Meet 4 theater artists to watch this fall

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Meet 4 theater artists to watch this fall
The photographer Justin J Wee in a series of self-portraits, seeking to evoke “a sad clown,” caught under the lights at closing time, in Brooklyn, Aug. 17, 2022. As “Some Like It Hot” and “Ain’t No Mo’” head to Broadway, following runs of “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” 10 artists reflect on an enduring trope of men wearing dresses and how it works, or doesn’t, today. Justin J Wee/The New York Times.



NEW YORK, NY.- The actor Gregg Mozgala has dark hair swooped back from his forehead and watchful, heavy-lidded eyes. His upper body is muscular, his right arm etched with two elaborate tattoos, one showing a rooster mid crow. He credits his family’s focus on athletics for the vigor of his performances.

“I love physicality,” he said. “I love pushing myself. I want to run and jump and fight and climb and be just incredibly physical.” He said this on a recent weekday morning in a Midtown rehearsal studio, his body bouncing in the chair as he spoke.

Yet the role that he is rehearsing, in Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Cost of Living,” a play about the complexities of care taking, discourages running and jumping. Mozgala stars as John, a graduate student at Princeton who lives with cerebral palsy. The stage directions describe his first entrance this way: “John enters in a wheelchair. He is beautiful.”

Mozgala, who doesn’t give his age, has cerebral palsy, too, though in a less severe form, which manifests mostly in a syncopated gait. The play, which also stars David Zayas, Kara Young and the Paralympian Katy Sullivan, begins performances at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater on Sept. 13. It will be Mozgala’s Broadway debut.

A graduate of Boston University’s competitive theater program and a professional actor for more than two decades, Mozgala has spent much of his career just trying to get a foot in the rehearsal room door. He has to fight for each audition and rarely books roles that weren’t created with him in mind (“Diagnosis of a Faun”) or commissioned (“Teenage Dick”) by the company he founded, the Apothetae, which unites disabled and nondisabled actors.

Why have parts proved so elusive? “Well that’s an excellent question,” he said, smiling, He had some answers, in the form of counsel that he received from teachers and former managers: that he should not audition for “normal” roles. That directors didn’t know what to do with him. That he was not enough.

But John, a role that he originated off-off-Broadway and has also played at the Williamstown Theater Festival and off-Broadway, has taught him different lessons. “I can bring everything, all my life experience to bear through this character,” he said. “I was denying that for a long time, but this play enables me to step into myself fully.” Mozgala distilled the experience like this: “I’m enough,” he said.

In past productions, he has emphasized John’s physicality, working with Majok and the director Jo Bonney to determine how John should move and speak and work his limbs. This time around, he is thinking about the part differently and in ways that are potentially even more revealing than the nude shower scene. (By the way, he really enjoys doing the nude scene: “To show my body within the context of the play, that was super exciting,” he said.) The emphasis now is on John’s inner life.

“It’s not how disabled I can make John but how human can I make John,” he said. The play, he said, forced him to think about his own humanity and to understand and accept himself as a person who lives with a disability. “That synergy has been one of the greatest gifts I will ever be given as a human being and as a working actor,” he said.

So Mozgala is evolving. And he believes that the entertainment industry is evolving, too. “I think we’re getting to a place where people are starting to realize that you should no longer have a disabled character that is not played by a disabled actor, somebody who has that lived experience,” he said.

He is happy to be at the forefront of this shift, hypervisible under the Broadway lights. But as an actor who has spent his whole career fighting to be seen, the fight has not gone out of him yet. He wants to play more roles, across all kinds of media, including roles not explicitly typed as disabled.

“It’s beyond my wildest imagination,” he said, of his Broadway debut, “and what I’m worried about is that maybe I didn’t dream big enough.”

— ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Bonnie Milligan, ‘Kimberly Akimbo’

NEW YORK — When she was at student at Ohio State University, Bonnie Milligan would watch YouTube with her musical-theater-crazed friends and they would “do clips,” as she put it. “I need Audra, let’s go Audra,” Milligan said, recalling some prompts. “Give me some Alysha Umphress. Now we’ve got some Christine Ebersole.”

These days, Milligan, now in her mid-30s, is the one that fans might want to search for. They could be looking for one of her big numbers from the Go-Go’s musical “Head Over Heels,” in which she played the gloriously vain Princess Pamela, or for some of her uproarious cabaret duets, especially the ones with her friend Matt Doyle — do yourself a favor and check out their cover of the Celine Dion-Barbra Streisand epic “Tell Him.” It’s a safe bet YouTube will see more traffic when Milligan reprises the role of a gleefully brazen con artist named Debra in the Broadway transfer of the David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori musical “Kimberly Akimbo,” which had a successful run at the Atlantic Theater last year. (Previews begin at the Booth Theater on Oct. 12.)

Music runs in Milligan’s family: Her parents met when her father, a pastor, started singing for the gospel group her mother performed with as a pianist. “I grew up singing as soon as I could talk,” Milligan said over lunch on a recent afternoon in SoHo. “I’ve always been an instinctual singer. I would sing along to the radio, I would sing along to Celine or Mariah.”

It did not take much longer for her to discover the power of humor. “Around fourth grade, I felt a little chubbier and I felt a little different, so I started making fun of myself a little bit, because I didn’t want anybody to make fun of me,” she said. “I really liked making people laugh. It wasn’t always self-deprecating, but honestly, it’s how it started as a kid, which is so sad.”

Milligan knew she was talented, yet doubts crept in about having a career. Toward the end of college, a friend told her, maybe to help keep Milligan’s expectations low, that she wouldn’t make it as an actress because of her size. “I had been this super-confident kid that was like, ‘I know I’m different, but that’s what makes me special,’ ” Milligan said, “and it felt really hard to hear that quote-unquote truth.”

Fortunately, she eventually reconnected with her confident self, thanks in part to therapy, and threw herself into auditions. In 2018, she made her Broadway debut as a lead in “Head Over Heels,” and “Kimberly Akimbo” will give more theatergoers a chance to experience her precise comic timing, charisma and power pipes.

Doyle, a Tony Award winner for the recent revival of “Company,” was an early fan. The two had met doing off-off-Broadway musical “Jasper in Deadland” in 2014. “The second Bonnie walked into the room, I was so enamored by her presence and her humor, and then that ridiculous voice that she has,” he said on the phone. “I must have freaked her out in that first week, because I was so hellbent on being her friend.”

Another revelatory song you might excavate on YouTube is Doyle and Milligan’s duet on “Suddenly, Seymour,” so it’s not surprising to hear that “Little Shop of Horrors” is one of her dream shows. “A lot of times they cast a bombshell,” Milligan said of Audrey, a character who finds it difficult to leave an abusive relationship. “You can be gorgeous and think you’re not enough, but what would happen if you had like a big girl who was like, ‘I don’t deserve something better’?”

It is refreshing to see an actress so unabashedly, so joyfully embrace comedy. Milligan’s Instagram bio describes her as “a beltress who loves to make people laugh,” suggesting that for her the point is the connection with viewers. “There’s nothing like the joy of having an audience in the palm of your hand and knowing that we’re about to do a dance,” she said. “I’m leading, and we’re going to be great.”

— ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

Noah Diaz, ‘You Will Get Sick’

NEW YORK — Under the trees in Bryant Park in Midtown, on an August morning, the playwright Noah Diaz was surrounded by birds. This was not ideal. At 29, he is affable company, quick to laugh, but he prefers the birds to keep their distance.

“They’re frightening to me,” he said, and seconds later some tiny feathered creature — a sparrow, maybe — flew so close to his head that he flinched. Anyone would have.

Might the avian hordes have heard about his new off-Broadway play? In Diaz’s strange and poetic “You Will Get Sick,” slated to start previews Oct. 14 at Roundabout Theater Company, enormous birds are agents of doom, ever threatening to swoop down on humans and snatch them away.

Diaz describes the play as “a comedy with weight,” as in substance, and it has been cast with stars to match: Daniel K. Isaac as a man with an illness he can’t bring himself to tell his sister about, and Linda Lavin as the stranger he hires to break the news.

Its world premiere will be a belated New York debut for Diaz, who had been meant to make his bow with a different play and a different company two years ago, only to see that production vaporized by the pandemic. More recently another planned production, in Los Angeles, also fell through. So the Roundabout run can’t help holding enormous significance for him.

“In ways good and bad, it means everything,” he said. “In probably an unhealthy way, I keep waiting for shoes to drop.”

Written in 2018, “You Will Get Sick” was supposed to be staged as Diaz’s thesis production in the spring of 2020 at the Yale School of Drama (now the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale). He remembers one of his instructors — the playwright Sarah Ruhl, whom he called his queen, his North Star and the reason he had wanted to go to Yale — telling him he should change the title.




“Did I really?” she said by phone, and laughed. “Good for Noah. It’s important not to listen to your teacher sometimes. I think I was picturing the box-office situation of people being scared and superstitious to order tickets to ‘You Will Get Sick’ and then receiving a ticket that said ‘You Will Get Sick.’”

When the world began getting sick with COVID-19, in-person instruction was canceled and Diaz left New Haven, Connecticut, for his parents’ house in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. That geography is a vital detail for a playwright whose bio opens with a mention of his state-border roots.

As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Diaz had studied to become a sign-language interpreter — a passion he wandered into by choosing American Sign Language to fulfill a foreign-language requirement.

Though he took a semester off to play the Cat in the Hat at a local children’s theater (“paid handsomely,” he recalled) and started writing plays just for himself, it wasn’t until he botched an interpreting gig at the Women’s March in Omaha in 2017 that he realized his future lay elsewhere.

“Something snapped in my brain,” he said, “and that weekend I applied to grad schools for playwriting.”

Diaz’s plays — including “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally,” a grown-up riff on the “Dick and Jane” primers, performed partially in sign language, and “The Swindlers,” a con-man tale inspired by Diaz’s grandfather — are suffused with a yearning for home and family, as well as an urge to leave them for the wider world.

“I miss where I come from,” Diaz said. “But also, I would say that largely I kind of don’t.”

His left leg is inked with a drawing of his childhood home, one of 32 tattoos that Diaz said he acquired as a way of processing the pandemic. Home these days, though, is Bedford-Stuyvesant in the Brooklyn borough of New York, close to friends and near enough to his retired parents, who recently relocated from Iowa to New Haven.

That morning in Bryant Park, Diaz was just back from Los Angeles, where he has been writing for Season 2 of the Hulu series “Nine Perfect Strangers.” Later that week, he would successfully pitch to a network a half-hour sign-language comedy he’s been developing with 20th Television. By pivoting to screen work, he has come through a rough time for theater OK financially and fulfilled creatively.

Still, it did seem crazy to him that four years after writing “You Will Get Sick,” he had never yet seen it on its feet.

“Theater, baby,” he said. “Man. It’s tough. Long, long haul.”

Then he ambled past the birds to collect his car and hit the road for a short haul — up to New Haven, to see his folks.

— LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Solea Pfeiffer, ‘Almost Famous’

NEW YORK — For a young actor, it was the worst kind of blow: After Solea Pfeiffer had been invited to participate, and then invested time, working on the new musical “Almost Famous,” the creative team informed her they were looking elsewhere for their Penny Lane.

It was a plum role in a high-profile show, an adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s beloved semi-autobiographical 2000 movie about a 15-year-old aspiring music journalist on the ’70s rock scene. Kate Hudson earned an Oscar nomination in the part, a wistful groupie who maintains she’s there for the music, not the men, until she breaks her own rule.

“I think it’s an important part of my story that I did that first table read, another few weeks of development, and they actually did let me go from the project,” Pfeiffer, now 27, said recently.

She spent two hours being “tragic,” she said, then sat down and wrote the production a bold email, which she recalled this way: “I think you’re making the wrong decision, and I’ll do what I need to do to let you know this is actually mine.”

A year later, “through some cosmic forces, it came back.” So it was Pfeiffer who played the role in the 2019 world premiere at the Old Globe theater in San Diego, and who will make her Broadway debut in Penny’s fur-trimmed coat and platform shoes. The show, written by Crowe and the composer Tom Kitt, begins previews at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on Oct. 3 and opens one month later.

The musical’s director Jeremy Herrin turned to a 1970s sage to explain what happened: “As Joni Mitchell says, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ ”

That Pfeiffer had the voice and the look wasn’t a question. “She was slightly shy and didn’t give herself permission to take up space in the room in those early workshops,” Herrin said.

“The thing about Penny is she’s enigmatic, so she has hidden depths,” he added. “But you don’t want an actress to play those depths, just to have them.”

It’s hard to square the Solea (pronounced So-LAY-a) Pfeiffer one meets now, confidently arriving at The New York Times office in a knotted crop top and flamboyantly ripped jeans, with the shy figure Herrin describes. But she and he both say they believe that she has evolved during the pandemic, bringing a more forceful thoughtfulness to workshops as the cast began meeting again this year.

The shutdown may have scuttled a planned quick move to Broadway after the San Diego run, but it was only a bump on Pfeiffer’s professional glide path. Right out of the University of Michigan in 2016, she was tapped by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to play Maria in a concert version of “West Side Story” at the Hollywood Bowl. Then: Eliza in “Hamilton” for a year in California. Soon after “Almost Famous” wrapped in San Diego, she played the title role of “Evita” at New York’s City Center. (“Remember the name,” Kyle Smith wrote in The National Review. “She commands the stage as an actress and handles the vocals with a combination of thunder and silk that brings tears to the eyes.”)

During the shutdown, Pfeiffer wrote and performed a solo show for Audible, entitled “You Are Here,” an exploration of her mixed-race identity that includes sterling versions of the theater songs “Burn” and “Rainbow High,” as well as Billie Eilish’s “My Future.”

She memorably calls herself “a nowhere girl from everywhere,” tracing in 90 minutes a personal history that took her from Zimbabwe, where she was born, to Mozambique, where she grew up speaking Portuguese. After years of fieldwork, her anthropologist parents got teaching jobs in Cleveland and then at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she attended high school and began performing in shows.

Being the child of a Black mother and a white father was isolating, from her extended family and from her classmates. Yet it also allowed her to slide into parts — like Evita and Maria — that she says would now not be meant for her. “Colorism is very real,” she said. “What opportunities have I been afforded because I am this palatable version of a woman of color?”

Pfeiffer’s first movie role is in “A Jazzman’s Blues,” a period piece written and directed by Tyler Perry that tackles the complexities of passing. It will have its gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this month before streaming on Netflix.

Living in Harlem and now well established in the theater community, Pfeiffer said she has found that “my Blackness and my whiteness don’t have to be separated. I can be deeply who I am.”

And after hearing for years about Pennie Trumbull, the woman who Crowe says inspired Penny Lane, Pfeiffer recently got to spend time with her at her ranch outside Portland, Oregon, where they talked about music, gender and power, and the difference between a hanger-on and a muse.

“She’s one of these people who just says yes,” Pfeiffer reported. “It’s a mindset that I’m bringing to this experience — go along for the ride.”

— SCOTT HELLER

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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