Spotlight on Mamie Duncan-Gibbs

by Tom Moran


Duncan-Gibbs' Velma is different from the Velmas of Bebe Neuwirth, or Ute Lemper, or the other women who have played the role: "My Velma's spicy. She's got spunk. I almost feel like it's a cross between Tina Turner and Liza Minnelli, if you can imagine those two people together." Tall, leggy, and possessed of a wicked sense of humor and a great voice, Duncan-Gibbs and Roz Ryan (who plays Mama Morton) turn the Second Act song "Class," which is usually done as a broad comedy turn, into something very close to an elegy, beautifully sung by both of them with voices that blend in a way that I've never heard done equally well by any of the women who have played those two roles. And her chemistry with Karen Ziemba, who does an amazing job as Roxie Hart ("I look at Karen as the true triple threat," Duncan-Gibbs says. "There's nothing she can't do"), is something to see, as Ziemba's hyperventilating Roxie finds a near-perfect foil in Duncan-Gibbs' hypercynical Velma. But holding her own in heady company is something that Duncan-Gibbs is accustomed to doing. She has worked with some of the biggest names in show business, from Gregory Hines in Jelly to Liza Minnelli in Steppin' Out at Radio City Music Hall, to Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees. But arguably the biggest influence, and certainly the one that is most relevant for her current job, is the time she spent working for Bob Fosse in what turned out to be his final production, the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity. "I wasn't an understudy in the show," Duncan-Gibbs tells me, "I was just in the ensemble. And Bob would call a rehearsal for the principals, and I'd go to the back of the house so he wouldn't know I was there, and I'd sit there and watch him direct. What was exciting about working with him was that I thought he was going to be a good choreographer and maybe an all right director. But he was an amazing director. A lot of times you look at a person's work, and you see that they create things, but you don't know why they create things? It just looks pretty? But everything Bob did, there was a reason for it. I started looking at dance differently after working with him, and I think I became a better actress/dancer after working with Bob. And I only worked with him for four months. I thought, "God, if I'd had four years -- how good would I have been!" But I was just grateful for the experience. Because that was always a dream of mine -- to work with Bob Fosse. I didn't have a chance to work with Michael Bennett, or Michael Peters, or quite a few others that have since passed on, but I got to work with Bob, and that meant a lot to me."

Duncan-Gibbs (far right) in Chicago

Being in a long running show, even a show as good as Chicago, can sometimes seem like a grind, as even Duncan-Gibbs will admit. "Of course there are gonna be nights when just you go, "Oh God, hurry up 10:30, hurry up -- I wanna go home!" But you just do the work and when you know you're in a good show, as opposed to hoping it's good, it's easy. Because you know the work is good. I trust John Kander and Fred Ebb. I know it's good. Or if the audience is having a bad night, then it's like, "Well, they must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, because I'm in a good show." So it's okay. It really doesn't bother me. When I'm on for the lead and they don't smile, then I get a little upset. Because you always wonder if you're good enough."

I asked Duncan-Gibbs to elaborate on this, and I have to admit, what she said surprised me, particularly coming from a performer as obviously talented as she is: "Every time I rehearse I think, "Oh my God, I'm not as good as I was at the audition -- I'm gonna get fired." And I go home and I sit up at night and you work on it. I remember doing Jelly's Last Jam. And in the workshop, we had to move this bed around, while Gregory and Anita were in the bed. And I remember thinking, "God, I keep messing up this bed, I'm gonna get fired." Finally I turned to my husband and I said, "I need three hours to myself." And I worked on this bed, And I had it so that I could turn it with a finger. And I laughed the next day because the other two girls were messing up and I was just pushing it with a finger because I had worked on it that night. I love the theater and I have such respect for it that I want everything to be good. So I think I'm harder on myself than anybody else would ever be."

Luckily for Duncan-Gibbs, who is married and has two children, she doesn't feel the need to be such a perfectionist in her personal life. And having people to come home to can sometimes, as she points out, put things in perspective. "That's why I'm so grateful to have a happy home life. I remember coming home after an audition. I was down for the final call, and I didn't get it, and I remember all the way home thinking, "Oh, I needed that job, I wanted that job," and I came in and my son said, "Mommy! I'm glad you're home!" and he grabbed me around my knees, he was little at the time, and it was so cool, and I stayed home and I played checkers and we played Candyland. It's a nice balance, it keeps it real."

Mamie Duncan-Gibbs is nothing if not real, and her performances as Velma in Chicago are as real, and as worth watching, as anything you'll see on Broadway. And for the next month or so, Las Vegas will get to see her when she comes to the land of the high rollers to play Velma opposite Marilu Henner (Roz Ryan will continue her remarkable chemisty with Duncan-Gibbs in Vegas, and later that month, Charlotte D'Amboise will replace Henner in Chicago's ongoing game of musical chairs). So if you happen to be in Vegas between July 27 and August 22, and you're not doing too well at the crap tables, think about checking out one of Broadway's hidden treasures in one of the best musicals in town. Who knows? You might get lucky.

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Photo: Dan Chavkin
Courtesy of the Pete Sanders Group