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Just Like a Fish to Water : Jodi Benson made a splash as the voice of Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid,' but she's really hitting her stride in musicals.

December 10, 1995|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

A group of seven ever-so-proper ladies and gents, with ramrod-straight posture and pinkies extended, are seated in a row of wooden chairs. Their gaze is straight ahead, looking out toward the grounds where a sporting event will soon commence.

This may look like a rehearsal room in a North Hollywood studio, but it's really teatime at Ascot.

The crowd is poised. On cue, they sip, then stir, then sip again. Yet teaspoons rattle against teacups and tongues begin to wag when the young woman, stage left, holds forth.

"The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," opines Eliza Doolittle, a.k.a. actress Jodi Benson, in a voice perfectly modulated to convey an entire character and her complex linguistic past in a single phrase.

As she speaks, one of the most memorable moments of "My Fair Lady" comes into crystalline focus. The Theater League production of the 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical plays Glendale's Alex Theater, Tuesday through Sunday.

Best known as the voice of Ariel in Disney's "The Little Mermaid," Benson won a Tony Award nomination for best actress for her performance as Polly Baker in "Crazy for You," the 1992 Broadway musical featuring the songs of George and Ira Gershwin.

And while she hasn't been seen on a Los Angeles stage since 1990, the New York-based Benson has kept busy not only with ongoing Disney work, but also recording albums and performing the voices of characters on two animated TV series.

Certainly she's a versatile performer. "I sort of do five things at the same time, between animation and voice-over and recording, stage and film and television," says the 33-year-old Benson, in a courtyard conversation, while on break from rehearsals.

"I guess I'm an actress who sings, because that covers everything. I try to keep it all going the best I can."

W ith her delicate, wide-eyed beauty and her purposefully arch inflection, Benson seems perfectly cast as the made-over waif of "My Fair Lady." Yet this kind of role isn't her typical fare.

For starters, the songs aren't in the range in which she's usually cast. "This score is completely different than anything I've ever sung," says Benson. "I never get to sing soprano stuff, never. I'm usually doing the big belting stuff."

Yet Benson is a veteran singer who knows the trick is to trust the composer and lyricist. "Lerner & Loewe's score is so strong you don't want to waver from it at all," she says. "Musically, it's pretty much what's on the page."

That kind of fidelity is particularly necessary, given the well-known score. "With classics, everybody knows them, and they expect them to be sung a certain way," says the actress. "And they're good a certain way; you don't need to embellish it."

Spoken, one might say, like a no-nonsense heartland gal who's been in love with music and performing for most of her life.

Born in Rockford, Ill., to a homemaker mom and a remodeler dad, Benson recalls announcing at age 8 that she wanted to be on stage. She sang in church and formed a singing group with her brother and sister, practicing in the family garage.

She left Rockford to major in theater at nearby Milliken University in Decatur. Once there, however, Benson didn't limit her studies to stagecraft.

"I got to study opera in college and I loved it," she says. "I just thought it was the coolest stuff to sing.

"I trained as a lyric coloratura. My teacher said, 'If you can sing opera, you can sing anything.' "

"Whenever I sang opera, I would laugh because I would think 'Oh, that's not my voice, people are going to make fun of that,' " Benson continues. "I never consider that to be my true voice, but my coach says that's [my] true voice."

After two years at Milliken, Benson left college to travel to L.A. with a non-Equity revue of Broadway songs. Then she moved to New York in 1981.

She landed a role in the ensemble of the national touring company of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Then, when Benson came back to New York, she began to be cast in other musicals.

Her part in the short-lived Marvin Hamlisch-Howard Ashman musical "Smile" introduced her to the future lyricist of "The Little Mermaid," and that led to a chance to audition for what was to become her breakthrough role.

"The Little Mermaid," released in 1989, was a major success for both Benson and Disney. And even now, Benson continues on--in public appearances, on the animated series and wherever Disney needs her--as the voice of Ariel the mermaid.

Married since since 1984 to actor-singer Ray Benson--who plays Eliza's love-struck suitor Freddy in "My Fair Lady"--Benson moved back and forth between L.A. and New York during the 1980s.

The couple kept an apartment in L.A. from 1989 through '91. In 1990, Benson performed in three shows here: as Flora in "Flora, the Red Menace" at the Pasadena Playhouse, as Ado Annie in the L.A. Music Center Opera "Oklahoma!" and as Florence Vassy in the Long Beach Civic Light Opera staging of "Chess."

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