5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Rachelle Rak

Rachelle Rak, with Robert Newman, in Sessions.
Rachelle Rak, with Robert Newman, in Sessions.

Does Rachelle Rak sleep? The Off-Broadway multi-hyphenate has been enjoying a terrific year, what with featured roles in two musicals — An Evening at the Carlyle and Sessions — playing in rep at the Algonquin Theatre (123 W. 24th St.).

Although both shows are written by Albert M. Tapper, there are clear thematic differences between them. An Evening at the Carlyle is a “musical entertainment” redolent of the revues of a generation of two ago, such as the Shoestring Revue and Starting Here Starting Now. Tapper’s contribution: a zippy, sardonic, arch, pointed original score that comments on “current events, celebrities and life and love in the Big Apple”; the show is set in the uber-mega-mondo-swank Bemelman’s Bar in the Hotel Carlyle on the Upper East Side. Rak is not only featured in the cast of six (including Amanda Gabbard, Dennis Holland, Kelli Maguire, Michael F. McGuirk and Jason Rowland) under the direction of Tom Herman, but she is credited with the show’s inventive and witty musical staging as well.

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But when Rak — whose Broadway credits include Fosse, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the revival of Oklahoma! — isn’t in the tank with swank, she’s gunning with cunning, playing an alluring character in Sessionswho messes with the head of it’s central character: a New York therapist. Directed by Thomas Coté, Rak is appearing in Sessions, which is now in its second year, with Robert Newman, Bertilla Baker, Al Bundonis, Maya Days, Scott Richard Foster, Ken Jennings, Liz Larsen, Kelli Maguire and Sky Seals.

Tony Sportiello/Algonquin Theatre Productions and Jason Hewitt are the producers of the shows. An Evening at the Algonquin runs Sun.-Tue., 7pm and tickets are $35; Sessions plays Wed.-Sat., 8pm, plus matinees on Wed., Sat. and Sun., at 3pm, and tickets are $50. For more information, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.

And now, 5 questions Rachelle Rak has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Hard to say. I’ll tell you this: I teach two young sisters, Lillian and Maxine Pravda. One had to decide what she wanted to do for her birthday. Then I received a phone call: I was asked to be the entertainment/teacher for Lillian’s 8th birthday party. LOL. Kids are too much.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Idiotic? Hmm. “Do you make a lot of money?” It gets asked in every Q and A. Oh: “You should do this for a living, have you ever thought of that?” That’s a favorite.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Weird question — or comment? How about, “Is that your real hair?” In the meantime I have changed hair colors four or five times throughout a show. Also: “Do people get hurt while roller-skating in Starlight Express“? Yes, we roller-skated up to 35 mph and we had a lot of train wrecks. Then there’s “Last night, you were hotter than a nuclear ray.” Ha, ha, ha.

4) American performers aren’t often trained for repertory — yet, here you’re in a repertory of Sessions and An Evening at the Carlyle for months now. How many shows a week do you do — and with sincere apologies for a cliché question, do you ever stop and think, Gee, which show am I doing tonight?
I perform seven shows a week of Sessions when I can. If not, my understudy, Natalie Buster, goes on for me. I also perform in three performances a week of Carlyle. In Carlyle, though, I play myself — it’s a little fun cameo so I don’t have an understudy for that one. I also sing a song from Sessions called “Breathe” in Carlyle. Sometimes I wonder if I am entering the doctor’s office or Bemelman’s Bar. Luckily the choreography is so different for both versions that it helps me figure out which is which.

Rachelle_Rak35) How often has Al Tapper tinkered with either show, and have there been opportunities during the long runs of these shows for you, too, to tinker with your work? Or does there come a point when you think, OK, my choreography or my performance is done, frozen — finished!”?
Al has been very involved in the changes for both shows. He is always looking for ways to make improvements, add an funny ad lib, change a lyric, etc. The tinkering, as you put it, continues. We just put a new number into Carlyle a few weeks ago. Sessionshas been running for eight months, and during the summer we restaged a few numbers. Usually, a show does get to a point where it is frozen but if the writer and the creative team — in this case, the director, Thomas Coté, and Steven Gross, who did Sessions‘ musical arrangements and orchestrations, and myself — agree, then we can make improvements. We go back to the table with some new ideas and then I’m off to preproduction. It’s a great process. Now that the shows are up and running, though, I try to let the actors do their thing, to try new things and let the choreography and musical staging breathe a bit. That does not mean changing it but they have to find the story; it has to make sense for them. I give individual notes once a week to keep the show clean.

6) Can anyone dance or move? What if an actor is uncomfortable with choreography — how do you work with them to give them the confidence to execute the movement you give them? How often do you solicit feedback on your choreographic ideas?
Anyone and I mean anyone can do choreography. It might not be good, but everyonecan do it. To. A. Point. Some actors tend to believe they can’t but if they trust the choreographer they will try it and sometimes be completely surprised with the results. When I choreograph for actors I always go back to the lyric. If the steps make sense with the story, the performer will get it. I want to push them to the highest level, then you can always pull them back. Coming from a dancing background, we learn how to “tell our story” without the lyric or the vocal. It is a totally different process with actors. That’s why I love it.