Henry Spofford Jr. of the Philadelphia Spoffords will sing sweet nothings into the ear of the brunet Dorothy Shaw on Tuesday, when the curtain goes up on "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. But in real life, the gentleman who plays him, Broadway leading man Hugh Panaro, really does prefer blonds--at least the particular towhead who plays the gold-digging Lorelei Lee. After all, Panaro and Alice Ripley have a love child together.
They call him Zippy.
At the moment, Zippy is crashing the Reprise! cast's first reading of the Anita Loos work that made a star out of uber-blond Carol Channing 50 years ago. Minutes before everyone gets down to business at a rehearsal studio in Burbank, Panaro mashes Zippy into the soft curve of Ripley's neck. Ripley grabs Zippy and presses his tender mouth into Panaro's cheek. A fuzzier nuclear family would be hard to find.
Of course, Zippy has an advantage when it comes to fuzziness. He's made of terrycloth. Over turkey and ostrich burgers at Burbank's Coral Cafe the next day, Panaro and Ripley explain how Zippy the stuffed zebra completed them as a happy theater family.
Panaro says Zippy made his debut during the brief run of the star-crossed musical "Side Show" on Broadway in 1996. For no particular reason, Panaro, who played the lover of Ripley's character in the musical about conjoined twins and Depression-era vaudevillians, decided to decorate his dressing room in a jungle motif. He covered the floor with a leopard-print rug. Bamboo and fake vines climbed the walls and mirrors.
"Everybody got on the bandwagon," says Panaro, a former Broadway Phantom who also starred in "Martin Guerre" at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2000. "People were bringing me little jungle Beanie Babies. I had leopards and tigers and giraffes. And then Zippy arrived. He had spiky dark hair that Alice thought looked like my hair looked in 'Side Show.' And Zippy was the best because it came from Alice."
Ripley, whose Broadway roles include Janet Weiss in "The Rocky Horror Show" and Molly Ivors in the Tony Award-winning musical "James Joyce's The Dead," trills back at him: "Is it just me? I think he's beautiful. It's what's going on behind his eyes that just makes me crazy."
One more thing makes her happiness complete: "It's a good thing I have a husband."
Oh, yes. By the way, the 38-year-old Ripley has been happily married for six years to rock and jazz drummer Shannon Ford, who performs with her onstage in her other life as a singer-songwriter. And the divorced Panaro, also in his 30s, thinks Ford is a swell guy. Because this isn't any ordinary love story. It's the story of a promising friendship that intensified in the heat of a battle to keep a show alive. And that battle is one that also concerns other lovers of the American musical--the growing conflict between risk-taking and commerce on Broadway.
"Side Show" closed after 11 weeks despite glowing notices, not the least of which came from the New York Times, which called Ripley's performance "simply astonishing." (The Southern California premiere of Bill Russell and "Dreamgirls" composer Henry Krieger's musical is playing at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through April 7.) After the final curtain came down, Ripley and Emily Skinner, who played her sister, were jointly nominated for a Tony Award. That validated the cast's passion for the show, but it also underlined their loss.
"You never know why a show closes," says "Blondes" director John Bowab, a Broadway veteran who worked with Angela Lansbury in "Mame." "In this case, it could be management. Sometimes lesser shows have run because management knew how to keep them running. "Yet 'Side Show' had a sort of mystique to it, and I think when you're involved in a production like that, it's like joining hands and fighting off the depression that can come with something one loses prematurely. Some of my best friendships have been with people who've been associated with me in things that didn't work. You join hands, and it's us-against-them. And that becomes something maybe deeper."
The pair's stage reunion was coincidental. Bowab first heard Ripley and Panaro in "Side Show" and resolved to work with both of them: He'd directed Ripley in a concert version of "Show Boat" at the Hollywood Bowl last year, and he'd worked with Panaro in the 2000 Reprise! production of "Call Me Madam." Because of the spare two-week rehearsal period for "Blondes," he was eager to cast familiar talents and stage veterans. "It's comforting when you're under a tight schedule to work with someone you know," Bowab says. "You don't want them to have to prove themselves to you or you to them."