Saturday, August 13, 2011
WALLA WALLA - The actress exudes va-va-voom as she walks through the Sixth Avenue doorway of the Power House Theatre.
Wearing a flowy, off-the-shoulder, navy dress, wedge sandals and a braided hat with a brim so wide it surrounds her entire frame, the woman who portrays Marilyn Monroe in a one-person show that will be performed here in October is so reminiscent of the screen legend that it begs the question: Are you about to meet stage actress Sunny Thompson, or Thompson's version of the Blonde Bombshell?
She glides over to a table just outside the theater. The curls in her platinum hair skim the tops of her bare shoulders, and her cheeks are so perfectly pink it's as if she had been kissed by rose petals. She speaks. "It's a terrific space," she says of Walla Walla's new performance venue.
Her voice is not the breathy low-register sound for which Marilyn Monroe is so often remembered. But just when the mystery seems solved as to who's shown up to the interview, Thompson makes a Marilyn-esque crack about her on-stage wardrobe changes and the need to block out the seats where her changing screen will be set up.
"Somebody suggested we sell those tickets for more money," she teases.
The Seattle resident and her producer husband Greg Thompson, who wrote the script for "Marilyn: Forever Blonde," spent two days in Walla Walla last week for pre-production meetings that also included spreading the word to local officials and business leaders about the upcoming performances. The goal, Thompson said, is to give just a hint of the actual Marilyn they will see on the stage.
"Marilyn: Forever Blonde" is the award-winning story of one of America's most iconic celebrities. Greg Thompson, who has produced more than 500 works for stage and television over 35-plus years, created the script over more than two decades as a project guided by his own fascination with Monroe.
The result is Marilyn in her own words. Literally. The script weaves together years of the actress's own quotes and thoughts from researched interviews and conversations, along with 17 songs from her various movies and performances.
It's set in 1962 during a photo shoot. Marilyn is 36 and beautiful, but not quite the girl who catapulted to stardom in her early 20s.
She is thrice divorced, living alone, tired of wearing the "sex symbol" label and hungry for love and respect. She imagines what her life might have been like if she could start over.
Critics have been floored by Thompson's portrayal. The performance hit the stage in Hollywood in 2007 and has traveled from Los Angeles to New Zealand, Boston to London. It has earned praise from the president of the longest running Marilyn Monroe fan club, fellow artists who worked with Marilyn Monroe on films such as "Some Like it Hot" and even the late Richard Blackwell - known as Mr. Blackwell - a friend of the superstar's who told Thompson after a show, "I never thought I'd get to spend time with her (Monroe) again."
Walla Walla's performances will be the first in Washington state. The next stop, Power House officials said, will be New York City, where "Marilyn: Forever Blonde" will open in the spring of 2012.
The performances at the Power House Theatre are a testament to two things. One is the Thompsons' longstanding relationship with "Marilyn: Forever Blonde" Director Stephanie Shine, the artistic director for the Seattle Shakespeare Company who serves in the same role for Shakespeare Walla Walla. The second is their commitment to startup theater operations.
"There's something very exciting about a theater that's just getting started," Sunny Thompson said.
For the Power House Theatre, the performance demonstrates a diversity in offerings beyond the Shakespearean plays that have been performed there, said Power House Director of Marketing Denise Slattery.
The buildup before the October run currently slated for the 19th through 30th, allows those in the hospitality industry time to plan and market packages and promotions, she said.
Though tickets are not yet available for sale, planning can take place to help build the theater as a destination for visitors and those who follow the arts.
Thompson can certainly relate to planning. She has spent years perfecting Marilyn - from the feminine turn of a shoulder to the parting of her lips in a smile. Along the way, she discovered a woman she believes is worthy of the fame that continues to build even almost 50 years after her controversial death.
To say that Thompson was initially reluctant to take on the part of a person she describes as the last great movie star would be a gross understatement. It took her husband of a decade years to convince her to play the part. He kept asking her to try out lines.
But Thompson, a musical theater actress who recorded eight albums and headlined "Showgirls" at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, among many other things, said she was occupied with other roles and didn't initially want to take on Marilyn.
"What woman in her right mind does that to herself?" she explained.
But as her husband persisted, she became more intrigued. She tried a couple of lines out. She began to research more. She, felt the pull of her own fascination to a woman who came up from the foster care system and transformed into a mega celebrity.
She read more than 400 books on Marilyn Monroe; engulfed herself in movies, fast-forwarding through the scenes that didn't include Monroe; found Marilyn Monroe historians at universities; and accessed audio tapes of obscure press interviews from vaults.
Some of her richest resources have been video outtakes, in which Marilyn didn't realize the cameras were still rolling.
"That's the Marilyn I'm after," Thompson said.
She learned the Marilyn makeover from Jimmy James, a makeup artist who was once considered the world's foremost Marilyn impersonator. Their first meeting together took eight hours. Thompson now has the makeup process down to two and a half hours, which she usually completes while listening to Frank Sinatra tunes as she prepares for her performances.
In the process she has grown protective of the woman she says was a smart career professional of the 1950s despite being typified as a floozy.
Thompson wants to perform as Marilyn Monroe for another year before passing the role on to an understudy. She looks forward to playing more parts. Something a little happier, perhaps, after this.
"You hope whatever it is it will have the same appeal," she said.
"But it may not. With Marilyn you get marquee."