North Hills graduate adds musical to her acting resumé
During a community youth-theater class at Ross Elementary School in the late 1980s, 7-year-old Leigh Ann Wielgus climbed on stage and belted out a crowd-rousing rendition of “I am Stuck on Band-Aids,” a commercial jingle written by pop-music superstar Barry Manilow.
“She sang it with confidence covered with Band-aids!” said the class instructor, Annie Snyder of McCandless. “From the beginning, I could tell that there was something special about this little girl.”
Now, more than two decades later — and with principal roles in two major Broadway revivals, plus multiple TV appearances and other stage credits to her name — the 1998 North Hills Senior High School graduate has returned to Manilow for her latest theatrical success. “Harmony — A New Musical” opened at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta on Sept. 6, and the run continues through Sunday, Oct. 6.
The musical — written by Manilow and his longtime lyricist Bruce Sussman — took nearly 20 years to bring to the stage after exhaustive rewrites, soft starts and assorted business snafus. Its stint in Atlanta will be a proving ground for future plans, notably whether its creators can secure the millions of dollars needed to bump it up to Broadway.
“Harmony” tells the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a German vaudevillian sextet in the 1920s and 1930s made up of three Jewish and three non-Jewish male performers. They offered something unprecedented in live performance at the time: complex six-part harmonies, vocal imitation of instruments and physical comedy. The men sold millions of records, starred in a dozen films and packed the houses of the most prestigious concert halls around the globe. However, their rise to international fame was cut short by the Nazis' rise to power.
Leigh Ann Larkin — she uses her cousin's grandmother's maiden name as her stage name — plays the principal role of Mary Hegel. She is the non-Jewish girlfriend, fiancée and then wife of Josef Roman Cykowski, a rabbi from Poland who changes his career path when he joins the Comedian Harmonists as their baritone. He is the narrator of the show.
Mary can foresee the conflicts brewing in Nazi Germany. “She's strong, grounded and the voice of reason,” said Larkin, 33.
“What I love most about the story is that it's true,” Larkin continued. “We're playing real people and revisiting a time in history that's important to remember. We get to experience these men whom we otherwise would not have had a chance to hear. The story is full of great music. It's introspective, funny and heartbreaking.”
When Manilow and Sussman chose Larkin for the part, she was thrilled. “I had tears in my eyes!” she exclaimed.
She said working alongside Manilow has been equally thrilling.
“He is awesome! He never puts himself above anyone else. He's very collaborative and is very interested in what we bring to our songs. He's so vested in this piece, and that helps us to be even better,” Larkin said.
Still, she has discovered that the highlights of doing a new show often coincide with the challenges.
“It's amazing to create a whole new role. You can do just about anything with the character,” she said.
“But that's also the hardest part because there are no guidelines or precedents to let you know whether you're doing it right or wrong. ...You're laying down new land for what may well be the next iconic Broadway show!”
Performances have been sold out or nearly so, Larkin said. The cast has received standing ovations, she said, and the show has gotten good reviews.
Larkin, meanwhile, has gotten good reviews from Manilow and Sussman.
“Leigh Ann may well be one of the greatest singers we've ever worked with. Add to that her deep understanding and love for the character she plays and, suffice to say, we could not have asked for more from her,” they said in a statement.
Larkin will audition for TV and film opportunities before the opening of another run of “Harmony” from March 4 to April 13 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
After that, Manilow, Sussman, and the cast and crew hope to finally take the show to Broadway.
“I think it deserves to go to Broadway. ...” said Larkin, who lives near Broadway, on New York City's Upper West Side; her parents, Ed and Marilyn Wielgus still reside in Ross Township.
“It would be my ultimate dream to portray Mary on Broadway.”
Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.