Tony nominee Mary Bridget Davies talks about award show fashion, second chances and why she should be on TV with Rachael Ray

01 May Tony nominee Mary Bridget Davies talks about award show fashion, second chances and why she should be on TV with Rachael Ray
By Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer
on April 30, 2014 at 1:12 PM, updated April 30, 2014 at 3:19 PM

CLEVELAND, Ohio — She didn’t lose her voice playing the titular, belting blues rocker during the Broadway run of “A Night With Janis Joplin,” but Mary Bridget Davies is afraid she might go hoarse fielding phone calls from reporters and well-wishers following Tuesday’s announcement that she’d been nominated for a Tony Award.

Then again, a girl could give herself laryngitis with all the screaming she did that morning, when she learned she’d be one of five women vying for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.

Davies, born and raised in Cleveland, is in fine company: Idina Menzel for “If/Then,” Sutton Foster for “Violet,” Jesse Mueller for “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” and Kelli O’Hara for “The Bridges of Madison County.”

The feeding frenzy has begun. Davies’ agent is forwarding emails from designers offering her congratulations and wondering if she’d wear one of their creations to the Sunday, June 8, ceremony at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Stylists are reaching out, too.

“So, really, I can’t go to Kohl’s and just get a dress and show up Cleveland-style?” she says, issuing a throaty laugh on the phone from New York.

“They’d be like, ‘Wow – the Midwest came to the Tonys!’ ”

As Janis might say, “Ain’t that groovy?”

The nomination is a lovely coda to the troubled story of the bio-musical that opened at Lyceum Theatre last fall, then closed in February, with the promise to cast and crew that it would have a second life off-Broadway at the Gramercy Theatre this spring. But producers abruptly canceled the run earlier this month.

The Cleveland Play House originated a pre-Broadway production of the show, then titled “One Night With Janis Joplin,” in partnership with Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.

Cat Stephani, who originated the role of the Texas-born beatnik when the show premiered at Oregon’s Portland Center Stage in 2011, bowed out during previews in Cleveland in the summer of 2012.

Davies, living in Lakewood at the time and understudying the part, stepped up to the microphone and channeled the late superstar, delivering a performance so raw, real and in-the-moment that it brought people to their feet again and again.

Once the production moved to Broadway, Davies also moved New York critics, who marveled at her seemingly bottomless vocal power.

“We at Cleveland Play House could not be more excited about Mary Bridget’s nomination for a Tony Award,” says managing director Kevin Moore. “Her performance here at CPH and on Broadway was breathtaking, and so worthy of this recognition – yet another example of Northeast Ohio talent taking the world by storm!”

(Davies had worn Joplin’s velvet bell-bottoms before. Not only did she play the legendary Pearl in the national tour of “Love, Janis” in 2005 – a show that got its start at the Play House in 1999 – the blues siren performed internationally with Joplin’s original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.)

But back to those Tonys.

Davies hopes the fact that “A Night With Janis Joplin” is no longer on the boards won’t keep producers of the awards show from asking her to perform.

“I hope they do,” says Davies. “And I hope that they would let me bring the guys, because except for a few New York City horn players, they are the exact same core band that played in Cleveland and on the road regionally. It has been our journey, and if they were to ask me to sing, I wouldn’t wanna do it with anybody else – it wouldn’t be right.”

She found out she’d been nominated – as so many do, given the ungodly hour at which the Tony noms are announced – lying in bed in her New York duplex. The hour was 8:30, with she and her boyfriend – from Cleveland, naturally, as Davies is no fool – still trying to steal a few extra Z’s before getting up for work.

Lucy Liu and Jonathan Groff appeared on the screen, ready to read the names of the anointed, “and then Hugh Jackman shows up!” Davies says.

The host of the 68th annual Tony Awards bounded onstage at New York’s Paramount Hotel and crashed the nominations to remind viewers to watch the live broadcast on CBS.

“And then it hit me,” she says. “If I get nominated, I’m gonna meet that guy! I was like, ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen: I’m gonna punch everyone in the face with joy.’ It’s like joy punching … ”

Then she heard her name. She didn’t exactly punch her dozing boyfriend – it was more like a smack, a full slap, fingers splayed.

“Oh my God, oh my God, they said my name!” she screamed.

“You won,” he said groggily. “Congratulations!”

“I didn’t win,” she answered. “I’m nominated. Do you really think they’re going to do the Tony Awards at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, babe?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t understand these people.”

(That is totally understandable. “He’s just a lovely construction worker,” says Davies. “Strong silent type – he just totally levels me out.”)

The first person she called was her mother, Mary Ellen.

“Your daughter is a Tony Award nominee!” Davies said.

As usual, the connection from New York to Cleveland was kind of hinky.

“What?” her mother answered. “Honey, wait, this phone is too loud …” After a weird noise, her mom asked her to repeat herself.

“Well, that’s kind of anti-climactic,” Davies said, “but I don’t care: I. Am. A. Tony. Award. Nominee.”

She was on the horn all Tuesday. “My phone is on fire. It’s so hot, and it’s not working properly.”

She cracks up thinking about it melting down, just so she could walk into a Verizon store and say, in the snootiest of tones, “I just got nominated for a Tony today, and my phone blew up, so give me a new one – and can I be your new sponsor? Can you hear me now? Good!”

She laughs that smoky, Janis laugh.

Whether she wins a trophy or not, she hopes the nomination will bring new opportunities.

“Maybe now I’ll finally get to get on Rachael Ray’s show!” she says. According to fans, those who opine online – and just about everybody who has told her, “You know who you look like?” – Davies and the celebrity chef were separated at birth.

The comparison hit Twitter and then mushroomed into “this Superman theory,” Davies says. People were writing things like, “You will never see Mary Bridget Davies and Rachel Ray in the same room at the same time.”

Or, “I didn’t know Rachael Ray was on Broadway.”

“We had a video ad, in Times Square,” Davies says. “It was incredible. I’d look up, and there would be a video of me singing.”

One day, she was standing there, gazing at her digital doppelganger belting away as Janis, and someone said, “Is that Rachael Ray?”

She just chuckled and kept walking.

The nomination has already opened doors. There is talk “A Night With Janis Joplin” North American tour – plans that can’t help but be bolstered by Davies’ Tony nod. And her cell isn’t just buzzing with congratulatory calls.

“Right before I got on the phone with you, I booked the gala Monday night for 2econd Stage Theatre here in New York City,” she says.

The storied house is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Organizers told her the event would have a rock ‘n’ roll theme. In the audience will be industry artists and heavyweights.

She rattles off some of the attendees excitedly: “the choreographer for ‘If/Then,’ the musical director for ‘Beautiful’ . . .

“They want me, dressed to the nines, to end the whole evening with ‘Piece of My Heart.'”

(She’s also scheduled to perform in Cleveland at the CPH benefit “Mad Men, Music & Martinis,” the theater’s annual fundraiser June 7 – the night before she has to be in New York for the Tonys. CPH brass hope she can still fit the event into her schedule. So does Davies. “I don’t wanna cancel, because how cool would that be – come home, get the kiss on the forehead and then go to the Tonys the next day? I hope I’ll be able to do both.”)

But for now, she’s focusing on her upcoming gig at 2econd Stage. She’s been told the theater is all about second chances, dedicated to putting shows in front of people that they would otherwise not have seen, or shows that closed early, as hers did.

Organizers told her she would be the perfect person to end the gala because, despite the shuttering of her production, she’ll still be able to bring down the house with a song, a fresh Tony nomination to her credit. At 35, she’ll be the belle of the second-chance ball.

“Now I gotta go buy more clothes and go broke!” she says.

You can hear the smile in her voice, even over that worn-out phone.

“It’s a great problem to have.”