Karen Volpe first caught my eye in her Scenie-winning featured role as Ado Annie in the Downey Civic Light Opera production of Oklahoma!, about which I wrote, “Volpe is a classic funny girl comedienne who recalls 40s and 50s comedy star Judy Canova.” Last year, Karen booked the role of a lifetime, Fanny Brice in DCLO’s revival of Funny Girl, prompting another StageSceneLA rave: “Director Marsha Moode simply could not have made a better choice for Funny Girl’s title role than Volpe, whose performance pays tribute to Streisand’s all the while making the role of Fanny most definitely her own.” Following Karen’s Best Lead Actress Scenie for Funny Girl came the role of Babe Williams in this spring’s The Pajama Game, about which I wrote: “This ‘Funny Girl’ can play a romantic lead with the best of them, sing hit after hit in her splendid belt of a voice, and look darned cute and sexy in one ‘50s outfit after another.” Karen now brings in the summer of 2012 with the release of her first solo CD, Dinner And A Fancy Dress, and another starring role, this time in Glendale Centre Theatre’s upcoming in-the-round production of Little Shop Of Horrors.
Dinner And A Fancy Dress spotlights Karen in Country And Western mode, singing up a storm, accompanying herself on guitar, and (funny girl that she is) having one heck of a great time belting out some of the funniest, cleverest country lyrics ever (by songwriter Chuck Pelletier). In the bouncy “Never Came Back,” Karen laments her man’s untimely departure with a philosophical “He went for beer and he never came back.” “Daddy, Will You Love Me?” and “It Comes Easy” have Karen singing a pair of gorgeous country ballads … and breaking more than a few hearts along the way. Still, it’s up-tempo songs like the twangy “That Ain’t Love” (“If it looks like love and it feels like love but it smells a little funny, honey, that ain’t love”) the sing-alongable title song (“It’ll take more than dinner and a fancy dress to rescue me from this mess”), and the down-home “I Drink Because I Love You” (“The more I love you, the more I drink”) that allow Karen to do what she does best, keep an audience laughing even as she belts with the best of them.
I was delighted to catch up with Karen recently and chat about her love for country music, her recent stage performances, and some exciting projects on the horizon.
Karen, the country music flavor of Dinner And A Fancy Dress is a bit of a change from the musical theater songs we usually hear you sing. What made you pick this particular genre for your CD as opposed to a more Broadway or pop sound?
The very first music I ever learned to sing was country music. I grew up in a very rural part of Western New York State surrounded by farms and pastures. Everything about my upbringing was country. My father was a country singer and played the guitar. As my brothers got older, he taught them the guitar and drums and even taught my mom the bass guitar. By the time I was eleven or so, I was fronting our family band and playing weddings, graduations and VFW halls.
So how did you end up doing musical theater?
I only started singing in musicals as a way to get to sing. All I ever wanted to do was sing. It didn’t matter what kind of music or where, but my first love has always been country. It is who I am, through and through. I love the stories, I love the pain, I love redemption. When I hear classic country music I am home again.
All the songs on the CD are written by Chuck Pelletier, who also wrote the songs for the musical The Green Room, on whose cast recording you perform the role of diva Divonne. How far do you and Chuck go back, and how did this latest collaboration come about?
I think I met Chuck Pelletier around 2004. I know it was when I auditioned for a staged reading of his new musical The Green Room. I was cast as Divonne and got to sing the show-stopping number, “It’s All About Me.” Chuck and I immediately hit it off and became friends. He learned about my love of country music and asked me to listen to a few of his original country songs. Little did I know, he’d been writing and producing country demos for years with a group of musicians in Nashville.
So what was it about Chuck’s songs that appealed to you the most?
The most important element to his writing wasn’t just that the songs were catchy and had a great hook, but they were funny. He was writing smart, clever, sassy female country songs where the women didn’t take themselves too seriously. It was the perfect collaboration. My biggest musical inspiration is Lyle Lovett and I feel that Chuck’s sense of humor is very similar to his. We even made it to the semi-finals of a short-lived reality show on CMT called “Can You Duet?”
Is there one particular song on the CD that you most enjoy singing?
I really enjoy something different about all of the songs on the CD, but if I had to choose just one, I would have to say “Never Came Back”, because it’s so challenging lyrically. Oh, and it’s also a bear to play on guitar.
StageSceneLA readers know you from your starring roles in Oklahoma!, Funny Girl, and most recently The Pajama Game. Let’s start with Ado Annie in Oklahoma! What was your favorite part about playing the girl who “Cain’t Say No”?
I first played Ado Annie in 5th grade and, to be honest, my performance didn’t change much when I played her as an adult! I never thought of her as “easy.” I always believed that she just wanted to be loved. She would do anything to get a guy to love her … anything! Oh, and I also think she was kicked in the head by a horse as a small child.
I know that Funny Girl holds a special place in your heart. Since the musical is so rarely revived, what was it like for you to book this kind of star vehicle and to play such an iconic role?
I think the advantage I had to playing Fanny Brice was that I never saw the movie Funny Girl and I really didn’t know much about Barbra Streisand. I knew she was iconic, but I never really listened to her so I wasn’t caught up in what people expected. All I knew was that the musical had the word “Funny” in the title and I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m funny. Maybe I should try out for that.” I’m thankful to Marsha Moode for taking a chance on me and giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. I just trusted that Marsha knew what she was doing and followed her lead.
As a comedienne yourself, did you feel any special connection to the role of Fanny Brice?
Actually I have a lot in common with her. I learned early on as a child, the only way to keep kids from picking on me was to be funny and make fun of myself first. I was always a bit of an ugly duckling and used comedy to get people to like me. If I made the jokes about myself first, they didn’t hurt so much. I’ve read that Gilda Radner used to do the same thing.
I understand that Babe Williams in The Pajama Game was a bit of a change of pace for you and that you had some trepidation about playing a “Doris Day” kind of role. Can you talk a bit about that, and about how you ended up feeling about playing a bit against your usual “funny girl” persona?
The first thing the director Marsha Moode told me when she cast me as Babe Williams was, “You can’t rely on your old bag of tricks. You can’t be funny.” That scared the heck out of me. How was I going to get the audience to like Babe and want to go on this journey with her for two and a half hours if she wasn’t funny? I soon learned that being charming, endearing, interesting and a spit-fire can be just as interesting as doing slap-stick or hamming it up. It was the first time on stage where I wore false eyelashes and worried about if I looked pretty. I can’t hold a candle to Doris Day in the looks department, but I think I did all right.
You looked darn pretty to me! Moving on to other things, you’re also a writer-producer-performer with The Movie Guys Live! at The Second City Hollywood. That sounds like yet another 180 degree switch from either musical theater or country music. What exactly is The Movie Guys Live!?
The Movie Guys Live! is a one-hour sketch comedy show all about movies. We perform a new show the first Thursday of every month at the Second City in Hollywood and we’ve been running there for over a year.
So how did the show come about?
My husband Paul Preston and I started The Movie Guys in 2009 as a podcast with the ultimate goal to make it into a television show. We’re both alumni of The Second City in Toronto and Chicago and have extensive experience in improvisational comedy and sketch comedy writing. Next to country music, my second love is comedy, the Second City and Gilda Radner.
With two back-to-back starring roles on your résumé, regular Second City appearances, and a brand new CD coming out, it would seem that Karen Volpe is on a roll. So what would you most like to see happen next, career-wise?
Wow, when you say it like that it all sounds so very exciting! I’ll be playing Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at The Glendale Center Theater starting August 23 and will be starring in a one-woman show, The 12 Dates of Christmas, in North Carolina and New York in November.
I couldn’t be more thrilled for you to have such exciting projects in the month ahead!
Thanks!! It all comes down to the fact that I love performing. I know that sounds corny, but I am at my best when I am either making people laugh or singing my heart out. My ultimate dream would be to have a country singing career like Lyle. I want to make people laugh, break their hearts and then make them laugh all over again.
What’s the game plan for getting the word out about Dinner And A Fancy Dress in this Internet age? Do you have plans for public appearances or live performances?
I’m currently in the planning stages of a CD release party for Dinner And A Fancy Dress. My CD is available for purchase/download on CDBaby and soon will be available on iTunes, Amazon.com and Facebook. You can also visit my website www.karenvolpe.com for info on public appearances and live performances.
I wish you all the best with your new CD and in anything else that might be upcoming in your career! Can’t wait to see you in Little Shop!
Thank you Steven, you’ve always been a wonderful advocate and supporter of my work. Your enthusiasm and love of performers is inspirational!
Karen’s official bio:
Karen Volpe got her first taste of improvisational comedy while attending Jamestown Community College (as if that isn’t comedic enough). It was during a choir trip to Toronto that she saw The Second City for the first time. After that she was hooked.
She transferred to Fredonia State University where she graduated Cum Laude with a BFA in Musical Theatre. While at Fredonia, she met up with her comedy partner and future husband, Paul. They began performing their own two person sketch/improvisational shows and studying at The Second City in Toronto. Together they were hired by The Beechwood Theatre Company in Rhode Island and The Pocono Renaissance Faire and eventually moved to Chicago to continue their study of improvisation at The Second City and Improv Olympic.
In Chicago, Karen played a bridesmaid in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding and “Unpacked her Adjectives” in Schoolhouse Rock Live! Karen has also performed with Second City Communications and Disney Cruise Line. More recently, Karen performed at the Cinegrill in the famous Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard in the three-girl singing group musical The Taffetas as well as the long-running original musical “Bark!”. She has provided voices for the audio dramatization of the best-selling novel ‘Tribulation Force’.
One project Karen is most proud of is producing, and playing Gilda in Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, a Sort of Romantic Comedy, raising $2700 for Gilda’s Club.
Karen’s biggest accomplishment on stage was her recent run at Downey Civic Light Opera as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, which played to rave reviews and full houses!