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A Powerful Comedy Coupling

Cover Story

Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski reteam for two delicious reasons: a tasty Sondheim and a lively 'Frasier.'

March 11, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You don't have to be a radio call-in psychiatrist to observe a few striking personality differences between Kelsey Grammer--star of the hit NBC comedy "Frasier," now occupying the Thursday night time slot once held by "Seinfeld"--and Christine Baranski, his guest star in an upcoming episode of the show.

At a recent Tuesday night filming with a studio audience at Hollywood's Paramount Studios, Grammer jokes with the cast, rewrites the script and makes himself right at home. In rehearsal, he is even looser--munching on popcorn, noodling on the piano that is the centerpiece of psychiatrist Frasier Crane's expensively furnished living room. He also exhibits a sporadic tendency to burst into song.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 13, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 8 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Music director--Larry Blank is music director of "Sweeney Todd," being presented this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre as part of the Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert Series. An incorrect name was given in an article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend.

Baranski, on the other hand, goes about the business of portraying her character of the moment--Dr. Nora, another radio psychiatrist with some deep-seated issues of her own--with an almost Zen-like concentration, almost never interacting with her fellow actors, or even cracking a smile.

It was Joe Keenan, the writer of the "Dr. Nora" episode, who tapped Baranski, an Emmy winner for her role as Maryann, the vindictive ex-trophy wife on the now-defunct sitcom "Cybill," to guest star on "Frasier." But Keenan couldn't have planned things more conveniently if he'd done it on purpose.

Baranski's weeklong visit in late January to film the episode, which will air April 29, gave the two actors a chance to get reacquainted before beginning the latest chapter in their history of performing together: the 20th anniversary concert production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd--the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," opening at the Ahmanson Theatre Friday night for five performances through Sunday.

The cast also includes Davis Gaines, Neil Patrick Harris, Dale Kristien and Melissa Manchester, but Grammer and Baranski have the meatiest roles, so to speak. Grammer's title character in the musical, set in lower-class London in the late 19th century, is a put-upon barber and Mrs. Lovett (Baranski) is the friendly neighbor who gives him the idea to butcher his customers and, at the same time, lend a new flavor to her own business, a meat-pie shop.

It's not the first time Grammer and Baranski have done Sondheim together. In 1982, the two starred in a workshop production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical "Sunday in the Park With George," which went on to Broadway--with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin instead of Grammer and Baranski--in 1984.

But in "Sunday," in which the two portrayed characters-come-to-life in the dreamy Seurat painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," Grammer and Baranski were side by side in Sondheim, so to speak--performing with little interaction in many scenes.

"You are stuck in a painting together, but you never relate," Grammer joked in an interview during a "Frasier" rehearsal break. "We were facing front; we never even looked at each other," said Baranski, via telephone from her Connecticut home. "But I do remember that [Grammer] was absolutely splendid in that role. He had a great singing voice and a great stage presence. He was a total joy to work with, so I'm hoping we just have great rapport. I'm thinking we will."

Grammer takes credit for suggesting Baranski, a fellow Juilliard graduate (two years apart) for "Sweeney." "I saw Christine back in New York when I hosted 'Saturday Night Live' [in October]; she was gracious enough to agree to do one silly skit thing along with Patti LuPone and Hal Linden," Grammer said. "I mentioned it to ["Sweeney" director] Calvin Remsen, and that met with a lot of approbation and cheers. We said, 'Cool, OK, let's do it,' " Grammer said.

"Sweeney Todd" is the latest offering of L.A.'s Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert Series, opening its third season of presenting American musicals in pared-down form--somewhere between a reading and a full production.

Short-Term Format a Plus for Busy Actors

With its shows thrown together in a maniacal 10 days of rehearsal, the Reprise! series, established by Marcia Seligson, has been popular with Hollywood actors who like the chance to do theater in a short-term format that can be worked into busy shooting schedules.

Grammer is particularly thrilled to have the chance to do theater now because of a recent lost opportunity: the chance to do Yasmina Reza's three-character play "Art" with "Frasier" co-stars John Mahoney and David Hyde Pierce, on Broadway and in London. Grammer confirmed that he turned down such an offer in order to spend more time with his family.

Rehearsals for "Sweeney Todd" are being held on Soundstage 29 at Paramount to accommodate Grammer's "Frasier" filming schedule. And Grammer and his family are taking up residence at a downtown hotel while he is doing double-duty to avoid his usual commute from Agoura Hills.

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