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THEATER AND FILM / Jan Herman

As Georges Seurat's Model-Lover, She Connects the Emotional Dots

June 27, 1989|Jan Herman

She had spent the day laying Mexican tile on the kitchen floor of her tiny Hollywood fixer-upper, and now she is backstage at South Coast Repertory revving up for her real job with a cup of day-old coffee.

"Ugh! Not bad," says Sally Spencer, evincing the same keep-your-chin-up style that will serve her well later that night as the leading lady in "Sunday in the Park With George."

To play Dot, who is both a painter's model and the mistress of the title character, the strawberry-blond actress must suggest deep drafts of humor and patience not usually given to a headstrong woman faced by a lover's neglect. At the same time, she must project a desperate passion while vaulting through a Stephen Sondheim score that director Barbara Damashek has called "the vocal Olympics."

That Spencer, 34, brings all this off as well as Bernadette Peters--who originated the role in the 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical on Broadway--testifies to an exceptionally winning talent. It also may owe as much to Spencer's less steely conception of the role than Peters brought to it.

"I want to show that there's really a good relationship between Georges and Dot," she says. "They have their problems, but they love each other. So I try to find places early in the show where the audience can see this. Otherwise, the conflict between Georges' feelings for Dot and his love for his work doesn't make sense."

Spencer, wearing a print dress, is sitting in the theater's Green Room two hours before the curtain. The sound of Harry Groener doing vocal warm-ups for his role as 19th-Century painter Georges Seurat wafts through the hallway. She listens almost jealously, as though eager to get on with her own pre-show preparations. If her tile work has sapped any of her energy, you would never guess.

Last seen in her SCR debut as Gloria Clandon in Shaw's "You Never Can Tell" earlier this season, Spencer was classically trained as a soprano yet considers herself a belter. And she says her singing did not truly blossom until she took up acting and forgot about vocal technique.

"It's the emotional content of a song that carries me," she says. "I used to be very hung up about manipulating my voice. But I found out the voice will take care of itself."

Certainly, it has been taking care of her: Spencer began working professionally as a studio singer more than a decade ago. After touring stints as a backup singer with Perry Como, the Carpenters and Tanya Tucker, she switched to musical theater and landed in regional productions of everything from "My Fair Lady" to "South Pacific."

Her first big musical, however, was the Los Angeles version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Cats." Hired to understudy Kim Criswell, who sang "Memories," Spencer was given the role of Gus, the theater cat, four days before the show began previews. "There was such a mystique about the show," she recalls, "that it was very exciting and very scary."

Looking back, the mystique has dimmed somewhat. "It's really just children's theater," Spencer says. "They try to make it into something more, but it's not. They're songs made from children's poems. I think you have to look at 'Cats' that way."

By comparison, "Sunday in the Park" is "more adult and more personal," she says. And considerably less popular. She recounts that Groener, who starred in the Sondheim musical for four months on Broadway, told her during rehearsals of the South Coast revival: "Be prepared for people not to like it."

Spencer, who is unwilling to gloss over that unpleasant reality, faces it as squarely as she faces her stale coffee. "A lot of people don't like the show," she says. "Even a lot of my mom's friends, who come to see everything I'm in, say they don't want to see it."

But she remains unfazed. "I would have killed for the role," she says. "This is not just another musical."

Indeed, while "Sunday in the Park" cannot hold a candle to the legendary popularity of "Cats," theatergoers have been flocking to the Sondheim revival. The box office at the Costa Mesa theater reports that ever since the show opened earlier this month, seats have been sold out by curtain time each night.

Spencer has played in more than her share of schlock. In the mid-'80s, she jumped from "Cats" to the NBC soap, "Another World," appearing on the air nearly every day for a year and a half as M.J. McKinnon, a hooker-turned-cop. Though the role gave her visibility, it was not what she would call artistically fulfilling.

"We shot the whole thing in Brooklyn in this old studio in the middle of nowhere," she says. "The only other thing that taped there was 'Cosby,' before it moved to Queens. So you can imagine who was the king of that studio. You'd start at 7 in the morning, and you'd be lucky to get off at 7 at night. You'd actually be on the set for maybe three hours. So you spent nine hours a day in Brooklyn with nothing to do."

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