Kate Fisher's tour as star of the new musical Little Women got off to a bad start when a fire damaged some of the sets and delayed the show's opening two weeks ago in San Diego. But she seemed even more devastated by other news: Gates Pass is closed this month.
"Oh, no!" she moaned. "I loved going out there and watching the sunset the last time I was in Tucson."
That was in December 2001, when Fisher starred as Eliza Doolittle in Arizona Theatre Company's production of My Fair Lady. Reviewing that show (see "Female Persuasion," Dec. 6, 2001) and over-extending a Christmas tree metaphor, I declared it to be "a traditional, tastefully adorned production topped with at least one shining star." That was Fisher, a smart actress and a nuanced singer.
Now she's coming back, thanks to an eight-performance Little Women booking by Broadway in Tucson, beginning Sept. 20. For her work in the tour, she already got a great review early last week in The San Diego Union-Tribune, where Anne Marie Welsh praised the way "Kate Fisher's gawky, appealing and strong-voiced Jo (became) the creature of fire and determination Alcott described. ... Fisher makes a full-bodied, athletic, believably maturing Jo."
Now, for marketing purposes, the show's headliner is veteran singer Maureen McGovern, who drew praise for her portrayal as Marmee, the strong family matriarch, in the relatively short Broadway run. It closed within five months, mainly because the score by Jason Howland was deemed tepid. But enough people enjoyed the other elements of this reportedly faithful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel about a Northern family during the Civil War that the producers figured they could make money on a tour.
McGovern and the familiar girl-power story may pull in the audiences, but it's Fisher who has to keep them in their seats as Jo, the sensitive sister who grows up to be a writer just like Alcott. Like Jo, Fisher was raised in a house full of sisters--five in Fisher's case, plus a couple of brothers for good measure.
"I relate to this incredibly," she said by phone last week. "There's something unique about the bond of sisters. I see so much of myself and my sisters in Jo's family. I'm the third eldest of eight kids; I was the one with the ambition, the one with way too much energy who didn't know what to do with it. I was outspoken and boisterous, and I broke everything I touched--not because I was a bad kid, but because I touched everything, because everything was so exciting. When I read the book as a kid, I really identified with Jo. But I guess everybody says that, because they want to identify with a strong woman like this.
"I'm still close to my family, but I've lived independently since I was 18; like Jo, I said, 'I have a dream for my life,' and it didn't occur to me to fail. I almost didn't go to the audition for this, because I was sick at the time, too exhausted to audition, but a friend of mine said, 'You have to go. This is you."
Even so, one aspect of this role intimidates her: its physicality. "I've got 13 songs, and I'm on stage almost the entire time, with the exception of three other people's solos. To get through something like this, you've got to pace yourself and keep your body in shape. It's been a struggle, because I'm leaping and lurching on the furniture. Stamina is the huge issue."
She admits to approaching the role with at least a little fear. "It was an exciting fear, but not a debilitating fear," she said. "When I got the part, I said 'Woo-hoo!' Then I sat down and said, 'My god, what have I gotten into?' But you should have some fear of a role like this, because it's a form of respect. If you don't have any fear, it means you don't take your responsibility seriously."
Even if many critics have been unimpressed with the score--there isn't very much memorable new music on Broadway anymore--Fisher is especially fond of four moments in the show. Two of them belong to her, and two have her sidelined.
Her two big turning-point songs, "Astonishing" and "The Fire Within Me," she described as "ball-busters. The tessitura is high, but they're great songs, and the end of 'Astonishing' is really thrilling when you do it right."
Otherwise, her two favorite scenes are "where I don't have to do anything but watch two fabulous actors do something wonderful, charming and sweet." These are courtship scenes centered on her male co-stars, Stephen Patterson and Andrew Varela. "For so much of this show, it's on my shoulders to keep the plot moving ahead, so it's nice when you can relax and enjoy someone else's work."
And then there's McGovern. "It's one thing to work with a star," Fisher said, "and another thing to work with a star who's so generous and kind, as well as talented. This isn't lip service; I mean it. She's known as a Stradivarius voice, with her consistent, clear, bell-like tone. Every single night, when she sings 'Days of Plenty' to me because Jo's got writer's block because of a death in the family, it's a struggle for me not to break into tears and fall apart, because I've still got to sing this big 11 o'clock number of my own. She's a great lady and warm and sweet, a generous, lovely lady."
Fisher obviously appreciates working with a strong, mutually supportive cast, and that's why she retains fond memories of doing My Fair Lady at ATC. "Because of the role and the cast," she said, "that ranks as one of the best theatrical experience of my life. That and Little Women, of course."