Tuesday in the park with Louise: ‘Calamity’ ends, and we bid adieu to a Mandrell
She really doesn’t like the heat.
Which can be an issue when you move to Fresno for three months during the summer. You know what can make the situation even tougher? Coming here to play a character in a musical who wears a fringed frontier jacket and a dilapidated hat that suggests squirrel stew might be on the menu for lunch. Suede does not breathe well on stage.
Pictured above: Author Donald Munro and ‘Calamity Jane’ star Louise Mandrell, along with Tillie and Zeus, at Woodward Park. Photo: Kelly Shipley
But this is Louise Mandrell we’re talking about. The country-music veteran does not back down from a challenge.
In 2012, with very little acting experience, she came to Fresno’s Good Company Players to play the title role in the sweet, corny, oldie-but-goodie musical “Calamity Jane.” After 30-plus years as a professional singer, she tried playing someone other than, well, Louise Mandrell. That took some guts. She knew she had a lot to learn.
To reprise Calamity, she came back seven years later. And seven years older. (She’s a bit shy about that fact, considering that her character is at least a couple of decades younger than the actual Louise.) For the past two months at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, she has been leaping on chairs, springing onto bar counters, diving headfirst into upright barrels and soaring through the air over cadres of cowboys, all while bellowing out lines and belting out songs at a nearly nonstop pace.
Now she is gearing up for her final performance. The matinee today (Sunday, Sept. 15) closes the run of the show. Sure enough, the weather forecast is scraping just shy of the century mark.
In this second run of “Calamity,” the heat has bothered her a bit more, she admits.
There’s air conditioning backstage, which kept getting cranked even colder as the run progressed and Louise sweltered. (There were a few times when she felt like she might faint.)
“Most ladies glow,” she says. “I perspire. My face gets so wet I have trouble keeping my mike on my face.”
The solution was pretty simple, actually.
“I wear ice packs,” she says. “And I’m still hot.”
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This explains why I’m sitting at 7:30 a.m. with Louise on a Tuesday at Woodward Park, when the softness of the Fresno day hasn’t started bristling with the coming heat. She wanted to meet early for the cool, and we decided to pick a spot where we could bring our dogs.
Louise loves many things in life — family, friends, music, ribs, conversation (“Calamity never shuts up, which kind of fits Louise, too,” she says with a smile), even the nightly acting notes from “Calamity” director Laurie Pessano on ways to make her performance better. (No joke, she really does).
You know what else ranks on that list? Dogs. Her own dog, a Chinese crested named Bobbie Sue, who made the trip to Fresno from Nashville seven years ago, stayed home this time. But Louise has bonded with the Pessano family dog, Zeus, so she brings him to the park for the interview.
And I bring my dog, Tillie, a small but significant apricot poodle who greets the singer the same way she does less vocally talented humans: with a shy sniff and a tentative lick.
Related stories: 10 Things to Know about Louise Mandrell and Good Company’s ‘Calamity Jane’
Review: In GCP’s ‘Calamity Jane,’ Louise Mandrell is the reason for the season
Until, that is, Zeus comes over to greet me, and I pet him. Tillie issues one sharp bark.
“Oh, she’s jealous,” Louise says. “That is so cute.”
Many people wonder how the former star of the TV series “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters” and prominent solo recording artist wound up headlining a Good Company show — not once but twice.
The answer is a little complicated, but the simple answer boils down to this: connections. Louise’s longtime manager, Clint Higham, is a GCP alum and prominent benefactor. He has stayed close with the Pessanos — Dan, Laurie, and their daughter, Emily — through the years, and when Louise decided she wanted to pursue the artistic dream of playing Calamity Jane, they welcomed her into the company.
And when I say welcomed, I mean it. Louise and her longtime assistant, Kelly Shipley, have moved into the Pessano home during this summer’s “Calamity” run. (In 2012 they stayed in a condo.)
To Dan Pessano’s surprise, Louise has been less a house guest and more a model roommate who volunteers to do chores, yard work and, of course, hang out with the dog.
“The fourth day in, she changed our sheets,” he says. “There’s really a heart of gold there.”
Actually, Louise’s housekeeping wasn’t totally altruistic. Zeus, a German shepherd-mix with a thick and voluminous coat, isn’t normally allowed in the house.
“I have to vacuum on my days off when I know that Laurie is coming home,” she says. “Because Zeus is not an indoor dog. But as soon as they leave for work, Zeus is an indoor dog.”
For Louise, bunking with the Pessanos has meant even greater access to Laurie. Remember those notes she loves receiving from her director about her acting? She can’t get enough of them.
That’s because she considers Laurie a mentor, just like she considers her older sister, Barbara. Louise has a nearly insatiable desire to be critiqued. She craves feedback so she can improve her work.
“I told Laurie when I moved in: ‘It will drive you crazy because I will follow you around.’ I think she thought I was exaggerating. But she knows better now.”
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There are notable differences between Louise’s 2012 and 2019 versions of “Calamity Jane.” In the original version, it took awhile for her to get used to stage singing.
“I thought, I’m a professional singer. It’s going to be so easy. And, oh my gosh, the hardest thing to do (as an actor) is sing. It’s not like with a microphone (in a concert). It’s totally different. Your technique is different, your sound is different. I had flashbacks of my daddy when he was going to do a solo in church saying, ‘You have to sing for the back wall.’ ”
Another difference: The first time, Louise thought the role would be cuter and funnier if she played it with a corny Southern sensibility — even though Calamity is from the Dakota Territories. This second go-around, she decided to drop the Southern schtick. She plays the role with a little more growl.
“I feel like she’s more genuine this time,” she says.
I ask her, as delicately as I can, if anything was changed in terms of blocking and stunts for the second version.
“You’re being so kind because of my age, is what I’m thinking,” she says with a laugh. “Actually, we added a lift.”
The age thing — I’m not going to mention the number here, but Louise cheerfully notes that it is oh so easy to look up such things today online — was something that she did think about, particularly in terms of the love story that is central to the show. Calamity flirts and fights throughout the show with Wild Bill Hickok, played by Ted Nunes.
“When I had to kiss Ted, I was really nervous about it,” she says. “I thought, I’m so much older than him. And he knows my age.”
As they were about to rehearse the scene with the kiss for the first time, she remembers that Nunes said to her, “I’m sorry I’m so tall.”
“I thought that was so funny,” she remembers. “There will not be one man in the audience who wouldn’t want to be your height. And there will not be one woman in the audience wishing she was mine.”
Then she asked: “How about my age?”
He said, “You’re so beautiful. Quit worrying about it.”
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I saw Version 2.0 of “Calamity Jane” on opening night and wrote that the show is “a cozy and endearing star vehicle for Mandrell, whose vivaciousness and enthusiasm for the role has not diminished one bit in seven years.”
Yet I tempered the applause for Mandrell in the review, adding that she didn’t quite disappear into the role of Calamity in the same way I’d expect from a seasoned musical-theater veteran.
So I was slightly nervous when I attended the show again about a month and a half later in preparation for this “exit interview” with Louise. Would she have grown in the role and shaken off the opening-night jitters?
After all, that is her ultimate goal, she tells me: “I like to feel that with each show I get better. Someone asked me the other day if the show was as good as it’s going to get. And I answered, ‘No, I’m going to get better. On the very last show, I should be the best, because I keep learning.’ ”
That she does.
From the first moments of her opening song in my most recent viewing, I know something is different. My nervousness dissipates. A few minutes later, I’m enveloped in the performance. Mandrell is wonderful: by turns rousing, relaxed, warm, funny and eager. I can tell she has figured out how to harness the confidence of those 30-plus years of singing to big crowds and applied it to playing a character on a smaller stage. She knows how to work her star power.
For me, the biggest adjustment in the 2019 version has to do with the way the Calamity character bops between depictions of masculinity and femininity. (Seven years later, the issue of gender fluidity is noticeably more in the forefront in today’s society, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I would key into it.) Granted, those depictions in the script can feel a little cartoonish. But you can find something substantial in the silliness.
In the song “Men,” performed by a large ensemble, Calamity is the only woman on stage. The gender dynamic is fascinating. On one hand, the premise of the show is that this grown-up tomboy (does that make her a manboy?) has been ridin’ and whoopin’ and hollerin’ so much of her life with the guys that she doesn’t know how to “act like a girl.” A running gag is that people mistake her for a man because of her clothes and bearing. (This sets up the makeover plotline in which Calamity connects with her feminine side.)
Yet even with this gender ambiguity, the character holds her own with all those rough-and-tough Western guys on stage. Yes, she takes some ribbing from those men, and, yes, they’re sexist, and, yes, their corny lyrics can be eye-rolling. But there is also a feistiness of spirit on Calamity’s part — not to mention an impressive competence in terms of being able to outshoot and outride them, thus leveling the playing field — that feels lively and inspired.
There’s a nice comic twist at the end of the song, too. After all the complaining, Calamity’s last lyric is: “I still want a man.” Louise hits the laugh line with the timing of a pro.
When I see her later, at the park, I tell Louise that after this most recent viewing, I could finally see what she has seen for all these years in Calamity. Her love for the character makes more sense.
I ask Louise what she’s learned from playing the role.
“That I think it’s important to know that it’s OK for people to be different,” she says.
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After every show, Louise walks the short distance to what in the GCP world is called the Annex, a room next to the theater that serves as a rehearsal space for the Junior Company Players. There she patiently stands and signs autographs. She loves this part of the experience. (“I really do need the attention, so I’ll see you over there,” she tells the audience from the stage after the final bows.)
As many as 100 people will crowd into the room after a performance, says Daniel Sutherland, who plays the character of Buck in the show and serves as a combination photographer and bodyguard at each autograph session.
When it’s a group photo, Louise always insists on getting in the middle. “So she’s like part of the family, in her words,” he says.
Autograph seekers are mostly local, but loyal fans often travel from out of town. One woman showed up with an original Louise Mandrell Fan Club jacket.
Selections from Louise’s forthcoming album, “Playing Favorites,” play in the background. The album is her first new release in more than 30 years. It features what Louise calls “the old songs” — favorites of hers from the classic country canon.
One night, when one man got to the front of the autograph line, he was singing “Ring of Fire” along with her vocals on the album.
“That influenced me so much,” Louise says. “I have an Opry spot when I get home, and I’m going to do ‘Ring of Fire’ because if he loved it so much and is singing along with me, there are probably a lot of country music fans who want to hear that song.”
One family in line wore suits with cowboy hats. It was something you might see in Nashville, Louise says. (“It was the good cowboy hats; not the ones you wear out when you’re working. But they were cowboys.”)
The father told her he enjoyed the show.
“Then he said, ‘I don’t normally go to plays.’ And I wanted to say, no kidding. I loved it, because my goal was to get people who don’t normally come to plays. That’s my biggest compliment, and I believe that Laurie and Dan are teaching so many, and I’m thrilled to be one of them.”
Louise’s younger sister, Irlene, came to see the show this summer. (Older sister Barbara came seven years ago, but buying a new house and knee surgery kept her from making the trip this time around.) Louise wanted to know what Irlene thought.
Of course she did. Louise loves knowing what people think about her. When she and Barbara would attend each other’s concerts, each would sit in the audience with a yellow legal pad making notes on vocals, backup dancers, members of the band — everything.
Immediately after the show, Irlene and her husband confined their notes mostly to technical sound issues — could Louise hear through the monitors, for example.
“I lived with that a couple of days,” Louise says, “and then I called when they were back home and said, OK, forget about the sound, about the bass and the treble. Tell me what you thought about Calamity.”
Irlene’s response: “I’ll tell you what I just told Barbara: You forget it’s Louise, that it’s my sister. She totally makes you feel at ease on stage because she’s believable.”
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The dogs are getting restless, and the sun is getting higher in the park. I’ve been talking with Louise for more than an hour. My allergies are beginning to bug me, and my eyes are watering a little.
And then we start talking about “My Secret Love,” the best ballad in the show (and my favorite part). And my eyes water a little more. And not just from the allergies.
“I don’t know why I get so emotional when you sing that song,” I tell her.
Calamity sings it after the kiss with Bill. It’s the big revelation moment in the show. She’s alone on stage in full spotlight, her arms spread wide, and as she sings the lyric — Now I shout it from the highest hills — her belt is low and husky, pure, but also a little smoky, like a distant rumble of thunder.
What does she think about when she sings that big note?
“I’m actually doing something Laurie taught me,” she says. (No surprise there!) “She told me as Calamity, ‘You never had been kissed before. You had this crush but you never understood what love was. You just fell in love with your best friend, and he loves you back. You’re out there by yourself in the middle of nowhere and feeling all this. Before you do it, know where everything is in your head. Where are you: Where are the hills? How many trees are there? What’s behind you, what’s in front of you? Until you believe it, no one else is going to believe it.”
It’s going to be hard for Louise to walk away from that song — and this show.
“I’m going to be sad, yes,” she says. “I’m going to be leaving a lot of friends. This is the most fun I’ve had on stage, doing Calamity. I’m learning, and I see a difference in me every day. Everything about it is going to be hard to leave.”
A busy life awaits her when she gets back to the Nashville area. She plans to surprise her beloved granddaughter, 6-year-old Larkin — who got to see the show this summer — by picking her up from school. Two weeks after she gets back, she has a spot at the Grand Ole Opry. A bunch of her neighbors have bought tickets so their children can see Louise as a country star and not just as “Mama Lou,” as she’s known on her street.
Would she like to do the show again, perhaps at another theater?
“I’d give anything to play Calamity again. But it is my nature to love whatever I’m doing. It’s been the biggest blessing and curse in my business.”
Dan Pessano has been joking with her at the house, asking what part she wants in the next play. He knows she’s not staying, “but it doesn’t stop him from teasing me,” she says.
We pack up the dogs and walk across the wide expanse of grass toward the parking lot and the big pond. The warm has started. The hot isn’t far behind. It is a small reminder that moments don’t last forever.
“I feel so blessed to be here a second time,” she tells me. “And I am glad I was physically able to do what I did seven years ago. I’ll be wishing I was doing this every day.”
Then Louise Mandrell stops to feed the geese. They’re happy to see her. And sad to see her go. A lot of people in Fresno feel that way, too.
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