'Unsinkable,' indeed

Music Circus veteran Susan Egan takes on the role of Molly Brown

By Jim Carnes -- Bee Staff Writer
(Published 9:20 a.m. PST Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2002)

Susan Egan, seen with Christopher Carl, who plays her husband in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," is making her third appearance at the Music Circus. She starred in "The Sound of Music" in 1996 and in "South Pacific" in the tent in '98.

Steve Kolb

Susan Egan eases into the chair and opens the paper bag that holds her lunch. Today is "kill the cow Friday."

"I wish they wouldn't call it that," she says, "but I love hamburgers. They offered me a cheeseburger and I didn't turn it down. Besides, we're burning off enough calories in there to justify eating this."

"In there" is the rehearsal hall where Egan and a slew of other actors are preparing for this week's Music Circus production of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." Egan has the title role.

"This lady never shuts up! Other people have six or seven words and I have a paragraph," she says, and laughs.

Her eyes sparkle and her mouth spreads frequently into a smile as she talks.

Although she has appeared at Music Circus before, this is her first time playing Molly, and the experience, she says, is "like being shot out of a cannon."

A Southern California native, she's just past 30 and has an impressive résumé of stage and screen credits. On Broadway, she was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk awards for best actress as the original Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" (and she repeated the role for the West Coast premiere in Los Angeles); she won critical acclaim when she stepped into the part of Sally Bowles in "Cabaret"; and she originated the role of Princess Léonide in "Triumph of Love." She was the voice of Meg in Disney's animated film "Hercules" and sang the part of Angel in "Lady and the Tramp II." She spent two seasons on television as "Nikki" after appearances on "Loving" and "All My Children," and appeared in episodes of "NYPD Blue," "Arliss," "Party of Five" and "The Drew Carey Show." At the Music Circus, she starred in "The Sound of Music" in 1996 and played Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific" in the tent in '98.

Egan has just been named artistic director of the Orange County High School of the Arts, her alma mater. With a rewritten curriculum and plenty of visiting professionals, Egan hopes to inspire young performers and prepare them for the real world.

One class, she says, will be " 'The Business of the Business,' and it'll address such things as how to do a résumé, where jobs are listed, how to get an audition, how to conduct themselves in a professional situation ... practical applications that aren't always taught."

Egan has learned in her 15 years since high school that "it's not how to get a job that really matters, it's how to get another job with the same people. That shows your competence, it proves your professionalism," she says.

Since this is Egan's third turn at the Music Circus, she has proved herself to producing director Leland Ball, executive producer Richard Lewis and former general manager and now artistic director Scott Eckern -- and they to her.

She had never played Nellie Forbush before Ball cast her in "South Pacific" four years ago, and she wasn't familiar with "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" until he picked her for the lead. "I trust him," she says. "When he said he wanted me for Molly, I said 'yes.'

"Leland understands actors," she says. "He -- everyone here -- values actors and shows them respect. You're not coddled or stroked, but valued. The people they hire are talented performers and some have incredible résumés. And when you get here, the atmosphere that's created is a real community.

"It's like summer camp with the best of Broadway."

Music Circus is a lot of work, too, she admits. There are only two weeks of rehearsal for a full-scale, in-the-round production. The first week is filled with learning lines and songs, and it's done indoors, in the rehearsal space of the Sacramento Ballet. The second week is spent working inside the tent in the daytime while another show is performed there each night.

On the plus side, "You get to see the two plays before yours and the one after yours." There's also a decent paycheck. "It's completely wonderful," she says, "especially when you consider that so many producers are putting out non-union tours and calling them 'straight from Broadway' with actors who are sometimes 20 years too young for the parts they're playing. It's great that Music Circus hires Equity casts -- and treats them so well, too."

When Egan completes her Music Circus gig, she'll be off to Chicago for performances of Cole Porter tunes with the Chicago Symphony July 31 and Aug. 1. She'll be competing with herself, sort of, Friday evening, as a made-for-TV movie she made, "Gotta Kick It Up," will air at 8 p.m. on the Disney Channel.

In September, just when she's beginning her Orange County High School of the Arts directorship, she'll also appear in the play "Amy's View" at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. She stars opposite Carol Lawrence in the play, which runs Sept. 3-29.

"Carol Lawrence was the original Maria in 'West Side Story.' I grew up dancing around my living room to the cast recording of that play. Who'd have imagined that I'd come to act opposite the original Maria?

"You never know the direction your life is going to go in," she says. "But if what you do comes from your heart, you'll find happiness and satisfaction.

"In the play, Molly's trying so hard to be accepted for something she's not. She's trying to find happiness outside herself.

"In the end, she must come to realize the value of the gift her father gave her when he told her all she really needs to know is in her heart."


The Unsinkable Molly Brown


Opens at 8 p.m. Monday and continues at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 7:30 p.m. next Sunday in the Music Circus tent, 1419 H St.; $27-$45. (916) 557-1999.