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Fun or Folly--She's Willing to Try

She may be a theater veteran, but Patty Duke had never sung or danced on stage. Until now.

June 16, 2002|IRENE LACHER | Irene Lacher is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Outside the Madeline Clark rehearsal studio on Burbank Boulevard, flowers tumble down white trellises and a cool pool of water beckons weary actors on their breaks. It certainly looks like a mini-arcadia, but here, as elsewhere in Hollywood adjacent, things aren't always as they seem. Many of the blooms are real, but they're augmented with plastic impostors. This may be the only garden in town that needs to be both watered and dusted.

Usual expectations have a rough time of it inside the rehearsal hall too. It's the first cast reading of a new production of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," which opens today, and people are getting to know one another. A petite woman with a short crop of wheat-colored hair walks over to the three young actresses sitting behind her. "Hello," she says, extending her hand. "I'm Patty Duke."

The stage manager stands up and delivers a blizzard of announcements, then directs cast members to program his number into their cell phones. Duke looks up in mock consternation. "I'm still learning how to sing and dance," she says.

Wait, didn't Duke already know how to dance the minuet? Or was that her Scottish "identical cousin" Cathy, the television alter ego who helped Duke blaze an indelible groove in boomer consciousness with "The Patty Duke Show" from 1963 to 1966 and countless reruns since? Duke went on to reign as the queen of TV movies, with a whopping 76 to her credit.

But the TV movie industry is barely surviving "Survivor" and its clones, not to mention game shows that mint millionaires.

So what else can a girl do but sing Sondheim?

Indeed, at the lofty age of 55, Duke is making her debut as a singer-dancer in the Reprise! production of "Follies," which runs through June 23 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. The show also stars Vikki Carr, Bob Gunton, Harry Groener and Donna McKechnie, as well as Jack Carter, Carol Lawrence and Justine Johnston, who appeared in the original production 30 years ago.

"Follies" resurrects old Broadway in a musical set in a vaudeville theater that's about to be torn down. The theater owner summons the former hoofers to a reunion, and two couples struggle with the fractures in their marriages against a backdrop of their re-created youth, before their dreams were dashed by their own follies.

The show opened on Broadway in 1971 with music and lyrics by the most sophisticated artist in musical theater. Duke has some musical history herself. As a teen star, she recorded six bubble gum records, including her one hit, 1964's "Please Don't Just Stand There." Her last professional venture in music was the 1965 film, "Billie," in which she played a singing tomboy who joins the boys' track team. (Her voice was dubbed over in the soundtrack of the 1967 camp clunker, "Valley of the Dolls.")

So wouldn't Sondheim seem like the logical next step?

*

"It's a leap, isn't it?" she says and laughs. It's a couple of days before the first rehearsal, and Duke is being interviewed on a sunny bench outside the darkened Wadsworth. For a TV icon, she looks very much like the nice lady from a small Idaho town that she's become in recent years. She's wearing a pink flowered dress topped by an unbuttoned white blouse with short sleeves, barely any makeup and big wire-rimmed glasses that magnify her blue eyes. She speaks in a raspy voice that bears little relationship to the TV teen of yore after so many years of smoking and stress. Duke laughs easily as she explains why she opted to brave her first musical in 35 years.

"One of the things that went into making the decision was that I really wanted to take a risk," she continues. "I have a wonderful life, but I have not been working in television. That was my bailiwick, and I thought, 'My God, if not now, when? How many more times are people going to offer me a musical?'

"So here I am," she says with a hoot. "Terrified."

Duke, who went public with her 1982 discovery that she was manic-depressive, is famous for facing her fears. When director Arthur Allan Seidelman invited her to audition for the part of Phyllis two months ago, she went for it. Seidelman has known Duke for a dozen years and had worked with her on several projects, including the 1996 TV film "Harvest of Fire," about arson among the Amish, as well as play readings in L.A. and New York. He thought she'd be perfect for the role of the embittered survivor Phyllis.

The glamorous, world-weary Phyllis has one of the most difficult songs in the show, crammed with rapid-fire, tongue-twisting Sondheim-isms. In "The Story of Lucy and Jessie," Phyllis sings about the two rivals for her husband's love--herself (Jessie) and the housewife Sally (Lucy), or "juicy but drab Lucy and dressy but cold Jessie."

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