Times Performing Arts Critic
For the overwhelming majority of Americans who keep up with television a lot more closely than Broadway, Ana Gasteyer was one of the longer-term players on Saturday Night Live. Her six-year run brought us the earnestly funky medleys (with Will Ferrell) of high school music teacher Bobbie Mohan-Culp, hush-toned NPR host Margaret Jo McCullen, and strident activist and singer Cinder Calhoun.
But the SNL years from 1996 to 2002 capture only a sliver of Gasteyer's versatile career, which began in improv and expanded to Broadway. Her cabaret show aims to connect those threads with personal stories and songs.
"I approach it kind of like an evening with friends in my living room," Gasteyer, 50, said by phone. "Literally, when I have a birthday party at my house, we have a piano player. And at some point, everybody gathers around the piano and sings."
Previous tour stops have included the jazzy One Mint Julep and a version of I'm Hip, considerably updated from the Mel Torme days (Bobby Darin and Playboy magazine references out, Instagram and Vimeo in). At the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, she'll shed the brass musicians who have sometimes backed her up and turn Ferguson Hall into a piano bar.
"It's much quieter than even my band," she said. "This is a show focused on more musicality, and of course personal stories and personal bon mots, the complicated career roads, the crazy avenues of my life. I talk a lot about myself and my experiences, which are weird and complicated but fun."
Improv might have been in the Chicago native's blood, but she discovered it as a voice major at Northwestern University. Gasteyer did a stint with the Groundlings improv troupe before auditioning for SNL. Subsequent career stops included roles as Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera and Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, plus dozens of roles in television and film.
At one point, Gasteyer paused to shush a new dog in the home she shares with husband Charlie and a 15-year-old daughter. The yin and yang of marriage works, she said, in part because Charlie is not a musician but loves coming to her shows.
While she said she's "out of the loop" of a burgeoning improv world, Gasteyer still feels closely attached to improvisation and sketch comedy.
"It's obviously something I've been doing the last 25 years of my life," she said. "It's a great writing tool and a great acting tool that started as a kind of academic exercise."
A climate of political polarization will only help comedy, she predicted.
"Comedy tends to flourish during times of more conservative governments," Gasteyer said. "I think we are in a moment of change culturally as we address issues of gender equality and cultural equality. Those are moments that are usually pretty rife for comedians because they tend to want to talk about things that are in flux culturally."
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