Here’s how you can tell you’re old,” cracks Atlanta actress Libby Whittemore, washing down a bite of her BLT with a swig of Coke as the meatloaf blue plate specials whiz past her during the lunch rush at OK Café. “It’s when your high school doesn’t exist anymore!”
Currently being lauded for her performance as Joanne, the schnockered sardonic socialite in the Actor’s Express production of Stephen Sondheim’s trailblazing ensemble musical comedy “Company” running though September 11, Whittemore was already well familiar with Joanne’s withering one-liners. She first played the role as a senior at Atlanta’s now-defunct Northside High School. “We were probably the only high school in America doing ‘Company’ in 1974!” howls Whittemore. “We were an adventurous bunch. We also did ‘Cabaret’ where one of the characters gets an abortion. Attempting Sondheim seemed natural to us and our parents. We were kids. We didn’t know it was impossible!”
While Whittemore possesses a single cast photo from the show, she isn’t sharing it. Jokes Whittemore: “I’m 17 and I’m playing someone who’s in her 40s, so of course, they put a gray wig on me so I could play the role authentically. I was pretty much the Estelle Getty of the show!”
In March, Whittemore was backstage rehearsing for one of her cabaret performances at Actor’s Express when artistic director Freddie Ashley excitedly told her he had just acquired the rights to do the 1970 Broadway classic. “I asked him if I could audition for the role of Joanne and Freddie said, ‘I thought you hated Sondheim’ and I replied, ‘Yes, but I like to work!’ I don’t hate all Sondheim, just the shows where everyone is singing at once. And let me be clear, the reason I hate that is because his lyrics are so great and you can’t hear them when it’s a cacophony.”
For Whittemore fans, it’s the first chance to see her in a musical in a decade. Aside from her ongoing Libby’s at the Express cabaret series, the actress took some time away from the stage to care for her mom and life-long Atlanta arts patron Margaret Whittemore, who died in 2014 at age 84.
At age 60, tackling the role made famous on Broadway by Elaine Stritch was both easier and harder for Whittemore. She says she got a rare case of nerves on opening night (“It’s Sondheim. There’s so much to keep straight in your head.”). And at each performance she says she feels the weight of Joanne’s now-iconic second act number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a bonafide Broadway showstopper that became Stritch’s signature and has been performed by everyone from Alan Cumming and a teenage Anna Kendrick in the 2003 indie film “Camp” to Whittemore’s idol, Barbra Streisand.
“It’s difficult to play a role everyone thinks you’re perfect for,” says Whittemore. “When I did this song the first time in 1974, there weren’t decades of expectations behind it. The only thing you can do is disappoint people. Anything less than perfection every night is going to be a disappointment. If you [expletive] it up, nothing you do the rest of the night will matter.”
At Ashey’s direction, Whittemore amps up the anger, fueling the lacerating lyrical wit of the number as her character bangs back another vodka stinger. “We really worked out the approach in the audition,” recalls Whittemore. “When I got to the last verse of the song Freddie said, ‘Do it again and be a little more angry.’ It just works. Let’s face it, Joanne is a part of this group because she’s wealthy, not because these people are her friends. I think she’s pissed off because she’s become one of these people.”
So far in the run, “The Ladies Who Lunch” has received a pair of standing ovations. But Whittemore had to be told afterward. The staging calls for her to look up at the end of the number and she immediately goes into the post-“Lunch” intensely calculated cat-and-mouse scene with actor Lowrey Brown, who plays Bobby in the show. It’s the scene Whittemore is most proud of.
“I’m mostly known as a singer,” she says. “To be able to tackle the intensity of that exchange where there are so many layers going on between these two people is a real gift. Joanne is the only one who calls Bobby out. It’s [expletive] or get off the pot time, Bobby.”
While the show has been warmly received by Sondheim’s legion of fans, Whittemore says she steers clear of theatre criticism. For her, the best review came after the opening weekend Sunday matinee of “Company” when her old friend, actress Linda Stephens came up to her with former AJC film critic Eleanor Ringel in tow. Whittemore remembers: “Eleanor said to me, ‘You really need to start doing straight plays. You’re that good.’ To hear that from Eleanor Ringel? That was the biggest compliment ever. That’s when I was finally able to breath a little and just do this role without overthinking it.”
The Actor’s Express production of “Company” runs through September 11. For tickets, visit the Actor’s Express website.