Matthew Lombardo, whose plays High (with Kathleen Turner) and Looped (with Stephanie Powers) have had successful runs at the Parker Playhouse the past two winters, came to a conclusion about the place he calls his part-time home.
“We saw that there was a market for nonmusical plays with name talent,” says Lombardo, a playwright and producer who divides his time between New York and Fort Lauderdale. “We decided to present a series of three plays in peak season.”
By “we,” Lombardo is referring to himself and Jill Kratish, director of programming for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which manages and books shows at the Parker. The two joined forces to create WinterStage, a series that grew beyond the initial three-play vision to include concert-and-conversation evenings with Broadway veterans Megan Mullally, Megan Hilty and Patti LuPone.
Will & Grace star Mullally performed last month, and the first play — Golda’s Balcony with Tovah Feldshuh — has come and gone. But the concerts, in which actor-pianist-radio host Seth Rudetsky accompanies and interviews the stars, continue at 8 p.m. Thursdaywith Smash star Hilty, followed by Tony Award winner LuPone on March 13. The next play features soap star Heather Tom in Vanities March 26 through 30, with That ‘70s Show mom Debra Jo Rupp playing sex therapist Ruth Westheimer in Becoming Dr. Ruth April 16 through 20.
Though Lombardo doesn’t have one of his own plays in this year’s series, he has become a big fan of the elegant, 1,167-seat Parker, which opened in 1967 and was the place to see theater before the Broward Center was built. Kratish says theater fans who have sampled the series seem to like it too.
“The sound is just so crisp for the spoken word,” she says.
The Mark Cortale-produced concert shows, Lombardo says, also resonate in the Parker’s more intimate setting.
“What I really, really like about them is that they’re very different from a concert. They sing, then Seth takes them to a seating area and asks them questions. The audience really connects with finding out more about the performers,” he says.
Rudetsky, who hosts Seth’s Big Fat Broadway on Sirius/SM Radio’s On Broadway channel, says the song/conversation format is something he has always done. He invites the audience to submit questions in advance and chooses some, though his encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway (and Broadway gossip) would provide fodder for hundreds of shows. The result, he says, is that “it’s never the same show twice.”
Having encountered the Fort Lauderdale audience when he performed with Mullally, he says, “The audiences are savvy. They get all the jokes. And they love the inside stories from Broadway. The Parker is beautiful — it’s a fantastic house.”
Hilty, who made her Broadway debut as Glinda in the long-running Wicked, has most recently focused on TV work. She was the scheming, ambitious Ivy on the Broadway making-of-a-musical show Smash, then played Sean Hayes’ pal on the just-canceled sitcom Sean Saves the World. But she loves keeping her career eclectic, doing movies, voice-over work, theater and concerts, often with new hubby Brian Gallagher and two other musicians.
In Fort Lauderdale, she’ll sing familiar songs including a couple from Smash, plus something from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which won her raves when she played the lead in the popular Encores! series in New York. Rudetsky once challenged her to sing I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady and she did, so that one is likely to pop up on Thursday.
“Seth’s format is genius. There’s not much better way to get to know an artist than doing an interview, then going into a song right after that. With the questions, it’s always new,” Hilty says.
Rupp, who first performed Mark St. Germain’s Becoming Dr. Ruth at Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage and then did the play at Hartford Stage and Off-Broadway, said yes to the demanding solo show because “I was getting offered a lot of little mom parts” after playing Kitty on That ‘70s Show. Instead, she chose to play the famous Dr. Ruth, whom she calls “the only woman who makes me feel tall” — at 5’1 1/2” the petite Rupp towers over Westheimer.
“My first instinct was to say no, I’m not going back to New York theater playing a little sex therapist,” Rupp says. “All I knew about her was that she was very short, had a high voice and was funny.”
But then she learned about Westheimer’s background — that she was sent to safety in Switzerland from Germany during World War II via the Kindertransport, that she became a Haganah sniper in Jerusalem, later coming to the United States as a single mother — and decided to take on the challenge of a play whose demands terrified her.
“I watched everything she ever did on YouTube, read her books and met with her many times,” Rupp says.
The research and hard work on getting Westheimer’s accent right obviously worked. She and the famous woman she’s portraying have become good friends. Even the good doctor’s family likes the show.
“Every time we moved it to a new place, her entire family would come,” Rupp says.
Lombardo and Kratish are already looking at plays for the next WinterStage season. Kratish notes that, though they’d like to stick to the three-play vision they have for WinterStage, “if we only find two, we’ll do two.” Doing more concerts, she says, “is very artist-dependent.”
Lombardo is hoping to cultivate relationships with major regional theaters, finding some WinterStage plays with stars that way. And he has another play of his own in the pipeline, one that might have its world premiere next season at the Broward Center. He won’t talk about it yet except to say that the title of the 90-minute play is Secret Square. Those of a certain age can guess the subject — an old TV game show and its most famous star — but for now, Lombardo is keeping the details a secret and his focus on WinterStage.
“I really enjoy producing and doing a series here in the winter,” he says. “We have such strong communities of older, Jewish and gay audiences, and we’re trying to get a younger demographic, too.”