Ryan Findley

Niffer Clarke, the Ingenue on stage and off

By - Dec 28th, 2011 02:37 pm
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Clarke with Norman Moses in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Patience” at the Skylight. Skylight photo by Mark Frohna.

The ingenue — the young, desirable but innocent girl — is a stock character as old as the theater itself.

Some actresses seem born to play them — Niffer Clarke, for example, is a classic ingenue and frequent Skylight Opera Theatre star. She has played not only ingenues there, such as Marian the Librarian in the recent The Music Man, but also several Gilbert & Sullivan parodies of ingenues.

But ingenues, like puppies, grow up. What then?

On Friday (Dec. 30) Clarke and the Skylight will open Beyond the Ingenue in the intimate Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Clarke and Richard Carsey, former Skylight artistic director, collaborated on the show. It features music, stories, and personal anecdotes from Clarke from her time touring with Shirley Jones, another natural ingenue who found ways to stay in the business later in life. Clarke played Marian the Librarian in the Skylight’s recent The Music Man. Jones rocketed to stardom as Marian in the 1962 film version of the hit musical.

Jones, Julie Andrews and Barbara Cook (in musical theater, ingenues are always sopranos) were role models for Clark in their ingenue days. They continue to inspire Clarke in her professional and personal life, and Beyond the Ingenue reflects that.

The  project began two years ago with an album Clarke recorded after touring with Shirley Jones. Clarke stumbled onto the idea of a live show as a method of promoting the recording. The first version was bare-bones precursor to the Skylight show. Clarke and Carsey realized that they’d found something special. Beyond the Ingenue took on its own life. They spent the last year expanding, refining and perfecting the show. The Skylight production includes a band-new title song, which Tony-award winner Jeff Blumenkrantz composed for and about Clarke. That sets the tone; the Skylight’s Beyond the Ingenue is about this actress.

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Clarke in “Pirates of Penzance” at the Skylight. Skylight Opera Theatre photo.

Traditional ingenues take no risks, cause no trouble, and ask for nothing as they find happiness. Clarke notes that they have no effect on real life. But post-World War II, several female singers rose to fame playing ingenues who cracked the mold. Maria, in the Sound of Music, is the consummate troublemaker; Marian the Librarian is supremely independent; and Julie Jordan in Carousel is a single mother, one of the first in mass entertainment. The women that played these roles were all in the ingenue phases of their careers and beginning to earn fame and accolades. They worked hard and overcame obstacles to get to the top of their profession.

Clarke points out that her idols prevailed, even though the curtain drops on most actresses when they outgrow the ingenue phase. Clark finds it remarkable and inspiring that Jones, Cook and Andrews reinvented themselves when their ingenue days ended. Jones won an Oscar for playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry and then moved to the small screen in The Partridge Family. Cook moved from the theater to the concert stage. Andrews maintained her film career as her voice faded.

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Niffer Clarke. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

Clarke notes that most young girls go through a princess phase of some sort. Carsey adds that the virginity of the character largely defines the classic ingenue. Even rule-breaking Maria and independent Marian marry and then (presumably) lose their virginity. In contemporary society, we perhaps have a wider definition of the “good girl.” She can be a doctor, a librarian, a neuro-scientist, a business executive without anyone raising an eyebrow. But Carsey argues that the sexual component is still very much in place. An ingenue is a woman on the verge of sexual awareness, but not there yet, even in our sexualized culture.

Clarke has gone through her own trials and transformations, and Beyond the Ingenue is about her own journey. She means to entertain with her music, humor and storytelling, but Beyond the Ingenue is also intensely meaningful and personal to Clarke. They represent hard work and perseverance. After all, the title song is just for her.

As Clarke says, “That’s empowering and legitimizing in a way that nothing else is.”

Beyond the Ingenue runs through Jan. 8 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $37.50; visit the Skylight’s website or call the BTC box office, 414 291-7800.

Cast and Credits: Niffer Clarke, Richard Carsey. Credits: Stage Director, Bill Theisen; Lighting Designer, Ryan Bertelson; Stage Manager, Kelly Turner.

MUSICAL NUMBERS

Act I: “In My Own Little Corner,” Oklahoma Medley, “Will He Like Me,” “I Wish It So,” Barbara Cook Medley, “My White Knight,” My Fair Lady Medley, “The Sweetest Sounds”/”I Can See It.”

Act II: “I Have Confidence,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin,” “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Is It Really Me?” “Past My Prime,” “The Sound of Music,” “Crazy World,” “Beyond the Ingénue.”

 

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