Broadway Rose’s “Audition From Hell” Puts Its Female Cast Front and Center

The original musical was written by the company’s producing artistic director, Sharon Maroney.

Audition From Hell (Craig Mitchelldyer)

Once female musical theater actors hit a certain age, they start to disappear from starring roles faster than their gray roots can grow back. Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s invigorating new play, Audition From Hell, says to hell with that convention and features not one but five leading ladies, all of whom are past the normal expiration date for female performers.

Written and directed by Sharon Maroney, Broadway Rose’s producing artistic director, Audition From Hell is about four actors vying for two parts in a new play. From the moment they appear at the audition, their desperation to snag one of the roles creates a palpable tension.

Samantha, played by Laurie Campbell-Leslie with a mixture of goofy fear and genuine warmth, jitters her leg so vigorously the stage seems to be vibrating. Meanwhile, Jennifer, a self-proclaimed bitch played by Lisamarie Harrison, saunters around with her hand on her hip, then admits she wants this job because her career peaked 25 years ago, and she’s never been as happy as she was back then.

Time is running out for all the ladies. Mary Jo (Emily Sahler), who tugs off her Ugg boots before cramming her feet into a pair of poppy-colored pumps, says she hasn’t been cast for a show in two years. “All I do is audition,” she says. Samantha, too, acknowledges that her own “days of playing Ado Annie [the flirty gal from Oklahoma!] are gone.”

Unfortunately, the fourth auditioner, Linda (Courtney Freed), turns out to be Jennifer’s archnemesis, the one who double-crossed her, sending her career into a downward spiral. And when Jennifer’s rage results in a full-on brouhaha, everyone is drawn into the feud, including Anika (Laura McCulloch), the beleaguered director-producer of the fictional play.

“Obviously,” Anika tells the women at one point, “you ladies aren’t in your 20s.” Neither is she. Early on, Anika sings a song called “I Can’t Do This.” While she’s a mature woman with a prominent white streak in her hair, she’s also a grieving widow who doubts her ability to succeed without her husband by her side.

Maroney, though, refuses to portray her characters as pathetic victims of an ageist and misogynist society. In the spirit of sisterhood, Samantha cheers up Mary Jo with homemade granola bites and convinces her to stay at the audition when she tries to escape. The women will get through this awful day, Maroney’s script shows, if they stick together.

There are plenty of sentimental moments in Audition from Hell. Samantha sings about her husband of 36 years, saying, “I guess I won the prize.” The only male character, Ben (Isaac Lamb), the accompanist, also makes a clichéd remark about Anika’s moxie as she overcomes her worries and persists in producing the play and taking “her place at the table.”

Lively music and witty lines, though, keep the show from turning to treacle. Particularly delightful is Anika’s solo number. As choreographed by Dan Murphy, “Pizzazz” starts as a classic showbiz routine, complete with a big smile and jazz hands, before it spins into slapstick as the spotlight starts bouncing around the stage like an errant rubber ball and Anika gets tangled up in her feather boa. Other highlights include Jennifer’s crack about the mayhem of the audition (“I paid a cat sitter $25 an hour for this?”) and Linda’s lament, “Why did I wear this underwear?”

The women auditioning here particularly adore the chutzpah of Hello, Dolly! But Maroney’s story offers more than toe-tapping entertainment by asking serious questions. Do women have to be a certain age and size to be worthy of attention? Can they find true success and satisfaction when they become comrades rather than competitors?

In the program notes, Maroney says she started writing her play after watching a sappy Hallmark movie. “I could do better,” she told herself. While Hallmark sticks to its patented formula of canned romance, Audition From Hell is anything but predictable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the play’s deliciously zany grand finale, which includes a chorus line of World War II Soviet women pilots.

Yes, Maroney can do better than Hallmark. And with this funny, female-centric show, she did.

SEE IT: Audition From Hell plays at the Broadway Rose New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Ave., Tigard, 503-620-5262, 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through May 14. $20-$50.

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