All Jennifer Roth Parr had to hear was the plot of “The Gingerbread Lady,” and she wanted in.
“It said, ‘An ex-cabaret singer falls off the wagon, and immediately I’m like, ‘Wow,’ because I’ve done a lot of singing and musical theater — UK Opera, Grand Night for Singing,” Parr says. “And she’s middle-aged, and I work with psychiatry, and all those things together just really appealed to me.
“And I love Neil Simon — his sense of humor and his quick wit. So combine all those things, and I was immediately attracted to looking at the play and trying out for it.”
Maureen Stapleton won Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance in the lead role, but the 1970 show was a rare box-office disappointment for Simon, running only five months on Broadway.
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It’s a darker show than most of the iconic playwright’s work, centering on Evy Meara, a singer whose life has been destroyed by alcoholism.
“There is a scene where she has started drinking again, and she gets really mean, snarky drunk,” says Parr, who plays Evy in Studio Players’ production, which opens this weekend and runs through March 26. “I get progressively drunk going through the scene, and to many people watching, it’s funny. But it’s actually really sad. I’m not trying to be funny in the scene at all.
“It’s an interesting conundrum when I do that scene, because I feel really sad, because underneath, you know the sadness that alcoholism causes and how sad the person who is blatantly drunk really is, underneath it all. But often the outward appearance of someone who is ridiculously drunk is really funny.”
Parr, who is a nurse practitioner in psychiatry by day, says she detects that some of the laughter is uncomfortable.
“There are going to be some people who have had real close experience with alcoholism, that are going to be not laughing, like, ‘ugh,’ and it will make them kind of creeped,” Parr says. “There will be some who will have uncomfortable laughter and some to who it will just be ridiculously funny.”
The sadness of the character might seem at odds with the comedic intent of the show, but Parr says the show has prompted her to think about the sad undercurrent of comedy.
“When you think about it, all the great comedians, underneath, have so much sadness,” Parr says. “Think about it: Robin Williams. John Belushi.”
Audiences at the time weren’t interested in Simon, known for unabashed comedies like “The Odd Couple” and “Plaza Suite,” going dark, but Parr says she thinks “The Gingerbread Lady” holds up over time and can be appreciated for its humor in addressing unpleasant subjects. And it’s not a complete dirge.
It even gives Parr a chance to sing, and there are supporting characters who add to the laughter, including Jimmy (played by Jeremiah Reeve), who Parr describes as “the sassy gay friend,” and the best friend, Toby (Sharon Sikorski), who is constantly focused on her appearance.
Parr says the show fits in with Studio Players’ classic fare and some of the edgier shows it has programmed lately.
“They want things that will reach into you and make you think,” Parr says. “It strikes a nice balance.”