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One spicy banana: Seattle's Billie Wildrick sings Sondheim and much more


Author note: I have seen Billie in the all the shows listed below. She's not just "Seattle's favorite blonde bombshell" (as one smitten gent once described her to me), she's also a singing actress who is reliably funny no matter the part.

Seattle audiences have seen the lovely and often blonde Billie Wildrick in many musical comedy roles. Some standouts for me in recent years have been Columbia (Rocky Horror Show), Mayzie La Bird (Seussical), Eileen (Wonderful Town), and Cinderella (Into the Woods). Billie can be the goofiest of girls next door or the sultry singer luring the hero through the barroom door. Currently, she’s playing Dot in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George at the 5th Avenue Theatre and she'll be back this summer as Brünhilde in the world's funniest Texan take-off of Wagner's Ring at ACT.

Bille’s homepage starts off with the quote “couldn’t be more appealing if she were a banana…spicy enough to melt an iceberg.” And that’s a very good definition of this Seattle funny lady. We chatted via e-mail recently about her past roles, the challenges of singing Sondheim, and future plans

Want to explain the banana quote?

Thanks for asking :) That was pretty much my first professional review. I was doing EAT-TV, a musical about the first gourmet food network with singing chefs down at the adorable Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. I played Cookie Coutrell, the southern pastry Chef.

The full sentiment was “Wildrick, who couldn’t be more appealing if she were a banana, provides giggles with her jiggles as Cookie Coutrell. Her version of ‘Give In’ is spicy enough to melt an iceberg.” (Lee Juillerat, Klamath Falls Herald)

I've always enjoyed your comic timing in roles like Eileen and Cinderella. How hard is it to be funny?

I really appreciate that. I think comedy is a little like a fingerprint. I think you can only be funny the way you are funny -- which is your sense of timing. My sister thinks I'm hilarious but as we grew up together we honed a very specific comic vocabulary of gestures, noises and takes.

I think it's a little bit like musical talent. We're all born with a little more of it than we have once we start doubting our instincts, but some are more naturally gifted - in a universally comprehended way - than others.

We talked about the weight of Mayzie's tail when you did that role and it seems like you’re always appearing on stage in wild outfits. Any particular costumes that standout in your mind?

I've had some extraordinary and crazy costumes. The purple fringe shimmy dress from Smokey Joe's (Nanette Acosta, 5th), my beautiful set of 1930s dresses from Wonderful Town (Lynda Salsbury, 5th), and my brilliant Madonna cone-boob corset (by the awesome Darren Mills) from Rock and Roll 12th Night at Harlequin. My opening dress for EAT-TV had a giant cherry on each breast and cascaded into a multi-tiered cake skirt through which you could see my whipped cream panties. And at the end of the first act of Hair (5th), my costume consisted of only a long blond wig with flowers in it. I now own the faux fur chaps from Act II of Rocky Horror.

What attracts you to a role, besides the chance to acquire faux fur accessories?

Honestly, I don't have the luxury of reading piles of scripts and turning down loads of roles. I tend to look at the seasons of all the Seattle theaters when they are announced, read and listen to those shows I don't know, and mark the roles that I think I could play. Sometimes I get called in to read for those roles, sometimes I call and ask if I can be seen.

Personally, I love a challenge. But most roles can be that once you realize they are people, as much the center of their own universes as the leading characters. It's not about the size of the role. It's just the amount of their life that the character lives out on the stage in that particular play. All of the minor roles live full lives that could easily be highlighted in a different play.

Any particular favorites as a singer or as an actor?

Strangely, my way into acting is via singing. For some reason, I find it quicker to find honesty in a song than straight prose. I have found the most success with monologues in particular when I have approached them musically.

I love Sondheim for that reason, because so much of the acting work is in the lyric. I really loved playing Cinderella. Also sweet Eileen with the warm and lovely Sarah Rudinoff as my sis. I loved playing Irene Molloy at Village Theatre, it was something new for me to put forward and a beautiful experience. Mayzie (Seussical at Seattle Children’s Theatre) was great fun. Maggie Hartford in Saint Heaven (Village Theater) was a love and very grounding. Gosh, I fall in love with them all I think.

Dot in Sunday in the Park is a huge role, one that is really two characters, Dot in first half and Marie in the second half. What's the key to this role for you?

Dot/Marie is/are the role of a lifetime. I am beyond thrilled to get to play them both with such a truly phenomenal cast, top to bottom impressive. The key? Is easier to call in retrospect. I will check back in with you after opening.

As a singer, how is Sondheim from some of the other composers that you perform regularly?

As I mentioned before, Sondheim doesn't give his characters a break from communicating, evolving, and moving the story forward just because they're singing. If anything, they become more honest and more exposed in their music. And it's hard. It takes a lot longer to get to the point where it's in your voice and body because nothing is to be taken for granted. I think that's what's difficult for some audiences as well.

During season preview tours, I have heard more than one comment - particularly in retirement communities where they don't waste your time being anything but honest - about how they don't like the Sondheim shows. I think it's because he expects intellectual effort, not only from the performers but from the audience too. And some people just like to go to the theater to sit back and be entertained. But that's what makes his work magical. When it works it's because everybody's so completely invested on both sides of the proscenium.

When you're preparing for a musical, what's the routine for you? Study the lines first, study the music?

I'll admit, I learn the songs first because that's the more natural language for me. It is difficult for me to learn dialogue before rehearsing. I need to marry it to the rhythm of my scene partner(s) and the movement of my body.

If you could sing any role, what role would you want to sing?

Oh gosh. Other than Dot? I have a few on my bucket list like Guenivere in Camelot, Aldonza in Man of La Mancha, Clara in Passion, Mary in Jesus Christ Superstar....

I'm excited to sing Brünhilde in Das Barbecü (ACT) this summer. But more than anything, I want to create new roles. I think the musical theater has exciting new places to go.

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