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Tessie's Turn

Date: Jun 13, 2007


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It's classic bit of showbiz advice that still hard to argue with: "You gotta have a gimmick/If you wanna get a hand."

So our question for Alison Fraser, the veteran musical theatre actress who will dispense this pearl of wisdom as the stripper Tessie Tura in Encores! Summer Stars' production of Gypsy at City Center starting this weekend, is:  What's your gimmick?

"I try not to have a gimmick," says Fraser with a laugh. "I try to get rid of the tricks and be as honest as I can with the material. The wonderful thing about Arthur Laurents' book is that it's so honest, so dramatic and so true. Obviously you could do the show in a shallow manner, but it's so much more satisfying to plumb the depths of these rich characters."

Does Tessie Tura, the Texas Twirler, really have that much depth to plumb?

"Oh, this woman has a backstory," Fraser avers. "I don't want to overanalyze it, but you look at characters like Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie and you think: It's the Depression, and these are probably under-educated women with no men in their lives. The only reason they're in this industry is because they have no other options."

What particularly endears Tessie to Fraser, though, is the way she thinks of herself.

"Poor Tessie considers herself better than others because, you know, she's a ballerina," says Fraser. "Maybe she took three or four lessons, or not even that. But she regards it as much more refined than Mazeppa with her trumpet and Electra with her lights. In many ways, I think Tessie's the saddest of the three, the most delusional. She's sad, but I love her."

Fraser certainly doesn't have Gypsy's biggest part: Pushy stage mom Rose will be played by Patti Lupone, with her sidekick Herbie played by Boyd Gaines and her daughter Louise played by Laura Benanti. But Fraser found she couldn't turn down a personal invitation from the show's original librettist, who is also directing.

"Arthur Laurents is the greatest book writer of musicals there ever has been," Fraser says. "And he's a pretty great director, too. When Arthur asks, you say yes. To be involved with this company is a huge privilege."

Still, she confesses, taking the part in Gypsy, which will run longer than usual Encores! productions, had one downside.

"It was a very difficult decision for me," says Fraser, who was nominated for Tonys for Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden. Earlier this year, she originated the role of Ms. Darbus in director Jeff Calhoun's stage version of Disney's runaway hit, High School Musical, in Atlanta, and the offer to tour with the show--and likely bring it to New York--was on the table. "It is such an exciting piece of theatre. I've never been on a stage that had more joy on it; it's like a rock show. So it's heartbreaking to not go on the tour with those guys."

The character of Ms. Darbus, a mother-hen drama teacher, reminded Fraser fondly of her own high school drama teacher in Natick, Mass.

"Jerry Dyer, I guess, was the Ms. Darbus of my high school," Fraser recalls. "He wasn't a Mama Rose character, but he certainly pushed me--there was no other direction to go once I was under his tutelage."

Fraser's classmates under Gerald Dyer included a precocious young songwriter, William Finn, who would later cast Fraser in his musicals In Trousers and Falsettos.

Among Fraser's pet projects are the chamber-noir musical Gunmetal Blues, in which she's sung the role of Blonde at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia and at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, and the musicals penned by her late husband, Rusty Magee, including the ill-fated The Green Heart, written with Charles Busch.

"It had a disastrous production at the Manhattan Theatre Club 10 years go," says Fraser, who starred as the show's femme fatale, Uta. "It was a beautiful show that somehow in production got destroyed--everything that could go wrong, did." She's been busy assembling a new recording of the show "as Rusty envisioned it," featuring performers Clea Blackhurst, Bob Stillman and Danny Marcus.

For her part in Gypsy, Fraser has been looking at old films of strippers, pre-Gypsy Rose Lee, and finds them depressing.

"They look stricken," Fraser notes. "They don't look like they're having a good time. They have a submissive quality, almost like animals in captivity. Then you see films of Gypsy Rose Lee, and she's so bright and empowered. She did a great deal of good for the stripping industry--added humor, for one thing."

What, then, happened to Tessie and her ilk?

"I like to think that Tessie could learn something from Gypsy," Fraser says hopefully. "But Tessie's over the hill; she's on her last legs as a stripper; God knows what her next step is going to be."

The in-demand Fraser has no such trouble finding her next step.