With her lanky dancer's legs casually draped over the dressing room sofa and an easy grin creasing her face, Alyson Reed is a picture of contentment.

Three hours before she'll make her nightly entrance as the self-destructive chanteuse Sally Bowles in Harold Prince's revival of "Cabaret," Reed is taking time to relax and reflect. She sips her soda, laughs heartily and says that everything is going great.

Despite mixed reviews for her portrayal opposite Joel Grey, the production has received mostly good marks and is bound for Broadway in October.

But this week's engagement of "Cabaret" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (opening Tuesday and running through Sunday) amounts to something of a homecoming for the actress, who grew up in Anaheim, was Anaheim High School's student body president in 1976 and learned her trade on the county's regional and community theater stages.

"Yeah, everything's working out just fine, and it'll be nice to return to OC," says Reed, 29. "I've been having a lot of fun lately."

There was a time when fun probably wouldn't have been the first word to describe her career. The blonde, blue-eyed actress has had two major disappointments since graduating to the performing arts' big leagues in the early 1980s. Just mention the movie version of "A Chorus Line," and Reed is flooded by bad memories.

In 1984, Reed surprised a lot of people in Hollywood by beating out Ann Reinking and Lesley Ann Warren for the pivotal role of Cassie in Richard Attenborough's much-trumpeted movie of the Broadway hit about chorus line dancers.

Filming took nearly eight months as anticipation swelled in the media and entertainment industry. When it was finally released, the groans were resounding. Critics hated the movie and panned Reed's performance (Times film critic Sheila Benson said she lacked "the pure line of white-hot intensity, in her singing or dancing, that would separate a star from a chorus girl"), and the movie died at the box office.

Reed's golden opportunity turned into a leaden failure. Even now the enthusiasm drains from Reed's face as she talks about the experience. It was really her first time in a film--she was the double for Bo Derek in a dance scene for "10" but the segment was cut--and Reed's expectations were dangerously high.

"I remember going from that point of high anxiety where you don't know (if you can handle the role) to such an eagerness (to see it come out right)," she said. "And then it came out, and the reviews started coming in. I wasn't really prepared for such a reaction.

"I knew we'd get killed (because) we were doing something that was almost sacred, but we were sliced up like a Veg-A-Matic. We were destroyed; the reviews were really vicious."

The reaction to her portrayal--especially, she says, a searing criticism by the New York Times' Vincent Canby--placed her career in limbo for several painful months.

"Before the movie came out, I had other film offers, appearances on talk shows were scheduled and there was talk of a miniseries on TV," Reed recalled with more amazement than resentment in her voice. "But once the reviews came out, all that went away; nobody would have anything to do with me. It affected my ability to get work for some time."

Her assessment of "A Chorus Line," now that she's had almost two years to think about it? "You know, I haven't seen it for a long time, but I don't think it was nearly as bad as the critics said. It could have showed the viciousness (of chorus auditions) better, but it was not that bad of a movie."

"A Chorus Line" is not the only major flop she has been associated with. In 1983, Reed landed the title role in a large-budget, much-publicized Broadway show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. "Marilyn: An American Fable" was hissed at by critics and closed in two weeks.

Reed attributed the production's failure to various faults, including poor direction, bad execution and a troubled concept, which, she said, gracelessly mixed dreamlike sequences with more realistic episodes into a confusing whole.

Despite the show's collapse, Reed received favorable notices. To mold her characterization, Reed said she avoided Monroe's films and, instead, found inspiration and character details in vintage newsreels of the the movie queen.

"Marilyn's charm, I think, was that she reacted to things with 100% attention, like a child does, and you can see that in how she reacts to things in the newsreels. I wanted to communicate some of that. I'm really very proud of what I did in that show because I think I made her fresh."

The challenge, of course, was overcoming the public's preconceptions of Monroe, a problem that Reed also faces every night in "Cabaret." When most people think of Sally Bowles, it's usually Liza Minnelli's eccentric, almost punkish portrayal in Bob Fosse's 1972 film that comes to mind.

Reed has taken a different approach in personifying Sally. Director Prince and Reed decided that Bowles "is just an Anaheim girl at heart" who sometimes puts on extravagant airs to stand out from her contemporaries but basically has simple needs and aspirations.

"We didn't want to make her a wacko, she's a lot softer in the play than she was in the movie," Reed said. "I didn't want to play her as a young 'Auntie Mame.' I see her more as a little China doll who is sensitive (and) acts up some."

The approach has drawn both positive and negative reactions. Times drama critic Dan Sullivan, for instance, noted that Reed's Bowles has depth as "a young woman trying to find herself," but he also lamented that "this Sally could be more fun."

The assessment came early on in the show's Los Angeles run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion recently, a point Reed is eager to make. Since friends told her about the review ("I never read reviews myself. It's just something I don't like to do"), she said she's decided to play Bowles more broadly. "I've let her open up some. You have to realize that this is a play in progress. We'll keep making changes before it goes to Broadway."

Her return to Orange County, after an eight-year absence from performing in Southern California, is particularly gratifying. Orange County is, after all, where Reed made her stage debut at 7 in an Anaheim production of "Oliver," and where, at 12, she got her first paying role in a staged production of "Alice in Wonderland" at Disneyland. There were dozens of other roles before she ventured to Los Angeles, San Francisco and, eventually, New York, to further her career.

"It'll be nice to be home," Reed says simply. "I've got a bunch of friends there and a lot of memories, so I'm looking forward to it."

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