well (in the audition), and when I came home, I prayed. I said, 'Lord, if this is what you want me to do for the rest of my life, at least put me in the chorus.' The next day, my mother called me at school to tell me I got the lead role in 'Finnian's Rainbow.' "