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A Timeless Women’s Story of the ‘90s : Having it all--except, perhaps, hours enough to enjoy it all--is a theme of ‘Les Ms.’

<i> Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times</i>

What “Les Miserables” did for the French Revolution, “Les Ms.” is hoping to do for the modern woman.

“If there’s a message, it’s how women in the ‘90s have to juggle everything,” said Santa Monica-based vocal coach Sandra Rohr, musical director of the show. Subtitled “A Musical Revue From the Female Point of View,” it opens today at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. “It used to be that you had to choose one role: wife, mother, career. Now you can have it all--you just have to find the time.”

The revue, which incorporates more than 15 show tunes (from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Nine,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “Trouble in Tahiti,” “Woman of the Year,” “Song and Dance” “Baby” and “Ballroom”), had its earliest incarnation in 1988, when Rohr decided to assemble a showcase for a group of her voice students. “Originally, it was just a one-act,” she said, “but then we found a story developing between the four women. The theme is kind of built in, and unfolds through the music.”

After their initial performances, Rohr said, “A lot of people said, ‘What happens to these women?’ So I got hold of Susan Kohler and said, ‘Let’s give them a story.’ ” In the expanded version, co-authored by Kohler and Rohr, three of the characters meet in an obstetrician’s waiting room: Louisa (played by Kohler), a producer’s wife; Maddy McCall (Gail Edwards), the producer’s mistress; and Darlene Sweetland (Julia Holland), a young secretary in the producer’s office. There’s also an older woman in the office, Agnes Lamarr (Marla Adams), a longtime friend of the mistress.

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In the three years since its inception, the show has undergone a series of changes--not the least of them a steadily revolving cast.

“Anytime we get a new cast member, it’s different,” said Kohler, whose previous Odyssey appearances include “Johnny Johnson” (1986) and “Nightclub Cantata” (1989). “The piece really becomes a way for women to say something about themselves.” On the other hand, it’s not autobiographical: Kohler’s character confronts her philandering husband, divorces him, “and at the end, she’s a single mother trying to have a career. The rug got pulled out from under her; ultimately, she found she’d had what she wanted.”

The real lives of the cast members have lent their share of drama to the proceedings. An actress who’d been playing a pregnant character got pregnant for real, had twins and moved to Iowa. In June, the show’s scheduled opening was postponed when a cast member’s mother became critically ill. Then in July, nine days before the revised opening, another cast member, Merrill Leighton, died in a car accident. “When Merrill was killed,” Rohr said bluntly, “we just didn’t want to do it.”

“It knocked us dead in our tracks,” Kohler echoed. “You can replace actors in roles, but not human beings. A lot of what Merrill’s done is there. But finally we realized it was time to regroup, focus, go on. Still, I think of her during certain spots in the show--things she did that were different from actresses who did it before her, or the actress who does her part now. I know we’ll dedicate the opening to her, and I’d like to have a benefit, do a charity performance for her.” (A memorial scholarship has been set up in Leighton’s name through the Actors’ Fund.)

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Kohler notes that the material itself is vocally demanding, utilizing both a legitimate voice and the belting voice that Rohr specializes in. “Sandy’s musical instincts are so good, and we’ve had the same vision for many things,” she said. “But most of all, we’ve become a company of singers. With this show, we all have a place to work, to showcase ourselves, to do our thing. Of course, with a group of women, you do juggle husbands and babies and boyfriends. We have to give them credit in the program.”


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