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Broadway belter Alysha Umphress on body diversity, romance and her role in Scotland, PA
Alysha Umphress gets the first word in Scotland, PA, a dark musical comedy based on the eponymous 2001 cult film that transposes Macbeth to a small-town burger joint in 1975. The bloody fun production begins with a crack of lightning and the emergence of three singing Stoners, who tell aspiring fast-food king Mac (Ryan McCartan) he's destined for greatness. Umphress is the leader of these seductive soothsayers since her deceptively sweet, honey-voiced Jessie is the one who can see the future -- and every time she does, she seems to have an orgasm. That should give you an idea of the wickedly funny tone songwriter Adam Gwon and book writer Michael Mitnick are after.
"The stage directions said 'in an orgasmic way,' and I took that and ran with it!" says Umphress with a chuckle. "I based Jessie off of Charles Manson-esque devotees: She's positive and hippie, but also like maniacal. We're trying to get Mac to kill!"
Scotland, PA was commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company, which produced Gwon's previous musical Ordinary Days a decade ago. Over years of development, Scotland, PA had multiple readings, and Umphress was invited to do one in 2017. There was just one problem. "It was the week of my wedding!" she recalls. "I'm such a workaholic, I was like, maybe I can make it work." In the end she couldn't, but Gwon and director Lonny Price kept her in mind and asked her to do the workshop this past March. She's been with the show ever since.
Serving as narrators and instigators, Umphress and her fellow Stoners Kaleb Wells and Wonu Ogunfowora are reminiscent of the trio of street urchins in Little Shop of Horrors. In fact, Scotland, PA's catchy retro pop-rock numbers and comically over-the-top violence often recall the spirit of that classic.
Umphress -- a Broadway regular who's best known for her turn as the lustful Hildy in the last revival of On the Town -- was attracted to the project because of its humor. Even though, like its source material, Scotland, PA is ultimately a tragedy, there are lots of laughs along the way as Mac and his wife Pat (Taylor Iman Jones) make their murderous ascent to burger royalty. However, more importantly, Umphress says she's always on the lookout for roles like Jessie that don't stereotype her for not being a size 0.
"Over the course of my career, a lot of times my agents have put scripts in front of me with character descriptions that say, 'overweight, but with a pretty face,' or 'obese' if it's for TV," she says. "I would love for more plus-size women to be cast in roles where they never even talk about their weight, where it's not a plot point like in Hairspray and Escape to Margaritaville and It Shoulda Been You. When I played Hildy in On the Town, she was just a cab driver who was out for a good time. Nothing was written in the script about her size at all, and I was so lucky to be cast as the size that I am in that role."
While Umphress acknowledges that ethnic diversity is an important casting goal, she wishes the theatre industry were more open to different body types too, especially for romantic leads. "There's this sense that you can't be a love interest because you're not thin and that's the narrative we have to change," she says. "That's not real life!"
Umphress knows that firsthand: Her love story with her husband Cody Williams reads like a fairy tale. They started dating when they appeared together in On the Town, but he'd had a crush on her from afar for years. While in college, he saw her photo on Playbill.com and was immediately smitten. He decided he would pursue her once he got to New York. Happily, she reciprocated.
Williams now works as a producer for NY1's theatre series On Stage, which means the couple gets press seats to every show in town. At a Broadway play last fall, they found themselves seated behind New York Times theatre critic Laura Collins-Hughes, who had just been widely criticized for her comments about Umphress' body in a review of Smokey Joe's Cafe.
"My husband knew her date and at intermission he introduced us to her," recalls Umphress. "It was so funny, if he had just said 'Laura' I would never have known who she was, but he said her entire name. She turned around with a look on her face like, oh my god, this isn't happening. And I just laughed and said, 'Nice to meet you.' After the show, she touched my arm and said, 'I am so sorry I hurt you. It wasn't you -- it was your costume!' I told her, 'I understand you didn't like my costume, but I did. You didn't think I looked good in it, but I did.' It was very sweet of her to apologize, but we're just never going to agree on what happened. I'm the worst critic of my body and I saw pictures of myself in the show and I thought I looked great."
She certainly looks great in Scotland, PA, resplendent in a flowing ensemble by costume designer Tracy Christensen that would make Stevie Nicks swoon. And she's having a blast, too, in a show that aims to bewitch theatre fans who love Heathers, Bat Boy and other campy musical thrillers.
When asked if she can look into the future to see what might lie ahead for the production, Umphress is pragmatic. "I think you always have hopes that a show will go on, but we'll just have to see," she says. "Not in a million years did I think On the Town would move to Broadway from summer stock in the Berkshires. It was a real Waiting for Guffman moment. I've also been a part of other readings and workshops that I thought would go on, but they never did. So I'm done speculating."
Top image: Alysha Umphress.