Haley Hendersons just a little bit anxious. She expects to pass herself off as a prim but forceful Salvation Army lass recruiting souls along Broadway. Shes pretty sure she can impersonate a British actress whose incessant cheerfulness can drive other people crazy.
But the real question is, can this ebullient college student whose looks have often kept people from appreciating her intelligence play an ebullient college student whose looks have often kept people from appreciating her intelligence?
Shell find out in July, when she stars as unsinkable Elle Woods in Legally Blonde at CPCC Summer Theatre. That show will cap an extraordinary run: Shes first playing Sarah Brown, the female lead in Guys and Dolls, then holding down the significant role of Belinda Blair in the middle show, the farcical Noises Off.
Such responsibility should make a veteran sweat. But Henderson who has never taken a lead in any play or musical doesnt seem flustered. She has the stamina to rehearse Noises in the morning and afternoon, run through Guys onstage at night and ponder chunks of Blonde in her spare time. Eating, sleeping and breathing are optional.
I saw myself as Vivian (Elles foe and later friend), so I sang her song Legally Blonde Remix in my audition. And I never thought of myself as a blonde, says Henderson, running slim fingers through short, chestnut-colored hair.
But Tom Hollis saw something in her that was right for Elle. Hollis, chair of the drama department at Central Piedmont Community College and head of the Summer Theatre casting team, gambled heavily on the 21-year-old hed known less than one day when he offered her this job. Thats the nature of the cattle-call process they both understand so well.
First impressions count
Henderson is a rising senior at Belmont University in Nashville. So she had a short trip to the Southeastern Theatre Conferences mass auditions, held last March in Chattanooga.
There Hollis and dozens of potential employers plopped down in front of 875 auditioners, each of whom was given precisely 90 seconds to do part of a song and/or a monologue.
Those who caught the eyes of Hollis and music director Drina Keen went on to dance auditions, where Summer Theatre choreographer Eddie Mabry taught them tough combinations. The best were called back for an interview; Henderson had to charm Summer Theatre folks at 10:30 p.m., in her last callback of the day.
You have to make a good impression right away, says Henderson. Ive had a lot of pageant experience, and you use the same skills: You get to sing only one song there, and you have to think on your feet when people interview you. (She was third runner-up in the 2008 Miss Arkansas Outstanding Teen Pageant, singing another blondes theme: Glindas Popular from Wicked, which she says is not me at all. My dream role is Elphaba.)
Hollis sought four actors to complement local talent, which makes up 95 percent of each cast. He quickly knew he wanted her to be one of them.
Simmons Hendrick, our former music director, never looked up at the stage during auditions, Hollis remembers. Hed say, There has to be something to make me look up. Haley made us look up.
She has a special quality to her vocal presentation and an unusual look: blue eyes and brunette hair. When we talked to her, she was very alive.
Casting her in three big roles was risky. But we discussed casting on the drive home, saying I can see her for this but not for that, and we realized she was right for every part.
He can pay stars only $300 a week, less than half a theme park might offer. (And Henderson turned down a theme park gig.)
But Hollis had a trump card: His star would walk away with three lines on her résumé that proved she could handle large roles, one after another.
That appealed to Henderson, wholl bolt for Broadway after graduating from Belmont. And she needed to polish acting chops that had yet to catch up to her singing and hoofing.
How she has done it
She arrived less than three weeks before Guys opened June 15, and she has just eight days between shows. So before she came, she memorized most of the lines from Guys and imprinted Blonde songs on her brain during daily workouts on an elliptical machine.
As Hollis staged Guys, Henderson went back to her room every day shes staying with family friends and ran over the blocking by herself five times: I do better (connecting) blocking to dialogue.
She had read the script for Noises to get a sense of the characters but began to memorize lines only when Guys fell into place. Lastly, shell work on the dialogue for Elle Woods once Noises is fully blocked.
Does she have down time?
One day a week, she says, noting that workdays run up to 12 hours. She spent her first bit of leisure at Carowinds, watching a Belmont friend perform.
The secret to keeping these characters fresh and distinct is to identify with them. Henderson can empathize with Sarah Browns vulnerability and powerful demeanor, Belindas desire to take care of everyone around her and Elles vitality.
The challenge for me has been to balance all three roles, not to sell any short, Henderson says. Theres a lot riding on getting these parts right, but its a good kind of pressure.
Ive discovered here that I can push myself, that I have the drive it takes to commit to theater. I hope that drive will push me all the way to Broadway.