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Blooming in "Cactus Flower" Jenni Barber puts her stamp on the fizzy sixties comedy

By LAUREN KAY

Like an episode of Mad Men or a rerun of Laugh-In, Abe Burrows' fizzy comedy Cactus Flower is rooted in the sixties. The current revival at the Westside Theatre is bursting not only with period costumes and retro sets, but also with breezy, war-of-the-sexes humor that used to be the hallmark of romantic comedy.

Take the plot, which was recently adapted for the Adam Sandler movie Just Go With It: Dashing dentist Julian Winston is enjoying his caddish life until he realizes he truly loves his girlfriend Toni. That would be fine, except he's been lying about himself from the start. Hijinks ensue as he tries to make things right.

It can be challenging for actors to honor the tone of this kind of material without adding a contemporary spin. As Toni, for instance, Jenni Barber has to ride the line between naïveté and unnoticed depth. It has taken a shift in perspective to remember that in the 1960s, it was scandalous for a wide-eyed shopgirl to live alone in Manhattan.

But the bigger issue has been embracing Toni's calm, accepting response to Dr. Winston's shenanigans. "Toni is not cynical and she wants to believe that love and being truthful can solve problems," Barber says. "She’s learned from being lied to in the past that it’s harmful not to always tell the truth, so it takes a long time for her to understand that Dr. Winston has lied to her. When she does, it’s heartbreaking. But she’s also a strong character because once she knows the truth, she’s ready and able to move on immediately. It’s been fascinating embracing how that all works together for me."

Director Michael Bush commends her approach to the character, saying, "Jenni is a very smart actor and also a true one. She’s a fighter and always makes interesting choices. She keeps a director on his toes."

Barber certainly surprised director Sam Mendes when she auditioned for 2009's Bridge Project, which cast an international group of actors in As You Like It and The Tempest and sent them on a world tour. "I decided to do something I hoped Sam had never heard: Margaret’s monologue from Much Ado that’s usually cut,” she recalls.

Her risk paid off, and after singing a cappella and reading sides (“Cold reading Shakespeare was terrifying!”), she nabbed the job. Classical plays were a welcome stretch. Before joining The Bridge Project, Barber had studied musical theatre at the University of Michigan, and shortly after graduating she was cast in the national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In 2007, she joined the Broadway cast. "When I first auditioned for the show, [director] James Lapine asked me where I was from," says the Mansfield, Ohio native. "Turns out he was from the same tiny town as I am. He gave me my first big break: Stepping on to that Broadway stage was a dream come true."

Soon enough, Barber was cast in the PBS remake of the television series The Electric Company. Add that to a Broadway musical and an international Shakespeare tour, and her resume is remarkably diverse. Cactus Flower expands her repertoire with period comedy. She's found that she's quite comfortable with Burrows' humor. "A lot of the comedic timing in Cactus Flower is the same as his other work like Guys and Dolls," she explains. “So I understood the rhythm and intention of that type of piece.”

Bush adds: “Jenni was one of the last girls I saw for the role, and she instantly captured my attention. I wanted Toni to be unique and someone that [the other characters] had never encountered, sort of like finding a unicorn in the woods. Jenni has that quality.”

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Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City

Photo by Carol Rosegg