No one is really famous in Portland. At least no one is willing to admit it. We do have artists who cut a swath across the pop-culture landscape, like filmmaker Gus Van Sant or author Chuck Palahniuk.
The same goes for bands. The globe-touring Gossip's red-hot Beth Ditto lives here, but she rarely mentions it in the slew of articles that tout her as, literally, the next big thing. The same goes for the Shins, Modest Mouse, the Dandy Warhols and Britt Daniel (of Spoon fame).
So what to make of Storm Large? Is she famous? Well, not really—at least not super-huge, Perez Hilton-fodder famous—although everyone here seems to know her. Just try walking down the street with her. Almost everyone stops to say hello, or at least shout, "STORM!" from across the street. Certainly, this paper has spilled plenty of ink on her. She was our cover girl in 2004 for "Best of Portland.'' I kept an online journal chronicling her drama-filled rise on CBS's schmaltzy Rock Star: Supernova . So what's left to write about a 38-year-old, 6-foot-something singer with big, er…feet and a strange name?
On Friday, Sept. 28, Storm Large takes what might be the biggest gamble in her career. She will make her professional theatrical debut in the most iconic of musical roles: Sally Bowles in Portland Center Stage's production of Cabaret . "For the first time in a long time, I'm scared I might not be able to do something," Large said recently. "I'm ready for this show to kick my butt."
But it's not just a gamble for Storm.
It's also a stretch for Portland Center Stage. The theater company, which went deeply in debt to renovate the Portland Armory for its new home, opened its first season in the Armory last year with West Side Story . The show was a success, selling out and extending its run.
For this production, PCS artistic director Chris Coleman has put a healthy portion of his fragile eggs in the basket of an untrained actress who's been known to suck in her abs to make it look like she has four breasts. Or to spit on fans, just one of her many charms.
And don't think for a minute this hasn't been noticed by our local community of working actors and actresses.
"When Puff Daddy does Raisin in the Sun , we're fucked," says Wendy Westerwelle about Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' Broadway turn a few years back. Westerwelle, a 35-year-veteran of the Portland theater scene, is known for her zany and zaftig roles in Storefront Theater's Angry Housewives and her one-woman Sophie Tucker show. She's not exactly thrilled about the casting of an amateur by the city's (arguably) best-known theater company. "Theaters today are more interested in making money off of someone's 15 minutes of fame," says Westerwelle, who points out that there are other eminently qualified performers in Portland. "Storm's beautiful and has a lovely voice, but she's not an actress. There are plenty of trained pros in Portland who can do this part."
Storm is the first to admit Wendy might be right: This just may be the biggest mistake PCS has ever made. The very first thing Large said to Coleman after agreeing to do the role was: "I hope I don't fuck this up."
It's four weeks before opening night and Large is sweating. Not dainty-girl sweat but huge globs of man-sized perspiration that cascade down her ample shoulders. Sure it's hot, but there's something else going on. As Sally Bowles, Large must persuade her male lead to let her move in with him. After walking through the scene for what seems like hours, they get to the part where Storm begins to sing.
But she doesn't. She just stops and starts laughing.
"I'm not used to going from dialogue to singing," she says to Coleman. "It's like, 'And now I shall sing a little song for you.' " To which her director, Coleman, replies (and later recalls on his own blog): "Well, after all, it is a musical." It's not clear if Large's fellow actors—seasoned pros like Romain Fruge—are looking on with amusement or distaste.
Cabaret is itself an adaptive creature: The 1966 musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb was based on John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera —in turn an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's short-story collection Goodbye to Berlin —and later became the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli as Sally. It tells the story of the love affair between an English cafe singer and an American writer in Berlin on the eve of the Nazis' rise to power. Coleman was eager to direct the show not just because it's a popular classic—and a sure-fire hit—but because he sees it as a parable for our times.
"It's about the price of denial. And [it's] an important piece to be confronting at this moment in our history as a country," he said at the first rehearsal. "I think there's a lot happening right now that we have all responded to with quite a bit of complacence. It resonates in odd ways."
The story revolves around the tragic life of its lead character, Sally, a coked-up, third-rate lounge singer with a penchant for sleeping with whoever will pay her bills. Music ensues.
One could argue that, despite her complete lack of acting chops, Large is perfectly suited for the role. Sexual addict, er…appetite? Check. Drug habit (at least a former one)? Check. Experience making a living as a girl singer in late-night, smoke-filled clubs? Check.
Throughout the course of the show, Sally not only deals with substance and physical abuse, but issues of abortion and same-sex attraction, subjects the openly bisexual Large has had to deal with in her own personal life, too.
"I may not know how to act Sally Bowles, but I sure know what it's like to live her life," said Storm about the "bold-face similarities" between her and Sally. "I started having sex before the eighth grade, and I was addicted to heroin by the age of 21. Usually people start doing drugs when they start playing in bands and getting into that lifestyle. The opposite was true for me. After I started writing and performing music, I got hooked on performing."
Born and raised in rural Southborough, Mass., Large graduated in 1987 from the private St. Mark's School, where Large's father, Henry, is a history and religion teacher. Although she's not a working actress, she trained as one at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, graduating with an associate's degree in 1989, and even performed in a few small indie and TV films, including Admissions (which is available on Netflix). But music was her passion.
"The worst thing about acting school was the actors," said Large at a recent taping of OPB's Live Wire! show. "I was much happier being around the punk rockers."
She spent years sweating and squirming her way across the stage at Dante's, a hellishly hued West Burnside club. Prior to that, she toured up and down the West Coast, primarily playing gigs in San Francisco. Large's adults-only act, backed by her band the Balls, featured original rock tunes mixed with covers from Olivia Newton-John, Billy Idol and Bad Brains. She dubbed her music, a pop-rock-punk mash-up, as "lounge-core." Her shows were usually packed, and she did things onstage that might make even a wild child like Britney Spears blush (including ditching essential articles of clothing). Think Bette Midler meets Karen Finley, with a dash of Lenny Bruce thrown in for good measure.
Last summer, Large became a legitimate reality-show vixen on Rock Star: Supernova , a program premised on a search for a singer to lead a super band that included Pamela Anderson's ex Tommy Lee. She didn't make it to the final round of that show, but she stole America's heart. She cut a new CD, Ladylike, Side One (she released her self-produced album in June on her label, Big Daddy Large), traveled as far as New Zealand, and even got an offer from Playboy to take it all off for $85,000. She turned it down when she realized they didn't want to talk about her music.
"I didn't want to [be another] Darva Conger," said Large, referring to the ER nurse who won big on Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and then bared all in the magazine.
Large, who had been going full guns since the whole Rock Star thing ended, wanted—OK, needed—a break from what she calls "the Storm Machine."
"It's really hard to do it all by yourself," said Large about the constant care and feeding a career like hers needs, including everything from lugging band equipment to selling her own CDs.
"We were generating all the momentum. Ladylike was the No. 1 seller on CD Baby for the first month out," said Large. "It's all very rewarding…but because you're doing everything yourself, including playing shows every night and promoting the CD every day…it's also to-the-bone exhausting." She says she was ready to be a "leaf in the wind," rather than "the leaf and the wind." She told her band, including her fiancé, bass player Davey Nipples, that she was going to take a break from the whole rock thing for now.
In the meantime, at a dinner party I attended last fall with Coleman, the idea of Large as Sally Bowles surfaced. Large agreed to do the show in May. And at the end of August, rehearsals for Cabaret began.
On a recent Sunday night, Large returned with her Cabaret castmates to Dante's for "Sinferno Cabaret," which features performances by sex workers and other nightlife habitués. Large thought it was the right place to do "research" for their roles at the Kit Kat Club, the prewar 1930s Berlin nightclub where most of Cabaret takes place—and where her castmates could see what it's like to bump and grind for a living. In front of Large and her posse of leggy showgirls and bubble-butted showboys, a lithesome dancer lit her own body on fire. Orange flames curled up her sleeve, nearly engulfing her hoodie-covered head until she extinguished them by taking off her top and then her bra, finally exposing her breasts. Following the performance, the emcee pointed toward the ceiling.
"We've got Storm Large in the house," said the emcee, signaling to the VIP balcony. "Say hi, Storm!"
Storm hustled her way downstairs and worked the room like she was running for mayor. She even hugged the girl on fire. She was in her element.
The rehearsal hall at the Armory was a different matter altogether.
"It was a bit scary to jump into the project not really knowing Storm's abilities as an actress," Coleman said. "[But] from a marketing standpoint—it was a very big deal. I knew that if we got a commitment from her, we would get a lot of attention from the community."
During his tenure at PCS, Coleman has taken the company outside its comfort zone, mounting sexed-up productions of Shakespeare. His version of Cabaret , which is based on a late-'90s production directed by Sam Mendes, is equally lewd, focusing more overtly on sex, drugs and showtunes and not solely on the anti-Semitic resonances that drove the original script. In fact, PCS is the first company outside NYC's Roundabout Theater to get the rights to this R-rated version (those under 18 need an adult to see the show).
Even though both the script and the choice of Large are risqué, neither seemed to pose a risk with Coleman's board of directors. Upon telling the man whose name is on the theater that he was thinking of hiring Large, Pearl District developer Bob Gerding replied, "OH MY GOD, can we really get her? She would be amazing! It's going to sell out!"
Ticket sales for Cabaret are indeed brisk, and they'd better be. Coleman and his crew are still digging themselves out of $8 million worth of debt they accrued when this theater company, which is celebrating its 20th season, decided to leave downtown's Newmark Theater and move to the hustle and bustle of the high-rent Brewery Blocks. That's the amount still needed to pay off their new home, a controversial theater inside a once-abandoned but now spiffed-up and eco-friendly Armory space.
Although Coleman's made his share of controversial castings (he once cast an African-American to play the drifter Hal—William Holden's role in the film version—in a production of Picnic ), this is the first time he's worked with a so-called "celebrity."
"I think it's a good thing that Storm Large is in Cabaret ," says anther Portland musical director, Greg Tamblyn, who is currently directing Ghosts of Celilo for Artists Repertory Theater (it also opens Friday). "She seems to have worked very hard and has definitely earned her shot at a chance at this. My only reservation is the part of Sally Bowles might be out of character for Storm. If people are coming to see her do her act and she takes the role of Sally seriously, her fans may be disappointed. But if they alter the part to fit Storm's act, I think the theater community will be disappointed. Then it will all come off as "come see Storm Large as Storm Large in Cabaret ," not "come see this amazing talent and voice transform into the role of Sally Bowles."
"I don't think the casting of Storm is controversial," said Coleman during a rehearsal break. "She's definitely a force of nature in rehearsals, and comes at things from a different vantage point than most of the cast. But by and large they seem to have grown very affectionate towards her."
That doesn't mean there haven't been Storm clouds.
On the second day of rehearsal, Large was introduced to a song she'd never heard before, "Maybe This Time." Large had only seen snippets of the film version before deciding to do the show. Rick Lewis, the show's musical director, gave her a bit of the song's backstory, how it debuted in the movie, how it's been forever associated with Liza Minnelli. "It's a song every gay guy does in the bathroom," said Lewis.
After struggling with a few bars, Large stopped and asked Lewis to help her out. As soon as Lewis started to sing it with her, he stopped.
"I feel stupid singing in front of you," Lewis said.
"Why?" asked Large.
"Because you're a star," said Lewis.
"I'm a fucking star who doesn't know the song!" barked Large with a grin that spread across the room.
Large told Lewis she doesn't read music and needs to hear a song before she's able to sing it. After a few valiant attempts, Large was deep into the lyrics—so much so that she started to well up. "Maybe this time...I'll win," she whispered softly as a tear started to roll down her cheek.
Dancing was another fear. "I am clumsy and dyslexic," said Large. "When I am nervous, and put on the spot, it triples. I never remember my right from my left." She credits the show's assistant choreographer, Amy Palomino, who started working with Large a few weeks before rehearsals began, for saving her ass so far.
"She's a big, loud kid," said Coleman about Large. "[I think] it's a little scary for her. She's sometimes insecure, and at one moment last week, she yelled loudly to herself: 'You're just a big rock singer! What are you doing here?'"
The biggest surprise for Coleman?
"She can both belt the shit out of 'Cabaret' [the title song] and take this very complex, dark, messed-up emotional journey. That is some very tricky acting work, and she is hitting it over the fence."
Large will not join the cast when the show moves from Portland to Rochester, N.Y., at the end of its run in November. She knows she has to get back on the road with her band if she wants her music career to continue.
So maybe Storm Large didn't go "Supernova," but the moral of this story is that she's finding her way to make her star brighter. This time out, it just happens to be as a singer in a musical. Who knows? Like the song says, "maybe this time, she'll win."
In fact, she might have already .
Coleman says this about his experience with Large: "I guess she could have shown up and been the world's worst actress, and a big diva, and a pain in the butt, but we lucked out. We're already talking. She wants to do more. I want to develop a piece with her."
Cabaret, Portland Center Stage, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. Sept. 28-Nov. 4. $32-$48.50. Students (excluding Friday and Saturday evenings) $23.50. 18 and under (must be accompanied by an adult) $18.50.