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Stage Profile: Kate Suber brings CMU training and Broadway experience to CLO

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

As slim and angular as I recall from her days at CMU, Kate Suber is now a few years older, probably wiser and certainly more experienced, but with the same bow mouth and arched eyebrows. You might even call her quizzical air perky, if that didn't sound too young for an accomplished performer in mid-career.

'Jekyll & Hyde'

WHERE: Benedum, Downtown.

WHEN: 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

TICKETS: $12-$44; 412-456-6666.

'Jekyll & Hyde' a creepy good show

Suber is now with Pittsburgh CLO, playing the good girl leads in "Guys and Dolls" (last week) and "Jekyll & Hyde" (through Sunday). "The thing I'm proudest of is I've made my living as a working actor, doing what I started out to do," she says, as we meet to drink coffee and reminisce.

"The first time I was on stage at the Stanley," she recalls -- dating herself as pre-Benedum -- "was two weeks into my freshman year [1982], on the closing night of the first national tour of 'A Chorus Line.' " The late beloved CMU prof Charlie Willard brought Suber and some classmates to see history.

"Michael Bennett came here to close the show. He said that night, 'There are no audiences like Pittsburgh audiences' -- that's why he wanted to come. Afterward, Charlie took us up on stage. You know, 'Chorus Line' was my generation's show. Now, to walk out on that stage again ...."

We both enjoy the thought.

But the picture I have in mind was a few years later, when Suber played, not the good girl at all, but the ultimate bad girl -- the temptress Circe in CMU's production of "The Odyssey."

"Circe inveigles Odysseus from her jungle gym of 'ingenious dalliance,' " I wrote in review, and that's just how I remember it: The lithe Suber slithering like a serpent on high bars, drawing Odysseus into her web of indulgence.

"I remember that apparatus," she says -- "my tree! They gave me a special coach for several months to build up my upper body strength and dressed me in yards and yards of chiffon."

There was a curious distance about Suber even then, a quality CLO audiences have enjoyed the past weeks in her Sarah Brown and Emma Carew, two nice, even inhibited women in love with very unconventional men.

Surprisingly, it's her first appearance with the CLO. She auditioned several times when at CMU. "I think I was an alternate one year, but Charlie Gray never cast me, though he was always dear during auditions."

She's here now largely because she played Emma for Robert Cuccioli last year, the first time he directed "Jekyll & Hyde," after years playing the lead on tour and Broadway. They clicked, so he recruited her and Michelle Dawson, a 1989 CMU music graduate, to reprise their Emma and Lucy here.

Then she was auditioned for other CLO roles. At one point she was told she'd have to choose between Emma and Sarah, but she said (demurely, no doubt) she'd just as rather play both, and the CLO brass agreed. So for two weeks she played at night opposite Cuccioli's Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls," while rehearsing days under his direction for "Jekyll & Hyde."

Singing both roles each day was hard: "I may be vocally burned out, but I have that Carnegie focus." She calls Frank Wildhorn's "Jekyll" vocals "gymnastic. They push a singer to the brink. ... 'In His Eyes' may be the greatest female duet in musical theater."

She calls Cuccioli "a beautiful director and a wonderful leading man." Directing, he "brings the story back to life, so we lose some of the histrionics. You see the heart of the piece."

Suber's one previous chance to play Sarah Brown was at CMU, not counting when she was 9 ("my family's favorite performance"). In 1984, CMU director/choreographer Billy Wilson cast her as Sarah. It was unheard of for a sophomore to get a mainstage lead, but she chose to leave CMU at mid-year, because of the pressure of the cut system. In those days, CMU admitted 40 or more hopeful actors each year and ended up graduating as few as a dozen. She says friends were sick with the tension, and she didn't think it should be that way.

"I went back to Chicago, did some acting, worked as a cocktail waitress -- and discovered the whole world could be mean, too." So she returned to CMU and graduated in 1987, a year after her original class.

They were "tough, arduous years," with Mel Shapiro in charge. "A great acting teacher, Lis Orion, headed the core of studio work, then Mel pushed us in the junior and senior years, inundating us with professional actors and directors with egos and agendas. By hook or by crook, we learned so much. You can't pay for that kind of education -- though we did!"

Suber's CMU contemporaries included Blair Underwood, Pamela Winslow, Marcus Lovett, Julia Collins and Jim Shanta. In "The Happiest Girl in the World," which the CMU summer company staged at Hartwood, Shapiro cast her as Diana, goddess of chastity.

"The Mel years had wonderful positives, but a dark side, too," she sums up. "CMU was advertising itself as 'where Broadway begins' and 'the professional choice.' But in retrospect, the cut system was no more grueling than the audition system in the real world."

Old grad nostalgia really comes out when she considers CMU's new Purnell Arts Center: "I don't know what the Carnegie experience is, if you're not sleeping in stairwells waiting to get into a dirty rehearsal hall!"

Among the highlights of her professional life she includes a 1993-96 stint as Christine in the national tour of "Phantom of the Opera." "They were cookie-cutter productions, but the show was received like visiting royalty. It works on you, doing an epic tragedy with $250,000 worth of costumes on your back."

She joined the cast of "Titanic" on Broadway and came here with the tour in 2000. But she speaks with special warmth of playing Claire, originally the Betty Comden role, in the 1997 "On the Town" in Central Park.

"I thought a lot about Mel, since that's where he directed [his Tony-winning] 'Two Gentlemen of Verona.' It was magic -- you can't sing 'New York, New York' in a better setting. It was so sensual doing that outdoors as the sun went down, singing that score."

She remembers an interview where she was asked if she'd ever before had such an imaginative director as George Wolfe, and she said, "With no disrespect to George, yes, I have -- Mel Shapiro."

But along with half the cast, she didn't get to transfer with the show to Broadway -- where it flopped. "You learn a lifetime of lessons, then hope for the opportunity to go through it again some time." Acting, she says wryly, is "an affliction. I've known I wanted to do this since I was 6."

Now, she's given up touring, preferring to stay in New York, hoping to get involved in a new musical, to have a chance to originate a role on Broadway.

Or maybe it's just that "I had to get off the road in order to have plants."

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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