When she headed to Los Angeles to work with renowned acting coach Aaron Speiser 20 years ago, Rachel York knew she was talented enough to be a classic Broadway triple threat. There was just one thing missing.
“I didn’t have any life experience,” said York, who will bring her many talents to the Proctors stage Tuesday through Sunday for the national touring production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”
“So, at 19 I moved to New York to study and to get that life experience. It was intense, difficult at times, but I eventually got a big break.”
York got a scholarship to the American Center for Music Theatre at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles after high school. But she didn’t stay on the West Coast for long because Speiser, who has since worked with celebrities such as Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J, told her to get to New York.
“He wasn’t that big back then,” York said of Speiser. “I was one of his first students, and he encouraged me to leave LA and go to New York. He knew that I really loved to sing and that I was passionate about acting. I got an agent, I pounded the pavement for a while, worked a few small gigs, and then along came ‘City of Angels.’ ”
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, July 13; and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 14
HOW MUCH: $70-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
That was in 1989, and it was York’s big break, playing Mallory in Larry Gelbart’s smash musical comedy. “City of Angels” earned six Tonys, including Best Musical, and helped York land a few other impressive roles. In 1993, she earned a Drama Desk nomination for “Putting it Together,” and in 1996 she won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for “Victor/Victoria.”
She has also played Fantine in the New York production of “Les Miserables,” and was also featured on Broadway in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “The Sly Fox,” and most recently “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” in 2006.
In 2003, York’s acting and impersonating skills were brought to full force on television as she played Lucille Ball in the made-for-TV drama, “Lucy.” The movie got mixed reviews, but York was generally praised for her portrayal of Ball.
“I really didn’t think I was going to get hired for the part,” she said. “I thought they’d hire some big star to play her, so I really wasn’t nervous when I went in to audition. But I did my research and I’m pretty good at character work. It’s something that’s come easy to me, finding out the way people talk and walk, finding their essence. So I did feel as if I was channeling Lucille Ball in a way.”
York said she enjoyed her television experience, and has guest-starred in a number of popular shows since. Like the critics, she has a mixed view of “Lucy,” which co-starred Danny Pino as Desi Arnaz.
“It was challenging, and I didn’t have much time to prepare,” she said. “I pretty much ate, drank and slept Lucille Ball. One of the things that was interesting about her is that she was a perfectionist, so I became a perfectionist playing her. And what is daunting about TV or film, about the whole process, is that you don’t have any control over the end product.
“Everybody else is making decisions. People who didn’t know Lucy half as well
as I did are making decisions, and as a result so many things are beyond your control. Some of it was hard for me, but my intention was to honor her, tell the story as truthfully as possible, and I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to play her. I did my best, and I loved it.”
At home on stage
York said she’d be happy to return to television or film, but concedes that she is most comfortable on stage, performing live.
“On stage you have a lot more control over your own performance,” she said. “If you’re not good, it’s your fault, and if you are good, it’s your fault, too. So I guess there is something frustrating about a TV project or film. You can only hope the director uses the best take. You can only hope the director does his best by you. I do like both mediums, but they are very different.”
In “Anything Goes,” she has been very, very good. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “York is a true star, in a lush, larger-than-life Old Hollywood mode.” The San Francisco Chronicle said: “She owns every tune she touches, despite countless great predecessors all the way back to Ethel Merman.”
“What’s great about this production is, if you’ve seen it on Broadway, it has those same production values,” she said. “We have Kathy Marshall’s amazing staging and choreography, so we have these great big wonderful dance numbers, and it’s got the joy and fun and great humor that appeals to every demographic — young or old, romantic date night or whatever, it works for everybody.”
York plays Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes,” which premiered on Broadway in 1934 with Ethel Merman playing Reno. Patti Lupone and Elaine Page did revivals on Broadway and London’s West End, respectively, and in 2011 a new version returned to New York City and won a Tony for Best Revival, Best Actress for Sutton Foster and Best Choreography for Marshall.
Set on a ocean luxury liner, the show boasts some of Porter’s most popular numbers, which along with the title song include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “Friendship,” and “You’re the Top.”
Joining York in the cast are Fred Applegate as Moon Martin, Josh Franklin as Billy Crocker, Jeff Brooks as Purser, and Joyce Chittick as Emma.
“I saw it on Broadway last year with Sutton Foster, but I also performed in it in Los Angeles in 2003 and again in Kansas City,” said York. “If you saw it in New York, it’s a different cast and we all have our own interpretations, so we all play our characters a little bit differently.”
York’s love of performing started way back when she was a young girl. Along with her acting lessons, she has had instruction in dance and vocals, but doesn’t put much stock in that kind of training.
“We moved around a lot, I didn’t have that many really good teachers, and my mother and a few others, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Shirley Jones, Judy Garland, Carol Lawrence, were the ones who taught me how to sing,” she said. “Growing up I listened to my mother and her records. Listening to those voices are what influenced me and helped me develop my voice.”
As her performance as Lucille Ball might indicate, York enjoys impersonating famous people, particularly singers. In a recent cabaret performance, she sang “I Will Always Love You,” but did it as Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Norah Jones, Judy Garland, Cher, Christina Aguilera and finally, Elmo.
A knack for imitation
“It’s just something that’s fun, and I seem to have a knack for it,” said York, who has a 2-year-old daughter named Olivia. “As a kid I walked around the house imitating Olivia Newton-John. I also imitated my grandmother when I was a kid, and when I was asked to play Cruella DeVil in ‘101 Dalmatians” I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I knew exactly what to do. I went right there.”
Also, as indicated by her “Lucy” gig, York can be something of a comedian. At least if that’s what the script calls for. “I just think of myself as an actress,” she said.
“I like doing comedies and dramas, although after having a baby myself, dark dramas just don’t appeal to me anymore. We have enough drama in our life. I like it light and happy, which is why ‘Anything Goes’ is so much fun. It’s pure escapism. That’s what I loved about all those great MGM musicals. They were all masterful works of art, and they made you happy. That’s why they still work today.”
Next week’s run of “Anything Goes” won’t be York’s debut in Schenectady. In 2007 she played Guenevere in “Camelot,” and in 2001 she was the female lead in “Kiss Me Kate,” both at Proctors.