Veteran Actresses Loni Ackerman and Lorraine Serabian Return
"with a Vengeance" – and in Repertory By: Ellis Nassour
For their inaugural season, Lenny Leibowitz and Amy Estes’ Marvell Rep took a giant leap by becoming NY’s only professional theater company producing new and classic plays in rotating repertory. Joining a double bill already "in progress" at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex [312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues] are Lorca’s rarely performed Blood Wedding, beginning performances tomorrow [through April 2]; and the NY prem of Joseph Landis’ translation of Ansky’s The Dybbuk, beginning performances Sunday [through April 3].
Marvell A.D. Lenny Leibowitz directs the plays, which also include Nora, Bergman’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and J.M. Synge’s dark comedy In the Shadow of the Glen.
The 20 + cast, a large undertaking especially for Off Bway, includes award-winning veterans such as:
Loni Ackerman[Off Bway in Diamonds, the short-lived baseball revue created by a Who’s Who of theater composers; a later Grizabella in Cats; Evita in the West Coast premiere and a later Bway Evita; Betty Brown in No, No, Nanette; a Ruby Off Bway in the original Dames at Sea], who’s playing the Messenger in The Dybbuk, and appearing in Blood Wedding’s ensemble;
Joy Franz [Cinderella’s stepmother in Into the Woods and who later joined the 2002 revival in the role; Catherine, into the run of Pippin; and a later Sarah Brown in the 1965 Guys and Dolls revival] is the Neighbor/Servant in Blood Wedding and Channa Esther in The Dybbuk;
Marc Geller [noted journeyman actor whose shows include Cloud 9] portrays Sender in The Dybbuk; and Dr. Rank in Nora.
Lorraine Serabian [a later Frau Wendel in the original Cabaret, a Tony nom for her acclaimed portrayal of the Leader in the original Zorba! and winning Best Actress awards for a regional revival in the same role and her Golde in Fiddler on the Roof; Off Bway, in the short-lived The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and a later Lita Encore in the cult fav Ruthless] as Mother in Blood Wedding, and appearing in The Dybbuk ensemble.
Ackerman and Serabian, caught during rehearsals during a break, discussed their return to the NY stage – chiming in as one to say, "We’re back with a vengeance."
The duo have credits coming out of credits. However, in spite of knowing each other for years, this is their first time working together. Interestingly, they have less than six degrees of separation from Kander and Ebb and Hal Price.
Since Zorba!, Serabian hasn’t been too far from the theater scene. During her 11-year break from performing, she worked in academia, appeared in NY workshops of The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman "when there were still other women in the cast," regionally, internationally, and won raves as Maria Callas in the 2003 tour of Master Class.
In Evita, Ackerman met sound engineer Steve Canyon Kennedy -introduced by her Che, Scott Holmes [Ryan’s Hope, As the World Turns – now a Drama Desk-winning sound designer. "It wasn’t exactly love at first sound," she admits. "He was very critical. One day, he grabbed the mike and in a very low-key voice said, ‘See this? It’s a microphone. It’s here to help you. Stop screaming.’ I wanted to kill him." She didn’t! Realizing it was constructive criticism "which saved my voice during the show," she fell in love with him. They married.
Ackerman dispels the belief that Evita has this impossible score that singers dread. "I’ve heard it all about Lloyd Webber’s score, and all those high notes, but it wasn’t difficult for me. Some scores just fit right into your voice and range. I was lucky. It was the right time, and I was in the right place. It was something meant to be."
However, she quickly point out that if she had auditioned for the original cast of the Bway production, she doubts if she would’ve been as good. "I really owe it all to Patti. I learned so much watching her. I was working in L.A., trying to break into TV, so I was fortunate to see her before they came to New York. It was obviously a difficult time, and I could see how vulnerable she was.
"I watched her and told myself ‘I can’t do that,’" she continues. However, "when time came to audition for the L.A. company, I told myself, ‘This is it, Loni! I can do that!’ And, somehow, I did. I think it was mind over matter. I set myself up to get it and I got it."
After Evita, Ackerman took time off for marriage and raising two sons. "There wasn’t any time for thinking about it, no big decision-making drama. It was what I felt I had to do. If I was going to put a human being on the earth, I felt I had to be there. I’d been in the business since I was 18, so, looking back, it probably wasn’t as easy as I think. Some things passed me by, but it was the right decision – one I never regretted."
She stayed in touch with her voice by singing with local bands and with theater by teaching dance. Both have great stories from their time treading the boards.
"Our oldest son, Jack, made his Broadway debut before he was born," Ackerman laughs. "I discovered I was pregnant during Evita. I can never forget how wonderful the entire company was, how they would watch from the wings with fingers crossed that I wouldn’t fall and miscarry."
Being pregnant did catch up with her. "In my last performance, I wasn’t able to finish the show. I did the first act, and when I looked up at the balcony of the Casa Rosada I became very dizzy. I thought, ‘If I go up there, I’m going to lose the baby.’ It was panic time. My wonderful understudy Nancy Opel was in the cast. The SM pulled her out of the ensemble and, boom, she went on."
Jack was born and eventually began to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a sound man. "My younger son, George, is an actor. So, I guess show business is in the blood." [Ackerman is the daughter of former Bway producer Cyma Rubin.]
Serabian made her Off Bway debut in 1959, "playing the Queen of Babylon in this very serious play, The Sign of Jonah," and was singled out for a mini-rave by Times critic Howard Taubman. "That was the beginning of a very long and quite fulfilling journey in theater."
It was Kander and Ebb/Joseph Stein’s Zorba! that put her on the map. She tells the incredible story of how Hal Prince plucked her from understudy to stardom as the Leader in the musical.
"To this day, we never found out what happened," relates Serabian. "It’s history. Hal had cast a cabaret singer who had absolutely no stage discipline. For our final dress at the Shubert in New Haven, the stop before beginning previews here, she simply disappeared. Left no number where she could be reached, nothing.
"Of course, I didn’t know any of that until a few minutes before we were to begin. There was a knock at my door. It was Hal. He said, ‘We don’t know where so-and-so is. You want to go on?’ I thought, ‘Do I wanna go on!’ He told me to get into costume. It was an adult-making moment. As I dressed the entire show ran through my head.
"Now, mind you, I’ve never been one to be terrified," she continues, "even then as young as I was. But I’d never been directed by Hal or anyone. As is often the case with understudies, I observed and listened as the role was created. Your job was to be a copycat. I was like a sponge, absorbing every move, every note.
"Of course, right in the middle of the run through our absentee actress arrived. The first words out of her mouth were, ‘What’s that rhymes-with-witch doing up there?’ Hal told her to return to the hotel and he’d get back to her. I went on – totally untried. There was this rush of adrenaline as the music and lights rose. Everything rushed over me like a tide coming in. I did all the moves. Got all the lyrics. Hal couldn’t have been more congratulatory.
"He got back to the actress," Serabian concludes, "and let her go. He told me I had the job. The next night, I went on for our first performance. To paraphrase that classic line from 42nd Street, ‘I went out there an understudy, but I came back as a star!’ Or, in this case, a featured star."
Zorba’s Leader, explains Serabian, is a very dark, surreal character who "hovers over all that transpires from life to the fullest to death. She has human qualities, but I don’t know where my spin on her came from – probably something from the ethers."
A few years later, she repeated her portrayal in productions in Kansas City and Pennsylvania [where she was nom’d for a Barrymore]. "It all came back as if I had done it the day before yesterday. I loved the role and the essence of her really stuck with me."
After Zorba!, Serabian decided she had to take a step back. "Everything happened so fast. I needed to investigate my psyche, my voice. I was in a quandary, but the business – agents, everything – was awful. The way they grab at you and don’t care what you want to do. The way they push and think you’re supposed to go. That’s not me!
"People were trying to make decisions for me that I didn’t want," she adds. "I had to do what I had to do and in my time. That’s how I feel into academia. It was my safe harbor."
However, she was never far away from her first love. She would take time off to do things, such as appearing with Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre and Joan Micklin/Julianne Boyd’s A…My Name Is Alice. "One foot was here," Serabian says, tapping the floor, "and one foot was there. I loved both."
By 1989, theater was winning, "weighing quite heavily on me. I knew it was time, again. I had to get back full time."
She was back at her desk at SUNY/Empire State College from a regional production just one day when at 5 P.M. the phone rang. "It was my new agent. He said a theatre wanted me for a show. I told him, ‘I’m outa here!’ I went to the dean’s office and gave her the news. That was my exit from academia. I haven’t stopped since."
Well, sort of. When she’s not performing, Serabian can be found Mondays at HB Studios. "I can’t leave theater, and I can’t leave teaching. Both are too ingrained." Now, she wants to move into directing. "A lot of students interested in directing attend my classes to learn the process of how directors speak to actors."
Ackerman had challenges in her career, especially after giving birth. "When I went into Cats, I had ‘baby voice.’ I got into this mode where I was trying to recreate what I sounded like before. It was frightening. I joined the company six years into the run. Everybody was directing me. John Joseph Festa [who was playing Mistoffelees and Pouncival] took me aside and asked, ‘What are you doing? What happened to you? You’re a star. Leave mommy at home and become the actress you are.’ He told me that Grizabella has to be vulnerable but forceful. It wasn’t happening. I had to put me on ice."
The actresses have their share of theatrical horror stories, most of them unprintable. Serabian, without naming a name, revealed that one of her "worst nightmares was having to share a dressing room in a certain hit 1992 Off Bway musical with an actress "who was a horrible human being. In fact, certifiable. We came close to killing each other!" Pushed for more details, Serabian would only say, "As Bette [Davis] once said of Joan [Crawford], ‘She was wonderful to work with!’ Once!" she laughs. "Never again!"
Tkts for Marvell Rep’s Blood Wedding and The Dybbuk are $35, or two plays for $62. They’re available through Ovation Tix, (866) 811-4111 or online @ www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/30515. Dates vary. For a performance schedule, visit www.marvellrep.com; for more information, call (212) 518-6085.