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A Royal Return 

The Skinny on Skinner

If you were lucky enough to see Emily Skinner as Prudie Cupp in the Charlotte Rep production of Pump Boys and Dinettes, you've probably marked Skinner's return to Booth Playhouse on your calendar. Six seasons before her 2003 triumph, Skinner had established herself as musical royalty, co-starring in the original Broadway production of Side Show.

Literally joined at the hip with Alice Ripley as the Hilton Sisters, Siamese twin performers who spent their final years here in Gaston County, Skinner and Ripley were Tony Award-nominated in tandem for their 1997 exploits.

Skinner's return to the Charlotte stage this Saturday will resonate with both her Broadway fame and her Rep acclaim. In the evening, she'll perform Broadway, Her Way with accompanist Ross Patterson, hopefully earning money for the new Queen City Theater Company and helping to fill the void left by Rep's demise.

But that's not the only reason Queen City has brought Skinner back. This summer, the fledgling company will be mounting their own production of Side Show, opening on July 1. So Skinner will preside over a master class at Booth Playhouse from 1 to 3 p.m., offering guidance to select registrants who plan to audition for the Queen City production.

We phoned Skinner at her Manhattan apartment a few weeks ago and chatted about Her Way, Side Show, and her upcoming engagements in Charlotte.

CL: How would you describe Broadway, Her Way?

Emily Skinner: My show is like a master class about musical theater. People who really dread musical theater, who have seen it, come out with a greater appreciation for it. It's a lot of stuff that you've never heard before, plus stuff that you do know. I sing stuff that's currently on Broadway right now as well as stuff that people have never heard from different parts of the 20th century, obscure things. So I have a good mix of the best of musical theater. I tell a lot of stories about the shows the songs are from and the performers who did them.

So how did you reconnect with Charlotte after you last appeared at Rep five years ago?

Well, you know, when I came to Charlotte in 2003 to do Pump Boys and Dinettes, I had a really good time. I really liked the people. I'm from Virginia originally, so I'm a Southern girl. I was really sad when Rep closed because I thought this was a great little theater. The vibe was nice, everyone I met couldn't have been nicer, and these guys sort of contacted me and said, "Hey, would you come down and sing at Queen City Theater for us?" And I thought, "Why not? Let's go back and visit Charlotte." I like Charlotte!

Was it put to you that you might be the vehicle to sort of rebuild -- or at least strengthen one company that's starting up and hoping to fill that void?

I hope so, and I hope they succeed in that. By your description and theirs, there's a little bit of a black hole, and as far as theater in Charlotte goes right now. So there needs to be more.

Give me some idea about how you cooked up this master class idea for Side Show.

They asked me to do master classes because I had done Side Show. They thought it would be interesting for them to ask people who were auditioning for Side Show to come in. It wasn't my idea. It was theirs, and I'm happy to do it. I don't know how much insight I can give to anybody on how to do Side Show. I think everybody has to create their own journey and experience in that show.

Are you getting the idea that, since the show folded, even doing a production of Side Show is a fairly exotic project?

It's had over 50 regional productions since [the original] closed, and there is only more to come in the future. I think part of the reason that it didn't have a long run in New York was that people heard that it was about Siamese twins and went, "Ee-yew! What is that? Is that going to be some horrible, exploitive thing?" before they'd even seen the show, when really that's not what the show is about at all. To me, one of the big points Side Show makes is about how the people we perceive to be freaks are really the most well-adjusted of all -- because they're forced to be. Society's perception of freaks is skewed.

I saw Side Show in New York, so I can grasp how ambitious it is to do in a regional theater.

You know, I've actually seen a couple of regional theater productions. I was lucky enough to be invited to them, and they were really, really wonderful to see -- and interesting. I saw one production in the round, which is amazing. I once saw a group of handicapped people do it, which my God, brings a whole new resonance to songs like "Come Look at the Freaks." I've seen a bunch of different productions, and every time I'm knocked out by what people bring to it and how people connect to the material. So it really speaks to the people who are doing it, and it speaks to the audience.

Do you find that this Side Show role is something that's associated with you as a kind of signature role?

Yes, very much so. Alice Ripley, who played my sister, and I will always be defined by those roles, for better or worse. And I think it's a nice thing. I'm proud of being part of that show and helping to give birth to that role, so I think it's a lovely compliment.

Had you realized that Alice's brother is a very prominent theater personality here?

I sure do. Scott [Ripley], yeah! I love him. He's so talented! I actually heard from a friend of mine who lives down in Charlotte how good he was in I Am My Own Wife. He's a wonderful actor. If I'm lucky, he'll come to my show.

So tell me, after we take the masks off all the Emily Skinners that we have seen -- and detach you from your Siamese twin, Alice Ripley -- what sort of songs does Emily Skinner gravitate toward? What is Emily Skinner's way, in other words?

What is my way? I tend to like funny, silly stuff. Because good God, who wants to go see a person's one-person show where they sing ballad after ballad after ballad? Good God, I'd rather slit my wrists! I like a lot of arcane and obscure stuff as well. I like to give my audience the element of surprise!

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