A busy time, big boost for actress Callanan
By Joel Brown, Boston Globe Correspondent | April 30, 2010

Mary Callanan as Earth Mother in “Menopause the Musical’’ in 2008.
Mary Callanan as Earth Mother in “Menopause the Musical’’ in 2008.
(Richard Feldman/File 2008)


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Some actors wait their whole lives for a season like this.

Mary Callanan stars with two of her best friends in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,’’ April 30-May 30 for SpeakEasy Stage Company. And then she’ll star in the one-woman revue “Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,’’ June 24-July 11, for the New Repertory Theatre.

“It’s great. I hate to even say it out loud, don’t want to curse it,’’ says Callanan.

Although the hard-working character actress from Brighton is a familiar face to Boston audiences, this breakthrough moment for her is a long time coming. “My face, my body type, and my voice all seem to be gelling all of a sudden,’’ she says. “I’m the right age, the right shape, the right voice type, the right personality. So, hooray! Let’s hope this wave will go on for a while.’’

By day in her 20s, Callanan nursed dreams of acting while she worked at Ticketron. She met her husband over the phone at work. He was a hotel concierge, and it was her job to make sure he had seen “Little Shop of Horrors,’’ so he could recommend it to guests.

At night she sang in a Top 40 cover band in Holiday Inn bars across New England. “Ask me for any Taylor Dayne, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, and I’m yours,’’ she says. “Early Madonna. I could still do it, sadly.’’

Then one day she had her career epiphany: “I’m going to be an actress now. I cannot sing ‘Borderline’ one more time.’’

What followed was work in crowd-pleasers like “Nunsense’’ and “Menopause the Musical,’’ and road companies of shows like “Big’’ and “Damn Yankees.’’ Gradually there were more roles in Boston, at SpeakEasy, the Lyric Stage, and others. Early on, she made friends with Leigh Barrett and Kerry A. Dowling. “We’ve all been nuns, just not at the same time,’’ she says. “And although we’ve all worked together, we’ve never all worked together on the same stage, except in a benefit situation.’’

Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy’s producing artistic director, wanted to put them in a show together. He directs “Trailer Park,’’ which tackles topics like adultery, spray cheese, and road kill in examining the lives of the residents of the titular north Florida venue. David Benoit and Barrett play leads Norbert and Jeannie, while Callanan and Dowling are neighbors who make up a sort of Greek chorus and get a lot of the laughs, Callanan said.

“We are having so much fun at rehearsal,’’ she said. “I’ve known them all for years, so it’s like doing a show with your friends.’’

Then, she said, she was stunned to get a call from Kate Warner, artistic director at the New Rep and director of “Sophie Tucker.’’ For that performance, Callanan will be on stage alone, singing more than 20 songs as she embodies the belter who was a huge draw during the first half of the 20th century. She got permission to dig into Tucker’s papers at Brandeis, and learned that Tucker was the first of the great self-promoters. “She went to every milk fund event, every bond rally, every fire, every orphanage. She did because she believed in these people and wanted to give back . . . and because of the fact that she would always end up in the paper,’’ Callanan says.

Like Tucker, she says, Callanan will do anything to put a joke or a song across. And like Tucker, she says, she’s “a big girl’’ and has been the target of disparaging comments from directors and casting people. Tucker heard much of the same, except in her era she was told more viciously she was too fat and ugly to make it onstage.

“But it’s not about getting your feelings hurt, it’s about showing them they’re wrong, proving to yourself it’s not true,’’ Callanan said. “There’s a big part of that in me, as there was in Sophie, the absolute need to prove I have every right to be where I am because I’ve earned it, as had Sophie. We’ve worked very hard and very long.’’

The short gap between two shows means Callanan, 46, who lives in South Weymouth, will give short shrift to her side career in cabaret with longtime musical partner Brian Patton.

“I will be in solitary confinement and happily so, because this is all I’ve ever wanted to do,’’ says Callanan.

The Boston-area premiere of “Trailer Park,’’ with music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book by Betsy Kelso, plays at Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets, $30-$54 at 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com. “Sophie Tucker,’’ by Jack Fournier and Kathy Helenda, plays in the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Tickets, $35-$49, at 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org.

Lyric Stage’s new season
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston announced all but one play of its 2010-11 main stage season, and the centerpiece is an ambitious adaptation of Dickens. Much of the autumn will be devoted to the two-part “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II,’’ performed in repertory Oct. 21-Dec. 19. This is the New England premiere of the David Edgar plays. And the Lyric received a $25,000 “Access to Artistic Excellence’’ grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support the 25-person cast.

To open the season, the Lyric will put on Tony-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’’ Sept. 3-Oct 2. Following “Nickleby,’’ it’s Theresa Rebeck’s backstage comedy, “The Understudy,’’ Jan. 1-29; “My Name Is Asher Lev,’’ Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel about a young Jewish painter’s struggles with art and faith, Feb. 11-March 12; and Nathan Jackson’s “Broke-ology,’’ about an African-American family, March 25-April 23.

One more play, a musical, has yet to be announced. Season ticket sales are now available at 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com, or the box office, while single tickets will go on sale in August.