BY CARY GINELL
When playing Ado Annie, the fickle, man-hungry hayseed in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Melanie Mockobey brings to mind another classic show business clown who got her start in musical theater: Carol Burnett. With her knack for accents and an endearing crooked smile, the Kansas City-born Mockobey seems to have been born to play this role. We talked with her recently, just prior to an early rehearsal of the show with Cabrillo Music Theatre. Oklahoma! begins a 10-day run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza beginning July 17.
VCOS: When I saw you sing “I Cain’t Say No” at the first Cabrillo rehearsal and first spoke to you and mentioned that you reminded me of Carol Burnett, there was a particular glint in your eye.
MELANIE: Yeah. I just love Carol Burnett. I grew up around musical theater and especially old musical theater. I would occasionally watch The Carol Burnett Show reruns, but that was such a huge compliment because she’s one of my heroes. I love her. I mean, who doesn’t love Carol Burnett?
VCOS: Tell me about your background.
MELANIE: I started dancing when I was three years old and did my first professional show when I was five. I did The Wizard of Oz with the Starlight Theatre of Kansas City. Then I did Annie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you know, shows that children always do, but since I was a little kid, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
VCOS: Where did you go to college?
MELANIE: I went to the American Musical Dramatic Academy here in Los Angeles where I got a BFA.
VCOS: What are some of the favorite roles that you’ve done?
MELANIE: I just finished Seussical, I played Gertrude McFuzz, with 3D Theatricals, which was really, really fun. I also did Into the Woods with them and played Lucinda, one of the ugly stepsisters. I really like roles where I can just have fun and be goofy. That’s always come pretty easy to me.
VCOS: Any romantic leads in your background?
MELANIE: Nope, not yet, but maybe in the future. We’ll see! I don’t want to get pigeonholed. While being a goofy sidekick is more in my wheelhouse, I still want to do Les Mis and I want to do Julie Jordan in Carousel. That’s a dream role of mine, even though I’m kind of a shoo-in for Carrie, I would still love to do Julie at some point.
VCOS: What kinds of roles bridge that gap, where you can play both goofy and romantic leads?
MELANIE: Actually, Gertrude did a little bit. I think the trap of that role is playing it too goofy and going for the laughs. You have to be vulnerable enough for people to think that she is in love and is a real “person,” even though she’s a bird, so there are definitely roles like that.
VCOS: Like Princess Winnifrid in Once Upon a Mattress?
MELANIE: Yes! Absolutely. Carol Burnett again!
VCOS: So tell me about Ado Annie. This is a tough role because you have to walk this tightrope with her. She’s fickle, but you don’t want it to appear that she’s loose. So how do you handle that?
MELANIE: I think Ado Annie is a feminist icon, maybe the first, since Oklahoma! was really the first musical –
VCOS: The one that broke so many barriers.
MELANIE: Right. “Loose” is kind of a term that I definitely want to stay away from. She wants to enjoy who she is and she wants to enjoy being a pretty young woman. But she’s not going behind the haystack and, you know…(laughs).
VCOS: She might appear that way to others but not to herself.
MELANIE: Right. Exactly. I always thought that she’s completely unapologetic and even when she sings “What are you gonna do when a feller gets flirty?” and all of those lines, am I going to spit in his eye? No. I’m going to follow through on it. She says to Laurey, you’re denying yourself a whole lot of fun by not allowing yourself to be a young woman and doing what young women do. When this show came out, I don’t think anybody ever thought she was a loose woman because of the way she’s presented. Because she’s funny. Nobody ever disliked her because of the way it was presented.
VCOS: Will Parker is kind of the same way. I think it was really interesting what Hammerstein did there, because Will Parker wasn’t even in the original play, Green Grow the Lilacs. He introduced Annie and Will as a secondary romantic couple, one of many Broadway traditions that came out of Oklahoma! But what’s interesting is that he made Will and Annie so diametrically opposed to Laurey and Curly. So let me ask you this. Do Laurey and Ado Annie understand each other at all?
MELANIE: I think they do. They’re best friends and, as they say, opposites attract. I think that Ado Annie does a lot of things that Laurey wishes she could do. The way that Ado Annie feels about men, especially Will Parker, says that – like when she says, “Don’t you feel sorry for a man when he looks like he wants to kiss you” and Laurey says, no, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but obviously, she knows exactly what Annie is talking about. So way down in her heart of hearts, she understands Ado Annie pretty well.
VCOS: Maybe Annie and Will are what Laurey and Curly want to be.
VCOS: I know you’ve just started rehearsing, but what are your favorite moments in the show so far?
MELANIE: We haven’t done a whole lot. We were doing “All ‘er Nothin'” the other night, but any time I have an interaction with Will, all bets are off. I can be just as cartoony and ridiculous as I want to be and he will be as cartoony and ridiculous as he wants to be. And it turns into something really magical and funny.
VCOS: Do you have any particular things that you do with a character you’re playing that you bring from show to show?
MELANIE: Yeah, there are some things that I’ll probably never be able to get away from that I do on stage. I always get notes, in this show and in Into the Woods, about being too modern in my mannerisms, so it’s hard to curtail that sometimes.
VCOS: Have we seen you here in Ventura County before?
MELANIE: No, this is a new thing for me, but I will say that anywhere that I’ve done musical theater in Southern California, and that includes Cabrillo for sure, everybody’s been very welcoming. There’s not a lot of musical theater so it always feels like you’re joining a family, which is great. I don’t think there’s any other profession on Earth where you can feel that so quickly. Within a week you feel like, OK, with these people, I know that if I have any problems, I feel really comfortable about going to someone for help.
VCOS: Any dream roles for you?
MELANIE: Well, Carousel, as I said before. I want to play EVERY role in Carousel. I even want to play Billy. I mean, why not? (laughs) I really wanted to play Kunigunde in Candide. That’s been a dream role of mine since I was in high school. I also would really like to do Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.
VCOS: Is there a role that scares you?
MELANIE: I know there are roles that would intimidate me, but I think the only thing that would really scare me would be Elphaba in Wicked and that’s because there are certain things that people expect of that and they want it to be Idina Menzel or Kristin Chenoweth. You could even say that about Oklahoma! but I’ve known people who have worked on Wicked who say that you have to act a certain way or people are going to be disappointed. So it can be hard to please everybody in that respect.
Oklahoma! plays at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza from July 17-28. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.