S.O. funny woman takes to Paper Mill stage

Actress playing actress enjoys stage time near SO home

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MILLBURN, NJ — Jill Paice did not have to think twice before joining the cast of “A Comedy of Tenors” at the Paper Mill Playhouse. For one, the Millburn venue is close to the Broadway veteran’s home in South Orange, making it possible for her to walk her dogs between shows. But above all, it offered her a chance to reunite with the same cast and director she worked with in the precursor play, “Lend Me a Tenor,” at the Playhouse years earlier.

It was an opportunity Paice could not pass up, and she said she has had a blast ever since getting back with her old friends. Her only hope now is that audiences who see the show before it closes after Feb. 26 will have as much fun watching it as she has performing it with her castmates.

“They’re some of the funniest people I know,” Paice told the News-Record in a Feb. 6 phone interview. “They’ve made me laugh on a daily basis for the past few weeks that we’ve been working on the show. It’s been a great experience, and sort of familial in a way to be reunited like this.”

That familiarity has proved handy during the production of “A Comedy of Tenors,” a farce about the shenanigans that occur on the eve of an opera concert in 1930s Paris. Paice said being friendly with everyone allowed her to lose any inhibitions and act as zany as she wanted while inhabiting the part of Mimi, an aspiring actress prone to mood swings. But she could not go too crazy, explaining that she spent much of her time in rehearsals figuring out how far to go with her character. Though performances have begun, she said the cast will likely still experiment with the comedy onstage in order to make the show as tight as possible.

Helping with that process is director Don Stephenson, with whom Paice is working for the third time. The actress said Stephenson is a “brilliantly funny” man who knows exactly what he wants out of his performers. Sometimes, she said, he will even jump up and act out the characters’ reactions, nailing it every time. In effect, the director has become the one to impress.

“If you make Don Stephenson laugh, you’ve done a good job,” Paice said.

Paice may be back with her director and castmates from “Lend Me a Tenor,” but the part she is playing is entirely new. She said she misses being Maggie — the character she played in the first play, who only is present as the unheard half of phone calls in the sequel — but portraying Mimi has been a lot of fun. Mimi is far more dramatic, she said, so it has been interesting stretching those comedic muscles.

But playing Mimi is not really easy. Paice said she does not come from an Italian family like Mimi’s, so she has no personal experience on which to draw. Thus, she said she studied Judy Blazer and John Treacy Egan — who play her parents — in order to inform the role. For instance, she said she tries to mimic Blazer’s mannerisms just as a daughter would.

Of course, portraying an actress has been far less difficult for Paice.

“I certainly understand her drive, her desire,” Paice said, adding that Mimi’s reaction to landing a movie role in the play mirrors her own past responses to getting parts. “The excitement and the extreme reactions of sheer joy and fits of crying — I remember what it’s like. It still feels that way to me today.”

The actress has certainly scored a lot of roles in theater productions around the world, following her breakthrough performance in the West End and Broadway productions of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 2004 musical “The Woman in White.” She followed that up with starring roles in “Gone with the Wind” on the West End and “Curtains,” “The 39 Steps” and “Matilda” on Broadway. That is in addition to her numerous performances in regional theater.

Most recently, Paice spent two years playing Milo Davenport as an original cast member of “An American in Paris” on Broadway and in Paris, which she described as an “incredible experience.” The actress said she felt lucky to have been of a production that showed what theater could become, referring to the play as a marriage of a musical and a ballet. Plus, she said being able to interpret a classic 1950s film, featuring iconic George Gershwin songs, for a modern audience was special.

Overall, Paice said she feels honored to have been a part of “An American in Paris,” which ended its Broadway run in October. Still, she said, it is always disappointing when a show closes.

“You are in some ways sad to say goodbye to your show and your character and the people that you’re working with,” Paice said. “That’s always the hardest part. But at the same time, you are free and available to start other work.”

The closing of “An American in Paris” allowed Paice to join “A Comedy of Tenors,” but the actress said she does not know which shows the future holds for her. Until her next casting, she will continue enjoying life in South Orange, where she has lived with her husband and dogs for the past year and a half. Though there are some things she misses about living in Brooklyn, she said she thinks her family’s quality of life has improved greatly as a resident of the village. She particularly appreciates the sense of community she has found in South Orange, telling the News-Record she feels supported by her neighbors.

And now she hopes her fellow community members will experience “A Comedy of Tenors,” a production she thinks everyone will enjoy.

“Any day is a good day for a farce,” Paice said. “There are a lot of laughs to be had. I think it’s a great show.”

To order tickets for “A Comedy of Tenors” at the Paper Mill Playhouse, visit https://tickets.papermill.org/shows/a%20comedy%20of%20tenors/info.

Photos Courtesy of Jerry Dalia and Kevin Thomas Garcia