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Role of a Lifetime: Becky Allen 2008 Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award 

click to enlarge CHERYL GERBER

Becky Allen has played every type of role imaginable in a long stage career and continues to seek new challenges. Photo by Cheryl Gerber Becky Allen's career practically represents a 50-year history of New Orleans musical theater. She has been directed and/or tutored by and has performed alongside just about every major figure in that community, and has portrayed just about every out-sized character that suits her.

As a woman who is hovering around 60 and who will receive the Big Easy Theatre Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award, Allen is about as familiar to theatergoers as Dr. John is to music fans. She proved herself as the dominant female figure in New Orleans theater years ago, perennially topping "best of" polls throughout the city as the most popular. She was the Big Easy's second Entertainer of the Year winner, in 1989, following in the footsteps of her longtime collaborator and first-year winner, Ricky Graham.

And yet, as she has shown in the new millennium, which has included entering her fifth decade of performing, Allen continues to try out new challenges, work with new people and seek out new roles. If Woody Allen (no relation) is right — that 90 percent of life is just showing up — then Becky Allen is the Queen of Presence. The same Metairie Heights girl who studied dance under Tony Bevinetto, and who blossomed under directors like Fred Palmisano, Jack Payne and Carl Walker, and who flourished in partnerships with Ricky Graham and Harry Mayronne Jr., is the same woman who in recent years has taken on more dramatic parts (Dirty Blonde) and is willing to take on a new director for the first time (John Grimsley in Le Petit's production of Annie).

And she has no plans to slow down. She has been in overdrive since she was 3, when her mom started signing her up for every performance-related lesson available.

"I just took whatever my mother sent me to," says Allen, who speaks in what could best be described as stream-of-consciousness. "I think she wanted to give me options. It broadens your scope, and I'm so glad I learned all that. I even learned how to play the trumpet! I took modeling lessons. My mother sent me to it. It wasn't like I was choosing them. I wanted to go. I liked it. And then the ones that I tended toward, I stayed with it. See, my brothers were gone by the time I was 13, so [training] was my social life. I always had someplace to go. Always the lessons — the lessons, the lessons."

Little Becky Butzman (her maiden name) kept training, and she kept showing up. Her history is the stuff of legend, but more accurately, of living up to the notion of luck coming when preparation meets opportunity. The Bevinetto training landed her a spot at 14 years old in his nightclub act (performing, she notes, with 25-year-olds). Which led to another dancing gig on WWL-TV's "C.C. Courtney's Singing Set." Which led to UNO and meeting Fred Palmisano and Ricky Graham and a seemingly endless string of shows written by them for her. In 1966, she debuted as the Jet girl Velma in West Side Story. Then came the Gallery Circle and the connections to Jack Payne and Stuart Baker Bergen — who became lifelong friends — as well as performances in countless shows (Gypsy, Sweet Charity, etc.).

Graham remembers meeting Allen when they performed together in 1972 during Summer Lyric's production of Gypsy. Graham couldn't help but notice what everyone else had spotted about Allen: that striking 5-foot-9 frame, those huge eyes, the flowing tresses of hair and the Ninth Ward accent that has as much unabashed swagger as her formidable hips.

"She was one of the "featured' performers and I was a lowly character actor," Graham recalls. "I was amazed at the power of Becky's presence. As soon as she walked onstage, everyone watched her. She didn't have to do a thing — just stand there.

"Years later, when we were working together, I still was amazed and thrilled to see how much an audience responded to her just "being' there."

Audiences were captivated by her at New Orleans theater spots long since gone or reconfigured: the Beverly Dinner Playhouse, where Palmisano played piano and Payne handled the choreography, and the Toulouse, one of countless venues in which she worked with Carl Walker. It was Walker who, in 1987 at the suggestion of Wanda Rouzan, cast Allen in Where the Girls Were to begin a longtime collaboration.

But it was the collaborations with Graham that helped define Allen as a true New Orleans performer, and that helped create a distinctly New Orleans style of cabaret. Like Allen, Graham was heavily influenced by Palmisano. Together, they developed a style that spoke uniquely to a form of New Orleans culture and lifestyle in a way that not everybody proudly showed. It started with A Night on the Town and included long-running productions such as And the Ball and All and When Ya Smilin'.

"Becky, along with Fred Palmisano, taught me how to love New Orleans," Graham explains. "I was always a little ashamed of my lower-middle-class upbringing, but they loved and reveled in the Y'at persona. So, for me, Becky was like a Mae West/Lucille Ball-type filtered through the Ninth Ward. She became a perfect performer for me to write for — a combination of old Hollywood and New Orleans.

"Whenever I wrote something for her that was real hardcore New Orleans, she could always bring it to outrageous life with a grounded sense of reality," Graham says. "Some people, usually those who are not native New Orleanians, may have said that this "Nint' Ward' stuff was recherché and over-the-top. But these people didn't grow up here and didn't know the real people that these characters were based on. Maybe they were dramatized a bit, like Neil Simon does with his New York characters, but still they are very real."

Her bigger-than-life persona might seem like a perfect match for movies, and she had a taste with small roles in 1975's Hard Times (starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn) and 1978's Pretty Baby (the scenes got cut in the editing) and the steamy if little-seen 1977 flick French Quarter, in which she played "Bricktop." But it was on the stage that Allen truly shined. She became a fixture in the French Quarter, hosting drag shows and practically becoming a gay icon unto herself. It was there she coined her famous title for herself.

"The boys would ask me, "Are you a girl or a boy,' and I said, "If you can't tell the difference between a girl and a boy, you need to stay out of the French Quarter,'" she recalls. "I was probably the only girl that was around." And so she came up with being "New Orleans' only female female-impersonator." "The way I figured it," she says, "I was probably the only one because two negatives make a positive. It gave me something to say."

It was also during this time — when Becky Allen became "Becky Allen" — that the AIDS crisis ripped through New Orleans' gay community, which in turn devastated the creative community and many of Allen's friends.

"I lost 30 people at least," says Allen, who wound up nursing many of her dying friends, including Palmisano, Payne, Bergen and her roommate, Kenny Wesson. "And sometimes I'd lose maybe four a month. When Kenny and I were living together we'd go take care of them, and at least three of them died in my arms. Sometimes I think I was born to do that, be a nurse. It's hard to lose so many people, especially creative and fabulous people. Everywhere you looked, people were leaving. But I had to let them leave. I learned how to let people go. You have to. Or you'll die from it yourself."

Allen cemented her reputation over the "80s and "90s, but the new millennium has seen her breaking out of her comfort zone — most notably in the 2002 production Dirty Blonde in which she plays both Mae West (a natural for her) in two extreme ages of her life, and also one of her fans. It was directed by Walker, who was more than familiar with Allen by directing her in musicals but saw that Allen could do more than her usual Mae West shtick. It required a dramatic depth that the average Becky Allen didn't often see.

"She'd done Mae West as a nightclub act but mostly the eye-rolling type of performance," Walker says. "[Dirty Blonde] seemed tailor made for Becky but not because of her size. West had an enormous personality, a perfect match for Becky. It seemed like a role Becky could slide into. It wasn't so much a role that she doesn't ordinarily display, but one that she's not called upon to do, or as often as she should be.

"She's a terrific actress, but people have a certain level of expectation with Becky," Walker says. "She has all that in her. You've got to remember that the Becky Allen that I hear on the phone isn't always the Becky Allen you see onstage. She's an extraordinarily talented actress. I wasn't surprised by her performance, but the audience probably was, because it wasn't the Becky Allen they expected."

Allen kept taking on even more challenging roles, including starring roles in Southern Rep's Kimberly Akimbo (directed by Ryan Rilette) and Okra (directed by Perry Martin). Since Hurricane Katrina, she's had to learn to work even harder for gigs. With fewer theaters and smaller audiences, the days of the six-month runs of revues feel almost gone. So she keeps busy with lots of private gigs as well as her theater work.

"You have to change," says Allen. "I'm in a different section of my life than the wild-and-the crazy and going-out-every-night section. Especially with what's happening in New Orleans now. I don't want to get stuck in a rut. I want to forge forward and show them I can do anything.

"You have to, if you want to stay viable."

Big Easy Best Performance by a Child

By Sarah Andert
Sometimes ordinary people face extraordinary emotional obstacles and aren't always the better for it. Andy LaRocca, a 17-year-old actor, understands well the emotional depths to which a difficult experience can bring a person, and the long road of recovery that follows. LaRocca won the Big Easy Best Performance by a Child Award for his role as Conrad Jarrett, a young man struggling with the loss of his brother and the breakdown of his parents' relationship, in Actor's Theatre of New Orleans' production of Ordinary People. The role was a new one for LaRocca. "I'd pretty much just done musical theater where the characters are bigger than life, and this was really the first show that I had done in such an intimate setting," he says.

click to enlarge Andy LaRocca played Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People at Actor's Theatre of New Orleans.
  • Andy LaRocca played Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People at Actor's Theatre of New Orleans.

In the play, Conrad blames himself for his brother's fatal swimming accident and spirals dangerously close to suicide amid his grief. When the play opens, Conrad has started therapy and is slowly recovering, rebuilding relationships and surviving the trauma in an increasingly "ordinary" manner. Struggling with the loss of a loved one is something LaRocca knows well, having lost his father two years ago. "I was completely out of it (at the time) — I completely lost all feeling," LaRocca recalls. "(Because of that) I felt that I could really connect with this character and release some of my emotion through this character."

In preparation for the role, LaRocca visited a mental institution for a day to see how a character like Conrad would have been treated in that setting. The experience was rewarding, he says, and adds that it was truly inspiring "to see these people who really did deal with hardships, and just to get to know them, and bring their lives into my character.

"I think the easiest thing about portraying this role was the character was so much like myself," LaRocca says. "But then the toughest part was to break away from myself and make this character a character and not "Andy onstage acting.'" In the future LaRocca intends to pursue more dramatic acting because he feels this type of role allows for a better connection with himself as an actor.

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