Cabaret Show Next to Abnormal Debuts February 24, 2012
Up a steep and very narrow stairway/To the voice like a metronome…* Loni Ackerman trained with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School at 39th and Broadway (the original building) starting at 6 years old. “…there were thousands of costumes, singers would be warming up…it smelled musty…” By 8th grade, she was in advanced classes and considering a career “not as Aurora (Swan Lake), but in character roles.” The young dancer couldn’t breathe around newly arrived Rudolf Nureyev. She stole one of his warm up socks.
Loni took dance classes with the soon to be well known Gelsey Kirkland. The girls had just finished pas de chevals “like trotting but on point” across the floor when madame said, “Gelsey, blaad in point shoes, doesn’t it hurt?” Loni executes a breathy Russian accent. “I just pretend it doesn’t,” Gelsey responded. That’s it, thought Loni, I’m through with ballet. She continued with jazz.
In “the old days,” choreographers would come to jazz classes looking for dancers. One such visit lead to Loni’s audition for her first musical How Do You Do, I Love You (Richard Maltby/ David Shire.) After dancing, each girl was asked to sing. The director expected a little soprano voice to go with her 95 pound ballet body. Instead she belted out “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” Jaws dropped. Loni secured her Actor’s Equity card playing Phyllis Newman’s little sister and never looked back. The show closed on the road.
Michael Stewart who wrote the book for the Maltby/Shire was now working on George M. It was a tap show. Loni couldn’t tap. She resolved to “sell it from the waist up.” When director Joe Layton lined up the bad tappers, she knew she’d get cut. Instead, Stewart intervened “because he’d heard me sing.” The ballet was easy, she unleashed her inner Ethel Merman for “Rock-a-Bye” again, and read. Then Layton asked if anyone played an instrument—George M is a vaudeville piece. Loni played piano; in fact, stride. Her teacher since the age of 6 had been fixated on Lawrence Welk and ragtime. What are the odds? “Kitten on the Keys” cinched the job and she joined local 802. George M opened at The Palace Theater on Loni’s 19th birthday. “All I could think of was Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson had been there.”
A tour of Dames at Sea came next. Three auditions. Loni thinks a wig she bought put it over. She has a Dorothy Parker view of the business of the business. Her second Broadway experience began when her mother, a patroness of the arts, produced a revival of the 1925 show No, No Nanette. Capitalization, including hand-beaded gowns was $500,000. Loni sang at backer’s auditions and was given a small part. “It never entered my mind that it’d be a problem, but people are mean. Oh, you’re in this show because your mother is the producer.” Her face clouds. “Thank God, for Helen Gallagher and Bobby Van.” They both became great friends.
A year later, provoked by soured romance, Loni moved to Paris. As if one needs a reason. She’d learned the language spending summers in the south of France. The young artist danced on television and entertained at bistros (in English). She got picked up by Columbia Records with two stipulations: lose weight (ah, the bread!) and lose her excellent pronunciation. They wanted her to sing with a bad French accent. She agreed to the first condition and cut a record of Euro-pop. Paris is clearly a wonderful memory. “I lived in a maid’s room and sowed my wild oats.” She emits a little sigh.
Returning to the city, she was cast in the part of Lucille for a bus and truck tour of No No Nanette. “It was a great experience, wonderful training…After that, I replaced Anita Morris in The Magic Show (Stephen Schwartz) if you can believe that. Anita was a charming southern princess. (And a voluptuous redhead). I looked like Edith Piaf at my audition. They suggested I come see the show, do my homework, and return. I bought a sexy outfit, a red wig (again, the effectiveness of a wig!) and got the part.” The diminutive Loni fit into the magic tricks, also a requirement, and spent 1 ½ years being sawed in half or confined in a box beneath a live panther. Other shows followed, including a second opportunity to work with the Maltby/Shire team on their revue Starting Here, Starting Now.
Signed by CBS Television, it was time to give Los Angeles a shot. The recollection evokes a wince. This is a homogenized New Yorker. Three years salary was paid despite very little work. “The money that was wasted in the late 70s…!” Loni couldn’t be cast because she had no film and had no film because she couldn’t be cast.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, they were auditioning for Evita (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice). Loni heard that director Hal Prince thought she was “too funny, not heavy enough.” When a company was being mounted in Los Angeles, she showed up front and center, fully in character, costume and yet another wig AS Eva Peron. Her eyes flash in the telling. Prince was there for call backs. At the last, he motioned her to the front of the stage with a correction, then said, “Ok, let’s do it.” Assuming he meant she should sing the number again, Loni tossed off a disdainful, Eva-like, “fine.” “I guess I’ll see you in rehearsal,” shrugged Prince. She screamed and jumped off the stage into his arms. “I almost killed him.” The show was a smash hit, but it was as much the chemistry involved to which Loni was referring. “ If you’re lucky, you have this kind of experience once in your life. I would walk across the earth on nails for Hal Prince.”
Television casting agents who wouldn’t consider Loni earlier were suddenly enthusiastic. No surprise. Unable to take auditions, she enjoyed being on the talk show circuit, conversed, sang and cooked! with Dinah Shore , Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. Tenure in the Los Angeles production lasted two years. Loni sang the national anthem at Dodger Stadium for the 1981 World’s Series “thrilling,” met her husband-to-be, sound designer Steve Kennedy, took the show on the road, and returned to New York to play the role on Broadway.
“We had the world by the cahones. Steve came to mix Cats (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and I was in Evita.” The couple felt timing was right to have a baby. “I assumed I would stay in the show until I really looked stupid. Hormones were making my voice higher; it was great.” They married and Jack was born.
When Loni’s run ended, she gave concerts and acted in the show Diamonds, a musical revue about baseball at Circle on the Square. “Then everything dried up, so I said to Steve, let’s have another baby, because we’re both only children. I wanted to name him after Bobby Van, but my mother said I can’t have my grandsons named Jack and Bobby Kennedy.” The name George was decided upon. Needing space and unable to afford it in Manhattan, Steve chose Nyack, New York. Loni told her husband in no uncertain terms that the house had to look like Lillian Hellman lived there and if anyone came to borrow a cup of sugar, she would leave.
A year later, she got the part of Grizabella in Cats. (Andrew Lloyd Webber.) Loni is afraid of heights. Six nights a week and matinees Grizabella rises to the ceiling of the theater on an enormous tire, steps onto a cherry picker and disappears upward, into the ether. “….and I thought, it’s shoes on my kid’s’ feet. I needed it not to be about me.” One night an electrician spilled his coffee on the board and the theater blacked out. On another, Loni was left dangling when mechanical failure kept the tire and cherry picker from coordinating. “My life passed before me.”
Her next role was motherhood. Loni accepted little stage work. “I was boy scout den leader for both my sons.” When the boys reached high school, she started teaching Acting Through Song to children from first through 12th grade. At six, Loni had learned Jane Morgan’s “The Day the Rain’s Came Down,” from a record. Now, she taught scat singing to first and second graders using Ella Fitzgerald as an example. “…to free them. It was very rewarding.” Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.
It was time to come back. There was a production of Steel Magnolias in New Orleans. “All the other women were natives and this little Jewish girl from New York comes down to play M’Lynn. I thought, am I crazy?!”
And a second experience with wonderful theater chemistry as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (Don Black /Christopher Hampton/Andrew Lloyd Webber) on Long Island. Most of what she’s done the last four years has been straight acting. Loni would rather perform for free as she has with The Marvel Theater. “I was probably the only Messenger ever dressed by Anthropologie and Neiman’s.” (The Dybbuk—Michal Waszynski), than play material with which she feels no affinity.
She also performed in a number of shows put together by Jamie de Roy. These were written and directed by Barry Kleinbort, whom Loni grew to like and admire. They began to talk about putting together a cabaret show. The three she’d previously presented had been “just songs”; this would have narrative. Kleinbort asked her to make a list of songs she really loved and to write about her theatrical experiences over the years. These would become his source material. With the additional collaboration of Musical Director, Paul Greenwood, the show came together.
Early stories like trading diet notes with Leopold Stokowski when she was a ballet baby, being encouraged by her very own Grandma Rose**, lyricist, Dorothy Fields, singing with Gwen Verdon at her 13th birthday party, and coming down to breakfast to find Ted Kennedy or Ralph Nader at the table, lead them to call the act Next to Abnormal, with a nod to the successful Broadway musical Next to Normal (Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt). Things were never usual in Loni Ackerman’s life. The piece debuts at The Metropolitan Room on February 24. “It’s a joyful voyage.”
Next to Abnormal
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street
*“At The Ballet” from Chorus Line (Edward Kleban/Marvin Hamlisch)
** The character in Gypsy (Jule Stein/Stephen Sondheim). Loni’s mother was Mama Rose.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Maria’s Mont Blanc on West 48th Street
Favorite Place to Shop: Anthropologie
Favorite New York Sight: The old Metropolitan Opera House
Favorite New York Moment: Taking the crosstown bus by myself when I was a kid
What You Love About New York: Knowing it’s my town
What You Hate About New York: That people can’t unglue their faces from cell phones to look up and see the greatness of this city