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She’s Loving This Stage of Her Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Variety was the spice of televised life in the 1960s and ‘70s, and Ann-Margret was among the hottest flavors on the tube as she strutted her sex appeal and her talents as singer, dancer and actress in a number of TV specials. The titles included “From Hollywood With Love,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Ann-Margret Olsson” (her birth name), “Ann-Margret Smith” (her married name) and “Rhinestone Cowgirl.”

Variety as a televised genre may have all but vanished, but not Ann-Margret, who turns 61 in April. Last February she made her stage debut as the name above the title in a touring revival of the 1978 Broadway musical, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Her role as Miss Mona Stangley, the pragmatic but principled madam of the Chicken Ranch, brings her to the Orange County Performing Arts Center for a one-week run beginning tonight.

Last summer, while performing “Best Little Whorehouse” in Houston, Ann-Margret after her curtain calls adjourned to the same recording studio where the Big Bopper cut “Chantilly Lace.” Over several nights, she laid down vocals for her first album of gospel songs.

“God Is Love: The Gospel Sessions” was released last fall on Art Greenhaw Records, a tiny custom label out of Mesquite, Texas. Sales have been scant, says owner Greenhaw, but the album has been nominated for a Grammy and a Dove Award, the highest honor in the Christian music industry.

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Life for the Swedish star has been strewn with obstacles. Among them are a fight with alcoholism in the 1970s, infertility, her parents’ initial coldness toward her husband, former TV star Roger Smith (“77 Sunset Strip”), Smith’s ongoing illness with myasthenia gravis (an immune-system disease that causes muscle weakness) and Ann-Margret’s own susceptibility to bone-breaking accidents--among them a life-threatening fall in 1972 from a 22-foot-high platform during her Las Vegas nightclub act.

True to form, Ann-Margret debuted as Miss Mona with her left wrist in a cast. She says she was trying to coax one of her six cats into her Beverly Hills home on Christmas Eve, 2000, when she caught a high-heeled shoe on a walkway and fell. She was still mending when the tour began in Wallingford, Conn., and designer Bob Mackie had to slit the sleeves of the gowns he had fashioned for her.

“People will say, ‘Break a leg.’ I say, ‘Ooh, I don’t usually say anything like that,’” Ann-Margret said from a tour stop in Denver.

Ann-Margret says she is delighted with the tour--"knee deep and loving it"--as she approaches her 300th performance as Miss Mona. The 40-city trek continues through mid-May, and Ann-Margret said she is mulling a contract renewal to extend it several months. It is the most sustained role of her career. Other memorable moments include her star-smitten teen in “Bye-Bye Birdie,” Elvis Presley’s love interest in “Viva Las Vegas” and Oscar-nominated turns as Jack Nicholson’s troubled girlfriend in “Carnal Knowledge” and the titular deaf-dumb-and-blind-boy’s mother in “Tommy.”

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Ann-Margret says she had turned down past offers to star in musicals. This time was different. She liked the part, and Smith, who has guided her career since they wed in 1967, was eager for her to take it and felt well enough to travel with her. The actress says constant togetherness has been the linchpin of their marriage.

“I could not have a relationship if I would be apart from the person,” Ann-Margret said. “So many people say, ‘How does it work, being together night and day?’ It works and we don’t analyze it.”

Ann-Margret has been in films of plays and musicals, including “Bye-Bye Birdie.” Gary Sandy, the veteran stage actor (and former “WKRP in Cincinnati” cast member) who plays Miss Mona’s romantic interest, thinks she quickly mastered live theater.

“You’re not looking at the audience as you would if it were Ann-Margret doing her nightclub act in Las Vegas,” Sandy said from Denver. “She had to begin to realize that they’re looking in on something and we’re not supposed to know they’re there. There’s a certain technique behind that, and after a short period she began to figure that out.”

Some reviewers think Ann-Margret has not translated very well to the stage. “I’m a fan and admirer of Ann-Margret, but I have to report that she is merely OK,” wrote Douglas J. Keating in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post praised her “presence” and “soul” but complained that “Ann-Margret doesn’t act as much as present herself ... there needs to be more to this stage version of Ann-Margret than an intriguing presence and a flair for glamour.” For her part, Ann-Margret says she hasn’t read her reviews since 1962.

She laughed when asked whether she saw any contradiction between singing gospel on CD and playing a whorehouse madam on stage. As the poster for “The Best Little Whorehouse” makes clear, sexiness is still her trademark. It shows Ann-Margret draped in the folds of a bedsheet as she lounges atop a perhaps not-so-lonesome Lone Star of Texas.

“I know it sounds really strange,” she said. “But [the religious side] is a part of me that I have not had a chance to show. I’ve always believed in the Lord, and I really felt good being able to express myself that way.”

Producer Greenhaw says he has been an Ann-Margret fan since “Viva Las Vegas” 38 years ago. Along with the obvious sensuousness, he said in an interview, he also found a spirituality in her performances. That was confirmed when he read her 1994 autobiography, “My Story.” Greenhaw, a member of the gospel group the Light Crust Doughboys, wrote some religious songs for Ann-Margret and sent them to her manager last year. He suggested she perform them with backing from his group and from the legendary harmony ensemble the Jordanaires.

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She agreed, and sessions were scheduled for last June in Dallas. The day before the first session, Ann-Margret’s mother, Anna Aronsson Olsson, died in Los Angeles at age 82. Recording was postponed for several weeks.

She says her mother’s death brings deeper meaning to the gospel CD, her first new album in about 20 years. "[My mother] was so excited about it and so interested in it, so it made me feel good to honor her with it.”

Ann-Margret is not planning for future roles or thinking about taking this show to Broadway.

“I never look into the future or back. As someone who has had a lot of accidents and gone through some things, I just want to live right now. I feel really blessed.”

*

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. $27.50 to $64.50. (714) 556-2787.


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