Every now and then, when her busy TV schedule and passion for the theater leave her with no free time whatsoever, Benita Zahn says things do get a little nerve-wracking. However, like those people who eat pressure for breakfast, Zahn seems to handle the hectic life just fine.
“Yeah, it gets a little nerve-wracking, but remember I’m grinning when I say that,” said Zahn, a NewsChannel 13 (WNYT) broadcaster who is playing the lead role in the musical “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road,” set for four performances Friday through Sunday at the Fort Salem Theater. “I get busy, but I love it. I enjoy the whole creative and collaborative process of the theater, and I’ve met so many wonderful people working in community theater. It’s great fun.”
“I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road” is the work of playwright/actress Gretchen Cryer and was first produced off-Broadway in 1978 and the West End in London in 1981. Heather, the character played by Zahn, is a 39-year-old divorcée and once-accomplished singer trying to make a comeback as a pop star.
“It’s one of the first successful shows about women establishing themselves as a person,” said Zahn. “She’s gone through a divorce, and she wants to change her act. She’s had a relationship with her manager, and she wants to change all that. The show is all about relationships and being able to go your own way and stand firm. It’s about how much of a voice a person has, and can you let people see your true nature. And, if you let them see it, will they still love you.”
’I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road’
WHERE: Fort Salem Theater, 11 East Broadway, Salem
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25 for adults, $15 for children age 12 and under
MORE INFO: 854-9200
Performing as Heather’s two backup singers are Mary Brazeau and Susan Cicarelli Caputo, while also in the show are David Hancock Turner and Jesse Liebman. Jay Kerr, artistic producer at Fort Salem Theater, is directing.
Kerr, who took over at Fort Salem in November 2006, hired Zahn last summer to do a one-woman cabaret show, and felt that “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road” would be a perfect vehicle to challenge Zahn’s performing talents.
“She’s a wonderful person to work with, and having worked with her last summer and seeing what she’s used to doing, I knew this might be a dramatic stretch for her,” said Kerr. “But I’ve worked with a lot of accomplished performers in New York, and she’s about the quickest study of anyone I’ve worked with. She’s bright and makes quick adjustments, and she’s able to connect her intellect with her intuition. She may be used to doing supporting roles around here, but she’s the caliber of a performer who should be doing leads.”
Zahn’s busy schedule — as a news anchorwoman for WNYT, producer/host of the public television show “Health Link” on WMHT and a graduate student at Albany Medical Center in bioethics — has usually kept her in the supporting actress category when it comes to community theater. But Zahn wouldn’t think of giving up her theater work.
‘The music suits me’
“My mom performed off-Broadway — so I guess it’s in my genes,” said Zahn, who graduated from Jericho High School on Long Island and then from the State University of New York at Oswego before hooking up with WNYT in 1979. “I always had a big voice, even if I was whispering, and I feel like this show fits me fine. I think of myself as an actor who sings, and I love show tunes and rock. So the music suits me.”
The music is all original to the show, but the play is a period piece set in the early 1970s.
“We all learned the music first. So we were ready to go by the time rehearsals started,” said Zahn. “I’m a very lucky girl because I have two wonderful people singing with me in Sue and Mary, and two talented young men who were both students of Jay’s.
Kerr, a former drama professor at Princeton, was able to entice his two former students to leave New York City and spend part of the summer in upstate New York.
“Jesse Liebman is a young actor/director from New York City, and David Hancock Turner is an incredible musician who also acts,” said Kerr. “I call them kids, but they’re two very talented young men I’ve worked with before. I feel very lucky to get them both up here.”
Kerr also has a connection with the original production of “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road,” having known the musical composer, Nancy Ford, while a student at Princeton.
“I had a tremendous crush on her when we were students at Princeton,” said Kerr. “So I’m calling this production the 30th anniversary showing. Joseph Papp first did it at the Public Theater 30 years ago and it was a big smash. I’m confident with the great people we have that our audience is going to love this production, too.”
Praise from the director
Those taking in the show will see a different side of Zahn, according to Kerr.
“Benita’s public persona is real,” said Kerr. “When you see her doing the news, or you watch the extremely intelligent, caring and genuine woman hosting her health show, that’s her. She’s a very warm human being. Her character is not necessarily the brightest person in the world or the most attractive, and Benita’s able to pull it off.”
“This is a great girlfriend show that’s about men and women and how we all get along,” said Zahn. “I think we all went through changes in the ’70s, and I lived through that time. So I know all about it.”