A brand-new show, the same old Walla
We’re all busy.
But Jeannie Walla may be a little busier than most. So she’s excused for eating her breakfast and taking calls on her cell phone during an interview.
Walla sells art at Aspen Grove Fine Arts, does underwriting – and is currently filling in as newscaster – for public radio station KAJX and has a pair of weekly interview shows on GrassRoots TV.
She has a singing telegram business and writes songs about the telegram recipients after getting the dirt on them. Also on the singing end of things, Walla has a jazz combo that plays regularly during the high seasons, performs weekly at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and is recording a new CD.
She acts as much as she can in local theater productions. And she and her husband, John, have two teenage kids – state golf champ Kristin, 17, and University of Colorado dean’s list student Nate, 19. (The title of washwoman was stripped from Walla when she and John sold their business, Sunshine Cleaners, a few years ago.)
Still, Walla doesn’t hesitate to keep one more item on her already full plate. For eight years, Walla has been leading the local troupe the Broadway Players to offseason presentations of show tunes at the Wheeler Opera House. The shows give Walla an opportunity to indulge in two of her favorite things: friends and show tunes.
When the Broadway Players present their latest show, “A Whole Lotta B.S.” – more on that title in a moment – at the Wheeler tonight and Friday at 7, with admission free and everyone invited, youngsters included – Walla will be accompanied by friends.
Joining Walla in the Players are Gary Daniel, Meredith Daniel, Valerie Lee, Scott MacCracken and Michael Monroney, all of whom Walla performed with during her stretch at the Crystal Palace dinner theater from 1974-86. (The show’s pianist is Bob Finnie, the director is Marisa Post and Brian O’Neil produces.)
The Broadway Players were born in large part because, after Walla left the Palace, she found herself craving opportunities to sing with her pals.
“We can’t get enough,” she said. “That still holds.”
The other thing Walla can’t get enough of is show tunes. Even though she performs regularly with the Aspen Community Theatre – her credits include “Mame,” “A Little Night Music,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Man of La Mancha” – and Aspen Theatre in the Park (“Side by Side by Sondheim,” “Baby”), she helped form the Broadway Players so she could handpick her songs.
“A lot of times, they are songs that are dear to us,” she said. “They’re also the kinds of songs where we’d never be cast in the play in that role. This lets you sing your favorite songs from a show.”
Inevitably when Walla contemplates what songs she wants to sing, the list is heavy with Stephen Sondheim numbers. No Broadway Players show has been done that hasn’t included at least one Sondheim tune.
This year, the Sondheim presence is bigger than ever. “A Whole Lotta B.S.” features nothing but the songs of Leonard Bernstein (“B”) and Sondheim (“S”). The tunes are taken from Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town” and “On the Town,” and a slew of Sondheim plays, including “Sweeney Todd,” “Gypsy,” “Follies,” “Into the Woods” and more. “A Whole Lotta B.S.” closes with a medley from “West Side Story,” the smash collaboration between Bernstein and Sondheim that helped launch the latter’s career.
Topping the tunes selected by Walla is the classic of Sondheim classics, “Send in the Clowns.” Walla performed the song three years ago when she played Desiree in the ACT production. But for the Broadway Players production, Walla has unearthed an alternate version that features extra verses that help clear up the song’s mysteriousness.
“Barbra Streisand wanted to record the song for her Broadway album. But she didn’t understand it,” explained Walla. “She asked Sondheim to write more lyrics that explain it and embellish it. And he did. Unbelievable.”
Another song Walla has wanted to present for years is “Greeting.” She first heard the song, about a child being born, a decade ago, when the Aspen Music Festival performed “Arias and Barcarolles,” a cycle of songs by Bernstein. Walla sang the song at the christening for fellow Broadway Player Lee’s child; this time, she hands off the honors to Meredith Daniel. “Greeting” is followed by another thematically related ballad, “Children Will Listen,” from Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” to be sung by Walla.
“We hooked the song about birth with a song about growing up,” said Walla. “It’s uncharacteristic to have two ballads in a row, but these are like two bookends. They make a nice little story.”
“A Whole Lotta B.S.” represents a return for the Broadway Players. The group, which had been doing one or two Wheeler shows each year, took last year off after two members had deaths in their families. The absence, says Walla, was noticed in the community.
“When I’m handing out fliers, every day people say, ‘Oh, how come you didn’t do it last year?'” she said. “I think people really miss it. And that’s flattering. People really have paid attention to what we do.”
Walla, of course, won’t pass up the opportunity to mark the Players’ return to the stage with a big splash. The opening number for the show is “Back in Business,” which Sondheim wrote for the 1990 film “Dick Tracy.”
“This is a song that could have been written for us,” she said. “We’re back in business. ‘Brand-new show, same old cast’ – those are the lyrics to the song. We chose the song because it was so appropriate.
“It feels good to be back, really good. I love to do this.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Amid the pre-Thanksgiving gloom of grim pandemic news here in Aspen, across Colorado and the mountain west came a small but significant dose of hope in the unlikely form of an Aspen Music Festival and School announcement.