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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    From acting alongside Hugh Jackman to starring at Goodspeed, Audrey Cardwell has had a milestone year

    Audrey Cardwell (Contributed)
    Matt Bogart and Audrey Cardwell, standing, and Josh Breckenridge, sitting, star in “Christmas in Connecticut” at Goodspeed. (Diane Sobolewski)

    Actress Audrey Cardwell has had quite a 2022.

    She made her Broadway debut, filling in for star Sutton Foster in “The Music Man” alongside Hugh Jackman.

    And she is now originating a role for the first time in a fully produced musical. That show is “Christmas in Connecticut,” which is getting its world premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

    “It’s been an amazing year,” Cardwell says. “It’s been really exciting, especially on the heels of COVID, when I, along with so many other artists, thought, ‘My career’s over. I don’t know if I’m ever going to work again. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ It’s exhausting and it’s emotional, and coming out of the pandemic, I was definitely questioning my career and if I was going to pivot and do something else. To have this incredible year on the heels of that, I’m very fortunate and very thankful. It’s been magical. Beyond words, honestly.”

    “Christmas in Connecticut” is based on the 1945 Warner Bros. movie in which a woman finds success by writing a column about being a wife and mother. There’s only one problem: she doesn’t actually have a husband or a child. This was just the writing gig she could get, and she needed a job, so she took it. (She had originally pitched the idea of a column about tomorrow’s woman and how women can work and do what men do, but no one was interested in publishing that.)

    When her in-the-dark boss and a war hero come to visit for the holiday, she has to improvise. That sparks lots of comical complications.

    Reading the script by Patrick Pacheco and Erik Forrest Jackson, Cardwell says, “The first thing I noticed was her sense of humor. Just the way it’s written, it’s so quick and witty, and she’s so sharp and so smart. It’s really exciting to have a lead female character who’s not only kind of our ingenue and protagonist but our comedian as well. That’s really, really rare. There are very few roles that are written with all of that piled on top of it. I was really excited to get to work on all that.”

    Likewise, she says, the show at large has a “wonderful sense of humor all around.”

    As for the music, which is by composer Jason Howland and lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz, Cardwell characterizes it as beautiful and big.

    “It’s kind of got this contemporary pop sensibility while still feeling like that sweeping golden-age grand musical theater that you want to hear. It also has that sprinkling of holiday cheer that makes it fit in a Christmas show. So it feels like we’re a getting golden-age musical and also some Christmas classics as well,” she says.

    Playing a role

    The character Cardwell portrays, Liz Sandor, is playing a role in her own life. She gets stuck in a conflict between the fact that she is making money by writing the homemaking column and the question of what she really believes and how she lives her life.

    “She’s writing this column of being this homemaker and this housewife and this mother — and she’s none of these things. It’s all a lie, so then (it’s) getting into the moral question of, ‘OK, first of all, I’m lying to these people.’ And that’s where our story takes an interesting turn — she finally sees that what she’s writing has had an impact on people,” Cardwell says.

    That spirals into her questioning herself and what she really wants to do and say.

    Onstage opposite Hugh Jackman

    As an understudy for “The Music Man,” Cardwell filled in for Foster four times earlier this year.

    She vividly remembers getting that first call at 12:13 p.m. — she noticed the time on her phone — on a Sunday. It was the stage manager telling her she was going to fill in for Foster, who had tested positive for COVID-19.

    Cardwell had to sub in starting with the 3 p.m. matinee that day. She had all of 2-1/2 hours before curtain.

    “Going on for Sutton, it was scary. It was so scary. Luckily, I had been fully prepared, I had been rehearsed, I’d had a put-in rehearsal, which is where we basically do the entire show with costumes and with lights,” she says.

    Cardwell says it’s important to share the fact that performers do get nervous.

    She went home after getting the call and recalls being really overwhelmed, jittery and shaky.

    “So I gave myself five minutes and I sat down and I cried because I was scared. I gave myself permission to be scared and to be the little girl that dreamed of being on Broadway and is now about to go play a lead on Broadway, opposite Hugh Jackman, and to let that reality kind of wash over me and let myself be scared and be emotional about it,” Cardwell says.

    “There was of course joy laced into that, and there was a dream about to come true, but I also knew that it had to go the side because I needed to go to work and I had a job to do.”

    Cardwell says she felt so supported and loved by the company, the cast and especially by Jackman. As soon as they got to the theater, Jackman went to Cardwell’s dressing room and, she remembers, “was like, ‘What do we need to chat about? Let’s talk through the scenes, let’s make sure you’re comfortable.’ He was like, ‘Whatever you want to do, you do it. Don’t worry about me. I’m here for you, I’ve got you.’”

    Cardwell says that Jackman is “just as kind as we’ve all heard he is. I’m happy to say that his reputation is right on the money.”

    Cardwell ended up having what she says was a really incredible, calm, focused show, for which she is thankful.

    “That also comes with age and experience. I’m 32. I have no problem saying I’m 32. I made my Broadway debut at 32, and I’m grateful that I am where I am in terms of my maturity and my ability to calmly handle these situations which are extremely overwhelming and extremely scary because no matter how long you’ve been doing this … when you get that phone call to go on as an understudy, it sends you reeling,” she says.

    A voice almost sidelined

    Cardwell, who grew up in Alabama, started dancing when she was 5 — her mother, who was a single parent, had the option of putting Audrey and her then-7-year-old sister either in afterschool daycare or an afterschool dance program. They chose the dance.

    They also went to all the big musical tours when they came to the area.

    The first musical Cardwell performed in was “The Music Man” when she was 12. She was in the ensemble of a community theater production. Her first professional theater job was when she was 13.

    “I’ve always been very connected to music. Cranking up a tune, I felt the music in my soul. … I’ve always loved to sing, (but) I wasn’t always a gifted singer,” she says. “I had a lot of vocal problems when I was a kid, but I always dreamt of singing. Once I got the opportunity to be onstage dancing and singing, it was like, oh, my gosh, I just came alive. Telling stories and getting to connect with audiences through a wide variety of storytelling elements was always really thrilling. It was just all these things I loved so much coming together.”

    As for those vocal problems: Starting at age 4, Cardwell had nodules, which was an anomaly for someone so young. The nodules continued through childhood, and when she was 16, she developed a polyp. She ended up on complete vocal rest for a month and then had to go through speech therapy and essentially relearn how to talk and use her voice properly.

    “I’m happy to say that I’ve been healthy since then. Because I was so young and because I went through speech therapy, I was able to correct all the problems I was having,” she says.

    Originating a role in a musical

    Cardwell has originated roles in some readings and workshops over the years. But she had never done that in a full production in front of an audience until “Christmas in Connecticut.”

    She says that originating a role, as opposed to playing a role that other actresses have before, is “a world of difference. I’m learning so much. This is an experience that I think every actor really, really wants to get their hands on …

    “Getting to do this from the ground up and with a full production is really spectacular, and there’s something about allowing my own instincts and my own thoughts and my own opinions to come into play in the character that is really empowering. I’m so grateful for this experience. I’ve done a lot of covering in my life, meaning understudying. I’ve played a lot of roles that have be around for 50-plus years, in golden-age musicals and things like that. … But getting to have some ownership over – and I don’t mean like this is mine, I own this role forever – but getting to have my mind and my heart come into play when we’re building the show, it’s a huge responsibility and it’s really exhilarating. It’s really fun. It’s just getting to flex all these new creative muscles that I’ve never gotten to flex before. It’s been incredible.”

    Barbara Stanwyck starred in the movie version of “Christmas in Connecticut,” and Cardwell intentionally hadn’t screened the film until very recently, when it was shown a week-and-a-half ago at the Garde Arts Center in New London, in a joint event with Goodspeed.

    “When I read the script for the first time, the character started just jumping out to me in certain ways, and I wanted to be able to follow my instincts with it, especially since this is the first time this show has ever been (staged) – it’s the world premiere … So I didn’t want to have any constrictions around what I was thinking the character could be. It started to speak clearly to me when I was reading the script, so I thought I’d let my natural instincts take over.”


    What: “Christmas in Connecticut”

    Where: Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main St., East Haddam

    When: Through Dec. 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 2 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun.; also 6:30 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 27, and 2 p.m. Thursdays starting Dec. 1; see website for Thanksgiving week schedule

    Tickets: $30-$80

    Contact: goodspeed.org, (860) 873-8668

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