Entertainment » Theatre

Getting Fierce With Varla Jean Merman

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Mar 11, 2013

Until some enterprising producer gets around to casting Varla Jean Merman as Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd," we'll have to enjoy her playing another questionably homicidal pie baker - Mildred Pierce. Or Mildred Fierce, as she is called in Ryan Landry's hilarious re-imaging of the classic Hollywood noir that won Joan Crawford her sole Oscar.

In Landry's musical re-imagining, Mildred is a high-kicking housewife with a three-octave range and big ambitions; not so much for herself, but for her spoiled daughter Vita (played with panache by Penny Champayne), for whom she devotes her life, even to the point of taking the rap for her. But that's too much information... see for yourself (at least through Sunday) how this story of mother love goes astray.

For those unfamiliar with Varla Jean Merman, she is the self-professed illegitimate daughter of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine. (In reality, performer Jeffery Roberson.) Like Mildred, she's fought her way to the top of her profession. She's been on Broadway, in regional theaters, on television, in feature length films and sung opera (most recently an acclaimed performance of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Medium" in Provincetown and New York). During the summer she can be found in Provincetown riding her bike down Commercial Street where she also performs an annual show. Expect to see her this summer at the Art House Theater, where she anchors the season of performers, with a show based on fairy tale characters.

She also can be seen in two independent films that (hopefully) will be available in the next few months: "Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads," a takeoff of her stage show of the same name; and the sequel to "Girls Will Be Girls," the 2003 show biz saga that won Roberson (along with co-stars Jack Plotnick [aka Evie Harris ] and Clinton Leupp [aka Coco Peru]) Best Actor Grand Jury Award at Outfest 2003 and "Best Actress" honors at the 2003 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Roberson has also won the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Award for her performance in an earlier Landry musical, "Phantom of the Oprah."

EDGE caught up with the always-working Ms. Merman recently for a quick interview about the show, which continues through Sunday at Machine (or what is affectionately called as the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts.)

Playing Joan

EDGE: Do you identify with Mildred Fierce?

Varla Jean Merman: Although I am not a mother, and legally will never be allowed to be, I have had a relationship that was based on an obsession for approval... with MY own mother! But I let that go at age 6 and have since only been obsessed with her disapproval! Why else would I have chosen this career?

EDGE: What kind of a parent would you be?

Varla Jean Merman: The ’Liza. Bring Mummy the big brown bottle’ kind.

EDGE: Have you played any Joan Crawford characters before?

Varla Jean Merman: I have! I played Crystal Allen in a musical of ’The Women’ in San Francisco, and am slated to play her part in ’Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’? in a musical retelling of the move with the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus in 2014.

Playing it straight

EDGE: What do you think of the movie?

Varla Jean Merman: It is one of those movies that you can watch over and over. I love that Veda is so easy to hate from the moment you see her. And, I love Joan’s subtlety actually! Which is something I DID NOT bring to the role.

EDGE: How did this project come about?

Varla Jean Merman: Ryan Landry expressed interest last summer about writing a new piece for me. We watched ’Berserk!’ with the intent of doing that, but he decided that there wasn’t enough drama after we watched it. Then he mentioned ’Mildred Pierce’ and we all cheered. He finished the first act in a couple of days right after! It really is a role of a lifetime!

EDGE: What do you like about working with the Orphans?

Varla Jean Merman: Many people may come to the shows thinking that they all are just having fun. They are, but only once the show is up. So much blood, sweat and tears go into their shows. It isn’t easy but the benefits of the applause and response after is worth it. It can be a bumpy ride in the rehearsal process because Ryan has such a vision of what he wants and when that isn’t happening there can be, um, friction. As a matter of fact, I went into the show thinking I was going to play it as a comedy.

Ryan insisted on me playing it straight, like I had played Baba in Menottti’s opera ’The Medium’ this summer. I resisted because I thought I needed to go for laughs. When I finally started playing it straight, I got MORE laughs. And nearly every review has commented on that. HE WAS RIGHT. There, I said it! Ha! But that is exactly why the Orphans are a family. You love, you fight, you work it out, you love.

Fitness secrets of a star

EDGE: You just went home to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Did you enjoy it?

Varla Jean Merman: I think so. I’m still trying to recall a good deal of it. I’d say ’Ask Ryan,’ but I don’t think he could offer any more clues!

EDGE: It was cold down there. What do you wear to stay warm?

Varla Jean Merman: I didn’t! I went in a wrestling singlet. I’m enjoying not shaving my chest anymore and feel like sharing it. I’m like a lady with a new pair of boobs.

EDGE: Mildred makes her fortune baking pies. Can you bake pies?

Varla Jean Merman: Ha! I’ve baked some brownies before, with Randy Roberts’ secret recipe, but that is it!

EDGE: You move so well on the stage. How do you stay so supple?

Varla Jean Merman: I do Crossfit every day! I love it! And a big part of that is stretching a good fifteen minutes to avoid injury. I never stretched before that!

EDGE: And in shape?

Varla Jean Merman: I gave up dairy and bread, for the most part. I still can eat an entire pizza on occasion...

What’s next for Varla

EDGE: Is the sequel to ’Girls Will Be Girls’ coming out soon?

Varla Jean Merman: I hope! We filmed it two years ago! But it is a disaster movie, so there are a lot of special effects that are being created on a shoestring budget. And I’m sure just the amount of filtering needed to make us look soft and youthful could be delaying it as well.

EDGE: And what about ’Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads’?

Varla Jean Merman: You can download it now at SETHTV.COM, or wait for it to come out on the HERE! television network this summer!

EDGE: Your videos are hilarious and often go viral. Any new ones in the works?

Varla Jean Merman: I am cooking up a few as we speak for my summer Fairy Tale show!

EDGE: You recently did a number of productions of the opera, ’The Medium.’ Are there any more classical Varla concerts in the works?

Varla Jean Merman: I love classical music and definitely pushed myself out of my comfort zone with that role. But, I feel like being comfortable again for a while!

EDGE: What are your plans for Provincetown this summer?

Varla Jean Merman: I’ll be there with an all new show! Oh, Jesus, I better get started!

Mildred Fierce continues through Mar. 17, 2013.! Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. At Machine, 1254 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Gold Dust Orphans’ Facebook page.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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