Those of us with experience in any aspect of theatrical production know: There is plenty of drama backstage, beginning long before weeks of rehearsal have honed a production. And for leading ladies of a certain age, the challenges don’t necessarily get easier with experience.
Audition From Hell, a new musical premiering at Broadway Rose Theatre Company and continuing through May 14, is pitched there — behind the scenes, before the production, with the women continuing to put themselves out there long after the ingenue roles have dried up. It’s terrain that the show’s creator, Sharon Maroney, Broadway Roses’s producing artistic director, knows well, drawing from her own experiences and those of her friends.
Drama backstage has been done before — but the focus on seasoned leading ladies isn’t as well-traveled. There don’t tend to be more than one in most productions, which contributes to a thinness in material available to women with the most experience.
One breezy musical can only make a small dent in that problem — this one runs an efficient 90 minutes without an intermission, as befits the modest story told here — but Maroney and her creative team aim to make it a meaningful dent. The production offers five leading ladies the opportunity to lightly flex their musical and dramatic gifts, evincing the range of courage, insecurity, hunger, and determination needed to keep putting oneself out there.
Laura McCulloch (Anika) opens the show with a solo song-and-dance number before shakily assuming the role of casting director for a stalled production that she has been expecting someone else to direct. By the time Anika unexpectedly becomes director of the production, we have gathered that she is accustomed to supporting others and hasn’t really seen herself in the role of director — and we might also wonder about the chicken-or-egg question of why that is so. Is it because she did not believe in herself, or because there would have been little point to such a belief, given who was already occupying those spaces?
It’s a theme that manifests in various ways for the four women auditioning: How much do they believe in themselves, and why? Anika tells her collaborator, Ben (Isaac Lamb), that she has identified one of the four as a long shot, but doesn’t identify which one, planting that question for the audience.
Is it Mary Jo (Emily Sahler), whose insecurities and nerves are easiest to spot, but who is a practiced auditioner? Or Samantha (Laurie Campbell-Leslie), who appears naïve and says she hasn’t auditioned in two decades, but whose talents and skills manifest in ways somehow both intimidating and disarming? Jennifer (Lisamarie Harrison) seems the most confident, but is that bravado? And what secret is Linda (Courtney Freed) hiding behind her self-help book?
We are meant to realize that these women contain mysteries, that despite the ephemeral rewards of auditioning and performing, they are drawn to payoffs beyond fame and money. Their vulnerability at times may make you wince, and you may also smile at the ways they move in and out of sisterhood while competing for two roles. But they embody talent both realized and unrealized, and the urge to create that transcends little indignities that they experience along the way.
Audition From Hell doesn’t bite off more than it can chew; its aims are genuine and executed well by a fine cast and creative team. Judging from an appreciative audience at opening, it’s an enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes with five talented women (representative of so many more) who can’t bank on getting their due but who show up with everything, anyway.