Star quality

Rating: NNNNNMeet Paula Wolfson, queen of the musical understudies. But be warned. Now, in her rich mezzo voice, she's announcing.

Rating: NNNNN

Meet Paula Wolfson, queen of the musical understudies. But be warned. Now, in her rich mezzo voice, she’s announcing loud and clear that she’s abdicating the throne.

It looked like she was making her move with Shaking The Foundations. After years of touring in the chorus of Les Miz and Beauty And The Beast, the Carole Pope revue gave her the chance to show her amazing range.

Delivering Pope and Kevan Staples’s Can’t Take It like a desperate heroin addict in recovery, then selling the satiric Grade B Movie as if she were overacting in a 40s Hollywood film, Wolfson grabbed the audience by its crotch and didn’t let go.

An ecstatic, teary Wolfson collected a Dora last June for the performance.

Shaking The Foundations freed her from the mega-understudy syndrome, and she’s back on the Buddies stage in the company’s season opener, Dorothy Dittrich’s When We Were Singing.

Disturbing weekend

The sung-through musical deals with a quartet of 30-something urban friends coping with death, careers, relationships and sex over the course of a disturbing weekend.

“Understudying can be an excellent opportunity to get into the business,” she says, bending over and talking with her head between her legs. She’s demonstrating the pose she had to strike when she was one of a dozen Les Miz chorus women who had to stick their bums up in the air, skirts thrown over their heads, waiting for one of the sound guys to change the microphone packs under their costumes.

“But it can also suck the soul right out of you.

“I think one of my problems is that I’m hard to cast. I come across as a perky, chirpy songbird who can do a lot, so I end up covering for everyone else. I spent eight months as a swing in Les Miz after memorizing 12 female soundtracks — soprano and alto — and watching from the wings to learn the blocking. It was a fucking nightmare.”

We’re sitting in Buddies’ Antechamber, a dreary room when it’s not functioning as a bar or performance space. Piled-up trash cans, chairs and tables contribute to the bleakness, but Wolfson’s funny, rapid-fire dialogue and easy smile create their own spotlight.

“I did get some rehearsal time in Les Miz, but in regular daylight with minimal set pieces. But then when you finally get to perform, you enter in pitch darkness, onto a stage that includes a revolve that’s set on a rake, with six entrances and exits.”

She shudders a few minutes later at some of the memories of touring Beauty And The Beast in Canada and the U.S.

“In the States I understudied Mrs. Potts and only went on once in eight months. But it was on that tour that I realized that I didn’t want to continue in the understudy rut. During one number I looked at the woman playing Mrs. Potts and thought to myself, ‘Do I really want to be dressed like a teapot in front of thousands of people?’

“Then I realized what I was wearing as I had that thought — I was playing a whisk, and my hat was like a huge IUD.”

She’s much happier performing When We Were Singing, which won three Jessie Awards — Vancouver’s equivalent of the Doras — when it premiered in 1995 with Wolfson in the ensemble. In fact, she’s the reason Buddies is mounting the show.

At the opening-night party for Shaking The Foundations, artistic director David Oiye told Wolfson that he wanted to work with her on a piece. She immediately suggested Singing and organized an original-cast tape that Oiye could listen to in time to include the show in his grant applications.

Wolfson returns to the role of Belinda, an eager actor who finds that she can only succeed in TV commercials.

“But the stretch for me is that she’s a homophobic alcoholic,” grins Wolfson. “A small-town girl who’s come to the big city, Belinda’s become richer than god by appearing in dreck. I see her as someone with a marshmallow core that’s wrapped in barbed wire.”

And what’s it like coming back to a character she’s already played?

“David is exploring more of the dark side of the characters,” she explains. “My ingenue days are long over, and anyway it’s more appealing for me as I get older to play troubled women.

“I love getting to play with such an acerbic script,” she adds triumphantly, throwing her hands over her head in a victory salute.

Bizarrely, given her success with Shaking The Foundations, she wasn’t besieged with job offers last year. Other than a recent summer stock gig as the treacly-sweet narrator in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and “screaming my way” through a murder mystery, she couldn’t find any theatre work. And understudying was out of the question.

Studied horticulture

“Ah sweah,” she says in her best Scarlett O’Hara, “Ah will nevah go theah again. Ah’d rathuh stahve.”

Wolfson had other contingency plans, but they didn’t pan out. An avid gardener, she studied horticulture at the University of Guelph so she could work at something she liked rather than do restaurant or temp work. But the White Rose nursery chain wouldn’t even interview her.

She also hosted karaoke events in Vancouver for four years and was a mobile DJ for weddings. Don’t ask Wolfson to sing at a wedding, though. She always cries. “When you cry and sing at the same time it sounds like shit.

“But I won’t go back to work covering for other performers. I know what I’m capable of, and I’d rather go hungry than do something I don’t like.

“It’s more demoralizing to do something you’re unhappy with than not to work at all.”

WHEN WE WERE SINGING, by Dorothy Dittrich, directed by David Oiye, with Jennifer Rayner, Marc Richard, Paula Wolfson and Alison Woolridge. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander). Previews from Sunday (September 24), opens Wednesday (September 27) and runs to October 15, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday 2:30 pm (except September 24 at 8 pm). $15-$18, Tuesday and Sunday pwyc, previews $10. 975-8555.

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