Television came to Lesli Margherita’s rescue twice in her life.
Like most actors, Margherita panicked some in 2020 when the COVID outbreak shuttered theaters and suspended production in movies and television.
“From being busy in New York, Los Angeles, and London, I was suddenly in a position where there was no work,” Margherita said by telephone from a Manhattan park, where she went for refuge following that day’s rehearsal for “Dames at Sea,” the musical she’ll doing at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse starting Friday.
“Everything was either closed or afraid to proceed in case entire casts would get sick,” Margherita continues. “Performing had been my life since I was age 8. I never once thought about doing anything else. It’s also the way I make my living. With no one knowing when production would resume, I was frightened. About what I might do and how I was going to eat.”
The pandemic put several of Margherita’s prospects in abeyance. She was supposed to shoot a pilot for a new series starring Kevin James. She was lined up to do the “Sopranos” prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark. Two other series loomed.
“Television prevailed,” Margherita says. “Theater involves a lot of people concentrated in a small space. It would take time for it to continue safely. Television was different. With all the networks that need programs, it could not just stop. People who were prevented from going to work would depend more on television to occupy and entertain them. There was some urgency about getting production going again.
“Also, television can be shot in a bubble. You can shoot actors separately then splice them together. You can have distance on the set that the camera or editing can adjust for when the show goes on the air. Television revived faster and developed safety measures. We all wore masks and kept apart when we weren’t on set performing. Each day began with a COVID test. The care and caution worked. Television was up and running. Instead of having to worry about what I was going to do, I had to think about how to keep up with a schedule that was demanding as ever.”
That schedule included making “The Many Saints of Newark” and playing recurring characters on two series, Francesca (Frankie) on HBO’s “Minx,” set in the ‘70s and about the first glossy adult magazine aimed a women (think Playgirl), and Judy Stoneface on Paramount’s “Fairly Oddparents,” a fantasy about two teens who have a cartoon fairy godmother and godfather that grant them wishes.Margherita is waiting to hear production dates for both series.
Meanwhile, she’s back on stage reprising her 2015 Broadway role as diva Mona Kent in the snappy spoof of Busby Berkeley musicals, “Dames at Sea,” at Bucks.
“Something else that happened during the pandemic,” Margherita says, “is I continued to do one of my favorite things, participating in workshops of new musicals. I enjoy being among the first to see a new book or sing a song.”
A reading from a workshop brought Margherita to New Hope a month ago for a musical in progress, “Female Trouble.” She also lit up the Bucks County stage as Adelaide in a 2017 production “Guys and Dolls.”
I was about as excited to talk to Lesli Margherita as I’ve been to talk to anyone in years. She may not be a household name yet, and I’m not sure that’s among her immediate ambitions, but once she is seen on a stage, I can tell you from experience you want to see her again.Her verve is amazing. So is her attention to characterization, her triple-threat ability as a performer, and the immediacy she creates on the stage.
The first time I saw Margherita was in a production of “Zorro” in London.
“Zorro” was on my “maybe” list. As the weeks of my London dwindled to days, and I’d seen all of the “musts,” I took a chance on “Zorro,” which I expected to be a crowd-pleasing flapdoodle.
Wrong! On two counts. “Zorro” was a lot of fun, had driving Spanish music from a well-known composer, remained suspenseful and romantic throughout, and introduced me to the actress playing the female lead, a charming tigress named Lesli Margherita, who earned an Olivier Award, London’s Tony, for her performance.
Three years later, I saw Margherita as the mother in “Matilda,” which brought her to Broadway. “Guys and Dolls” in New Hope clinched her ranking in my mind as a performer never to miss.
Talking to her cemented my impression she is a whirlwind, quick and lively and as much fun in conversation as she is on stage on or the screen.
Because of seeing Margherita first in London, I thought she was British or European.
She was born in the San Francisco Bay area and became a professional entertainer by following her own inspiration.
“I was not a little girl who thought from first consciousness about being an actress. My family was typical. We enjoyed music and movies, but there was no emphasis on culture or idea any of us would perform professionally. I liked to sing and dance, and I liked watching movies, but that was the extent of it.
“Then one day, I saw a production of “Annie” starring Jo Anne Worley, who I never heard of, was coming to San Jose and was looking for local girls to be in the company. I told my mother I wanted to go and audition. She told me about how many little girls had the same idea and that some of them had training and had been in shows, but I was determined to go to that audition. My mother took the attitude of, ‘Why not? At the worst, it will be lesson to her.
I’m at the audition. My mother is right. I’m one among 500, all of us ready to belt ‘Tomorrow.’ But here’s the thing. I could belt. I did it naturally. In any case, I did something right because my mother said, ‘Another group left the theater, another was called, and you were still in there. Then another group left disappointed, another group went in, and you were still in there.’ I was ‘in there’ until the end. I booked the first show I tried out for.”
From then on, Margherita worked as a performer.
“I moved to L.A. in my late teens to break into movies and television and do some of the smaller theaters in L.A. you know the ones that pay you about 99 cents per performance.
“I booked some TV and commercials, but my break came when a producer decided to revive the “Fame” TV series, this time set in Los Angeles.
“Fame L.A.” lasted for 22 episodes, but it earned Margherita attention and a credit that would serve to attract other work in TV and the theater.
She made her impression in London before getting to Broadway with “Matilda” in 2013. “Dames at Sea” followed in 2015.
“’Dames at Sea” was a great off-Broadway hit in the early ‘70s. It made Bernadette Peters a star, but our production was the first on Broadway.”
That production was directed by Randy Skinner who, like Margherita, is also part of the Bucks County company as director and choreographer.
“Randy is fantastic to work with,” Margherita says. “He’s old school. He pays a lot of attention to detail and to entertaining. He also sets a late rehearsal schedule, so we get to sleep later and rehearse later in the day.
“The best gift from this production is being able to do role I’ve done before but from the perspective of being seven years older, closer in age to Mona Kent, the character I play.
“Of course, the best gift is also the biggest nightmare because I see things I didn’t in 2015 and kick myself for not noticing this line here or that opportunity there. The Mona I’m doing in New Hope is a better version than the one I did on Broadway because I’m a different person from who I was then and can apply that added experience and insight to how I play Mona now.
“It’s richer. It’s more informed. It’s better. I see the character with fresher eyes.
“The only thing now is to control muscle memory. I have to remember this is a new production. Randy has also rethought some things, so I have to concentrate on new choreography and not lapse into what we did in 2015.”
Vin Scully was the voice of baseball
Though I lived in Philadelphia as a child, my favorite baseball team was the Dodgers.
My older brother would cringe as my father took us to Phillies-Dodgers games at Connie Mack Stadium, and I’d root for Brooklyn or Los Angeles.
My attraction had nothing to do with hometown loyalty or treachery. Or stars like Duke Snider or Don Drysdale. The Dodgers had a second baseman named Charlie Neal, and I, who could read at age 2, loved opening the paper every day and seeing “Neal 2b” in the boxscores I’d memorize for every team.
The Dodgers announcer was Vin Scully. My father would find Brooklyn games on the radio, so I heard a lot of Vin Scully. Even when I morphed into a diehard Phillies fan in my teams, I loved listening to Scully announce Dodger games and appear on national television.
Scully’s career was phenomenal. It lasted from Brooklyn days until 2016, when he was 88.
Vin Scully died last Tuesday at age 94, and the Dodger pennants went to half-mast in many a fan’s heart.
Scully was both informative and entertaining. He set an example for all play-by-play announcers. May that example be met.
Another groundbreaker who died last week was Nichelle Nichols who became one of the first African-American regulars in a television series when she was cast as Uhura, a crew member of NBC’s “Star Trek” in 1965. Except for Cicely Tyson in a CBS series, “East Side West Side,” I can’t think of another Black woman who was given an ongoing role that did not involve being a servant in a series that did not have a predominantly Black cast.
Uhura was a bridge officer to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. She was a woman with responsibility, included in scenes of consequence, and was one of the most popular characters on her show.
Nichols was generous to “Star Trek” fans. She appears in numerous reunions and conventions. Off screen, she also worked with NASA to encourage women to pursue careers in science and particularly as astronauts.
Nichols died on Saturday, July 30, at age 89.
For her work and her important place in television history, she will be fondly remembered.
Neal Zoren’s television column appears every Monday.
Source: Berkshire mont