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Hay There

Date: Jul 28, 2008


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Disney isn't the only producer of theme park-like shows on Broadway. Consider the wild ride that is Mel Brooks' Young Franksenstein, with its rollicking haycart, monster chorus lines and floating, flashing laboratory gadgets.

One key to making all the moving parts come together in such a tech-intensive show, of course, is for the performers to make it all look like a light frolic in the park. And as Kelly Sullivan—a talented triple threat who recently went into the show as a replacement for Sutton Foster's frothy Inga—recently discovered, making difficult stuff look easy is, well, not very easy at all.

"Everyone in the show makes it look so easy, so effortless," says Sullivan, whose previous Broadway credits include Contact and Bells Are Ringing. "I thought, 'It's just two songs, it's not going to be that exhausting,' but then when I started rehearsing it, I started to realize: This is a lot of work."

The rough-and-tumble haycart in which Inga first seduces Dr. Frankenstein with the double entendre-laden "Roll in the Hay," for instance was not Sullivan's friend, to put it mildly.

"Sutton made that hayride look so easy, I thought, 'Oh, piece of cake,' " Sullivan recalls. "That haycart was my nemesis for a couple of weeks. I still get on that thing, and I'm like, 'This is scary!' I almost fell off on opening night."

In another memorable moment opposite Roger Bart's randy Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the luscious Inga clambers onto a laboratory table with him to demonstrate some basic propositions of physics—and then the table rises into the rafters, out of sight of the audience. The up-and-down motion of the table is repeated a number of times.

"I have a mild case of being scared of heights," Sullivan confesses. "So that was a real big thing to overcome. I had to just tell myself, 'Just calm down, breathe, look at Roger.' " That seems to work while she's onstage, but not necessarily when she's off the clock: "I had nightmares that I fell out and just landed on the ground."

Slipping into a huge Broadway musical, either as an understudy or a replacement, is always a bit of a trial by fire. Inga has been that in spades, Sullivan says.

"With his role, of any role I've ever had, I just had to jump. There's no easing into it. You just have to jump and hope that the net catches you."

Director Susan Stroman, with whom Sullivan worked previously on Contact, was in Vienna putting on The Producers for much of Sullivan's rehearsal and preview time, so she worked a lot with Stroman's associate, Chris Peterson. When "Stro," as she's lovingly nicknamed, finally saw Sullivan's take on the role, she had a few notes for the actress.

"She told me to remember to always be strong onstage—strong in my choices," Sullivan says. "She wanted me to establish that Inga is an intelligent woman who needs a job; in fact, the first thing Inga says is, 'I have a Masters degree in laboratory science.' So she's smart as well as sexy and beautiful." In other words, though Inga may bounce around in a low-cuit dirndl, Stroman told Sullivan she should "stand on your feet and stick your chin up. I love that encouragement from a director. She does not want a caricature or a stereotype at all."

On the surface, the blonde Sullivan would seem to be closer to type for the role than Sutton Foster, who is best known for playing ingénues from a slightly quirky, off-kilter place; Foster is a little closer in spirit to Carol Burnett than to Teri Garr, who played Inga in the original Mel Brooks film.

"I had never seen Sutton play that kind of role before," Sullivan agrees. "When I met her after the show, I told her, 'I can't believe how sexy you look onstage.' I do get cast a lot as the really sexy, ingénue-y person, but there is that that divide between being sexy and playing sexy. I had an acting teacher who said, 'You just are what you are.' So when I started working on the role, I started thinking about things that are sexy besides what I look like."

What she discovered, in part from observing Foster in the part and also from watching Garr's original performance, is a certain offhanded, not-trying-too-hard quality.

"Teri Garr delivered lines very straight, very matter-of-fact—I never felt like she was grasping at straws," Sullivan says. "So I try to play Inga very straightforward and honest. In a way, she's like like the straight man of the show. She always states the obvious: 'Look, a hidden passageway.' "

Sullivan thinks for a moment, then qualifies her statement.

"Actually, Frederick is usually the straight man—unless he's with Inga, then she's the straight man."

Click here for more information about Young Frankenstein.