Much has changed for Broadway actress Beth Leavel since she was last on stage here starring in N. C. Theatre’s 1990 production of “Hello, Dolly!” The Raleigh native has added eight Broadway shows to her resume since then, and she’s been nominated for two Tony Awards, winning in 2006 for her featured role in the musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
Leavel’s first theatrical experience was the senior musical at Broughton High School in 1973. She then attended Meredith College in Raleigh, minoring in theater and moved on to a theater MFA from UNC-Greensboro in 1980. Her first Broadway roles were in “42nd Street” and “Crazy For You” in the 1980s, and she’s recently been seen in “Young Frankenstein,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Elf.”
Now she’s back home to be in N. C. Theatre’s “Steel Magnolias,” the hit 1987 comedy-drama (and popular 1989 film, now being filmed for TV with an African-American cast) about close-knit Southern women. The show opens Friday in Fletcher Opera Theater. She plays M’Lynn, a woman happy about her diabetic daughter’s upcoming wedding but worried about the daughter’s potentially life-threatening desire for a child. M’Lynn relies on her friends’ humor and strength, doled out at the local beauty salon where the play takes place.
Prior to arriving in Raleigh for rehearsals, Leavel spoke by phone from her New York City home about her theatrical beginnings, the giddy night of her Tony win and her deep connection to the “Steel Magnolias” script. Here are the highlights:
Q: How did your early theater experiences here influence your career?
At Meredith College, I did every piece of theater I could and was greatly encouraged to go into theater by my teacher, Linda Bamford. I also did several shows at Raleigh Little Theatre, where I found unconditional joy and a great network of people like me. It felt like home.
Q: How did your family and friends react to your winning the Tony?
There was a tornado warning that night here in Raleigh, and my family’s television went out. My mother was on the phone frantically calling the TV stations. Finally, four minutes before my category, the TV came back on. After I won, my mother must have gotten a hundred phone calls that night. She finally had to take the phone into the bathroom!
Q: What do you remember about that night?
Not a whole lot. All I told myself as I ran down the aisle was, “Don’t forget the people you must thank, don’t faint and don’t curse.” So, I did pretty well. Afterwards, they take you off to a media interview area. Kathy Lee Gifford was interviewing me, and she suggested I use her cellphone to call my mother. When I got her, she started telling me about all the relatives who’d called. I had to tell her I was on TV and didn’t have time to chat.
Q: What do you like about “Steel Magnolias”?
It’s a wonderful story with wonderful relationships among Southern women. M’Lynn is very easy to relate to because I’m a Southern woman and I have relationships with Southern women, like my mother. I was raised with them.
Q: Isn’t M’Lynn a lot different from the roles you usually play?
Yes, I usually get the funny roles. It’s refreshing doing a more dramatic role, although she gets some good punch lines. Actually, the last four plays I’ve done have been non-musicals, which is great, because you don’t wake up in the morning and worry about whether you can sing that night.
Q: Have you worked with any of your colleagues in this production before?
The director, Eric Woodall, is also a casting director, and he put me into “Mamma Mia!” Anne Horak, who plays my daughter Shelby, was just in “Boeing-Boeing” with me at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Jenn Colella, who plays the salon owner, Truvy, is one of the best actresses on Broadway. The other three I don’t know yet, but I’m looking forward to bonding with them in this great script.