When Nice Work If You Can Get It opened, Jennifer Laura Thompson wasn't the focus of any review I read. But I'm going to do an entire column about her, because I can.
You see, there are very few people in the musical world that I find hilariously funny. I find Thompson very, very funny. Thompson has just the right mix of vocal prowess and slapstick ability. Nice Work If You Can Get It is far from the best thing she's ever done -- and it hurts her that her big number is in Act I, overshadowed by others' flashy turns in Act II -- but her genius is apparent in her featured role. Singing "Delishious" in a bathtub, she seems like a combination of Christine Ebersole and Madeline Kahn; she both sounds great and imbues every note with humor. Sure, she might be in a different show than the rest of the cast, but it sort of doesn't matter in this case. She is good.
And no one has a bad word to say about Thompson -- often when I reach out to people about actors or actresses, I hear a little contempt in the respondent's reply, a little phoniness, but not so when I asked about Thompson. Another favorite of mine, Donna Lynne Champlin (soon to be seen in As You Like It in Central Park), worked with Thompson when they were both just starting out, and called herself a "fan" to this day. "She was just in the ensemble," Champlin said, referencing a Goodspeed Musicals mounting of a musical based on The Picture of Dorian Gray, "but you could tell she was going to be a star. She just had that glow about her. Besides being physically gorgeous, she had an intelligence and a maturity far beyond her years that made her stand out in every scene she was in. Not to mention that glorious voice!"
Thompson's first big thing was Footloose on Broadway, in which she played Ariel. I don't remember her in it -- in fact I barely remember seeing Footloose at all. Jeremy Kushnier, who played rebellious outsider Ren to her preacher's daughter, obviously recalls it better than anyone. "I mean you can really feel that this is where she's supposed to be," Kushnier said when asked about Thompson. "She is also rather fearless. She is the kind of leading lady any guy would be lucky to get!"
Thompson has worked fairly consistently since Footloose. I can't decide if she is known more for Urinetown or Wicked. By all rights, the answer would be Urinetown. She originated the role of Hope Cladwell and received a Tony Award nomination for her troubles. She received universal acclaim for Urinetown, whereas she was simply a replacement in Wicked. But of course Wicked has those rabid fans, so for many she will always be G(a)linda. Regardless, she was worthy of praise for her turns in both. Shoshana Bean, who played Elphaba opposite Thompson in Wicked, had this to say: "I learned so much from our brief time together and so admired her talent and the warm and generous person she is. She's also hilarious." I found Thompson's interpretation of her Wicked character to be decidedly different that her predecessor Kristin Chenoweth -- much quirkier and goofier, which I thought worked very well given the age of the character. I also loved her in Urinetown though and in the Encores! staging of Of Thee I Sing and the recent revival of Lend Me a Tenor. (I saw Little Fish, and I'm sure she was good, but that is another show I don't remember.)
However for all this adoration people have for Thompson, I note that she's never gotten something that was zany enough to be a real vehicle. Her flashy roles just aren't flashy enough. I understand that in a world where most producers only want to invest in a show with a film or television star, it's asking a lot for someone to choose Thompson as a headliner of a star vehicle, asking too much in fact. But she could easily be a leading lady opposite a more bankable star (Kelli O'Hara doesn't sell tickets either; if On The Twentieth Century comes, I want to see Thompson in it) or have some more consistently showy featured roles (the type that Katie Finneran excels at). Perhaps it's enough that people employ her and realize her talent. She does indeed work a lot, as it should be. (So many people I like do not work all that often.) But I still think she deserved a little extra recognition, and, with that, here is my column. I end it with quotes from one of Thompson's biggest admirers, director John Rando, who worked with the actress in Urinetown and the Encores! stagings of Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing.
"She is radiant, delightful, inventive -- she is pure theatrical smartness that is infectious to be around and to work with," gushed Rando. "She is blessed with a tremendous soprano, just a glorious sound. She's also a lot of fun. She's a great gal, she's a wonderful leading actress. She plays a fantastic foil, the chemistry between her and her leading men is just invigorating... She's a great comedian. She has a classy style. She's very quirky, but it's always from a place of class."
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