ALBANY, N.Y. -- Mary Callanan says getting cast in the iconic role of Mama Rose in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of "Gypsy" will permit her "to die happy."
She explains that it is a role she's always wanted to play but was beginning to doubt it would ever happen.
It's not that Callanan ever doubted herself. It's just that she realized that it is rare for a theater to mount a production of "Gypsy" without knowing who would be playing Rose. Often it's a reward for years of service to a company or it can be an opportunity to use the role as a lure to snare a name actress for the part.
"When I saw the audition notice and realized the role of Mama Rose was available I knew this was my chance. It's a dream come true being in rehearsals here at Capital Repertory," where "Gypsy" begins previews at 8 tonight, in advance of Tuesday's 7:30 p.m. opening.
While Callanan is sincere about the being-so-happy-she can-die-happy remark, the self-described character actress laughs as she admits she's been saying that a lot lately.
"Once upon a time my dream was a major role in a national tour. Then I was cast as Rosie in ‘Mama Mia' (which played Proctors). I was out with the show for two years and I told everyone I could die happy.
"Right after that I got what every actress dreams of -- a major role on Broadway (the recent revival of "Annie"). I thought to myself ‘Now, now I can die happy. How does it get better?' "
The answer is the lead role in "Gypsy."
"Now I can really die happy," she laughs.
However, she discovered with each success came a sacrifice. Being on the road for two years was "a wonderful but isolating experience," she says, without a trace of regret in her voice.
And with the Broadway gig, the Boston-based actress had to take up residence in New York City. That doesn't seem like tough duty until you learn Callanan has a husband and a house in the Boston area.
She compares her single-mindedness about her career with Rose's obsession with taking care of her kids. Indeed, Callanan feels what she can bring to the character is an understanding of what Mama Rose sacrifices for the good of her children.
"She's often played as loud, brass and tough. Of course," Callanan said. "Essentially she is a single woman keeping her family afloat the only way she knows how. That defines her. But I want to see past that and show her vulnerabilities as well. I want the audience to understand she's a complex character. Rose is musical theater's version of a female ‘King Lear.
If there is problem with performing such a complex, compelling character it is that Callanan knows the character will never leave her. She compares Mama Rose to Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd."
"I've played Mr. Lovett several times and you are always discovering something new about the woman,' Callanan says. "Mama Rose is the same way. I know at the final performance I'll be dreaming about the next shot I get at her."
Interestingly the first time Callanan played Mrs. Lovett was local. She was a regular cast member at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon in 1994 and ‘95. "What a wonderful place and a wonderful experience," she says. "It was only my second job and it taught me so much."
Callanan says that performing "Sweeney Todd," "Bells Are Ringing" and "H.M.S. Pinafore" one season and "Evita," "The Gondoliers" and "Company" the next taught her to trust herself and her instincts. She says the experience introduced her to what she calls the "spaghetti method" of acting. "You throw it against the wall and keep what sticks," she laughs.
There's little of the spaghetti technique in her preparation for Mama Rose. She explains, "It's not only a complicated role, it's a physically demanding role. I work in rehearsal, eat dinner, go back to the apartment and run lines. I can't go out and socialize with the kids in the cast. I have to conserve my strength and stay healthy." She adds, "It's all worth it for the role of a lifetime."
Despite what she says, Mary Callanan is too happy to die just yet.