By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Deborah Cox has been influenced by a lot of big-time divas. She sang backup for Celine Dion, who taught her the importance of discipline. She duetted with Whitney Houston, who told her to not hold back in her desire to start a family. ("Do what you want to do," said Whit, no doubt while making dramatic arm gestures. "It's important to have balance in your life.") And she was impressed by Josephine Baker's fiery brilliance and integrity when working on a musical about the feather-clad performer's life and legend.
Melding aspects of all those moxieish muses, Cox has become quite a fine diva herself. Calling from "cold-assed Chicago," Cox told me that the Josephine show is going to happen, but right now she's playing Lucy in Jekyll & Hyde—starting Broadway previews this week—and loving it. It's the over-the-top 1997 musical which nowadays comes with even more discipline than Celine Dion could dream of. The show's been given an extra layer of whips and chains, according to the out-of-town critics, who singled Cox out for non-flogging. (The Chicago Tribune called her "by far the best thing about this Jekyll & Hyde—a terrific singer and a sexy, perfectly respectable actress".)
"It's a definitely sexier and darker version," said Cox, the Canadian-born R&B singer who had chart hits like "Nobody's Supposed to Be Here" and was well received as an Aida replacement in 2004. "It's en vogue with your Downton Abbey or Twilight. The director, Jeff Calhoun, has found a way to tell the story with a little more edge and grit. It delves into mental illness, the dark side of human behavior, and hypocrisy." Ooh. Sounds like Matilda for grownups. "It's more Victoria's Secret than Victorian," notes the publicity, citing the show's "steampunk aesthetics."
Speaking of s/m, the score is by Frank Wildhorn, who's long been the critics' whipping boy, though he often crafts pleasing power ballads. "The critics are always out to get him," admitted Cox, "but the audiences are there every night, loving it. If the audiences are still coming in to hear the music, I think he's won."
Cox, naturally, gets to belt some of those power tunes via her own lofty lungs. But as Lucy, how does she avoid falling into the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché? "She's a tough woman who has big dreams and a lot of promise," Cox told me. "She's in a shitty situation and has to find a way out. Lucy's essentially in love with a man who finally respects her. She's drawn in by his gentleness and empathy—something she's never experienced. It causes her to go on a quest throughout the whole piece." Yes, the woman's thought it through.
Cox is married to her manager hubby, so she's not the romantically yearning soul that Lucy is, but she said she totally relates to the character's survivorhood. "The music biz has taken a different turn," she explained. "It's about something else. I think it's more about popularity on reality shows. You don't get a chance to get the artist development and get to know an artist through music. For some, celebrity's become about their image when they're coming out of their hotel rather than about talent." Fortunately, her Jekyll costar, Constantine Maroulis, has managed to break out of the reality-show trap; he was Tony-nominated for Rock of Ages and now gets to go split-personality and belt "This Is the Moment".
Before Deborah got back to her regimen for "this marathon of a show," I asked about her other musical. Does Josephine deal with the singer's bisexuality? It's referenced, she said, but not explored, because the project is about five years in the performer's life and the focus is more on her activism. Oh, good. Then there's still room for my Josephine Baker show.
Throne For a Loop
Let me now sip from the golden chalice and turn into Mr. Hype so I can tell you about another fetishy fantasy—the free Game of Thrones exhibition at 3 West 57th Street through April 3. The HBO hit (a/k/a "The Sopranos in Middle-earth") could easily have erupted from a raunchier version of Camelot, if we want to keep our Broadway allusions going. Among the items showcased at the exhibit's opening were extremely medieval costumes of fur and armor that might not be PETA-friendly, but which looked totally Middle Ages-fierce, thank you. Even hotter was an elaborate throne for partygoers to play games on, though I opted to just sit there for a royal photo that turned out to be another exciting example of steampunk aesthetics. And let's not forget the display of collectibles, like a very fetching dragon's egg pendant and an adorable Peter Dinklage miniature (you heard me). Meanwhile, a waiter blithely walked around with a lamb's head on a tray, but he advised me not to dig in. ("It would be mostly bone.") Fortunately, there was some real food too, like little plates of roasted ribeye for the Dark Ages–lover in you. Heeding the advice quoted on a wall placard ("Onward and claim what is yours!"—Tyrion Lannister), I claimed a whole lot of it. It's similar to what Whitney told people: "Do what you want to do."