Uncountable Voices, Just One Christina Bianco

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Production images by Joan Marcus.
Production images by Joan Marcus.
Production images by Joan Marcus.

Your boss, who has no sense of anyone’s time but his own, hands you an absurd task: talk to 40 candidates for a job in 90 minutes. What to do? In that timeframe, you can’t even grant them two or three minutes, like an Equity audition. Lucy Ricardo on the chocolate assembly line was more efficient.

So you book Christina Bianco. She’d take not even 30 seconds with those 40 people, and faster than a person could say “Name please,” she’d have their voices, mannerisms and souls distilled to their core essence. Seemingly effortlessly, Bianco would take a chair before you — much as she does in Application Pending, the hyperactive Off-Broadway solo play that will end its run at the Westside Theatre (407 W. 43rd St.) on Apr. 19 — and simply do all 40 folks for you. She’d be hilarious, yes, but also empathetic and full of surprising insight, and all without showing a bead of sweat. That is her talent, and why Application Pending (by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg, with Sandberg directing) is a dizzying treat.

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The play itself wants to be a rip-roaring satire of the private school admissions process, and stops just short of the merciless savaging that it could have been. Still, what happens to the chief character that Bianco plays — Christine Evans, a Kindergarten assistant at Edgely Prep, who is unexpectedly made director of admissions on the same day that applications are due — is savage in its own way, what with endless calls from parents, administrators and references, including one from Pope Francis. For 80 minutes, Bianco’s Evans is inundated with well over 40 calls, including numerous individuals who pop up more than once. There isn’t time, really, for more than a minute here or there per character, and so Bianco’s performance is, yes, about impressions but equally about economy. It’s very crisp work.

For a sample of what Bianco — who was Drama Desk-nominated in 2009 for Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab — can do, you can watch her on YouTube, where one video went viral, or watch this bit of delight with Ellen DeGeneres:

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For tickets to Application Pending, click here.

And now, 5 questions Christina Bianco has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I was recently interviewed by someone who runs a magazine for singers. As a singer and musician herself, she asked me many insightful questions, including if I ever have to modify my impressions due to vocal fatigue or illness. She asked if that was even possible, giving that I am already “altering” my voice, to be something different than my own. The short answer is that it is very difficult to modify an impression. If I am singing in my own voice and feel sick or vocally fatigued, I can very often “sing around” the problem. I know my voice and it’s strengths, so I’m able to navigate around the issue in a way that will help me, but will not sound noticeably strained or weak to an audience. However, when I’m doing impressions, I’m going for one specific sound that everyone in the audience needs to immediately identify. This doesn’t allow much room for error so I need to be in practically perfect vocal health in order to do impressions.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Well, people certainly mean well but I’m often asked if I enjoy performing! It seems so silly! I don’t think it’s a secret that most performers do what we do not for fame and fortune but because we truly love it. That’s what makes all the ups and downs of this crazy business worthwhile! I love every bit of it. Working with the creative teams, musicians, cast, crew and having the connection to a live audience, all fulfills me in a way that makes me certain I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

ApplicationPending0402What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
The weirdest question I’ve ever been asked was put to me when I was performing on the national tour of Dora The Explorer Live. I was being interviewed as Dora, in full costume, and was asked by a local morning news anchor why Dora doesn’t just live inside her backpack. His logic was that since the backpack held so many things that were clearly larger than Dora herself, she could fit inside and thus should live there. He asked me repeatedly why that wasn’t part of the show. As an actor just doing her job I certainly didn’t want to speak for Nickelodeon or the writers of the show. I merely responded by saying I had never thought of that and that I’d “have to try it some time!”

When developing new impressions — or ones you’ve done over and over — what is more important: getting it right technically or capturing the person’s essence? As an actor, is there even a difference?
When I do an impression, I try to achieve many things at once. I try to sound as much like the artist as possible, replicating their tone, phrasing, vibrato speed, placement and taking on their mannerisms. I also try to capture their essence, to use your word, because each person in the audience has a different perception of what that particular celebrity is like. Some people won’t know that I’m specifically singing Celine Dion’s actual riffs, but they will recognize and respond to my pronouncing certain words with Celine’s accent — words that perhaps she didn’t actually say that way on the recording. My initial goal is to be precise, but I think that impressions work best when you are offering a bit of a caricature of that artist. I know I can’t please everyone with every impression, so sometimes I go for what I personally take away from watching that celebrity. It’s all very subjective, but when the majority of your audience reacts positively, it’s a wonderful feeling and you know you’re on the right track.

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In Application Pending, you have to portray an avalanche of individuals, many of whom have but a few lines — sometimes a few words — with which to establish their character. Which characters are the toughest for you to sketch out, and which would you personally like to know more about? If any were real people, who’d you want to meet and who’d you want to attack with a meat cleaver?
The 40 characters come and go very quickly in this show, and yes, some only call once! So I had to find a way to represent them clearly and instantly. I began by taking any generalizations or stereotypes from the text and then creating a backstory. It’s important to figure out why that character is saying the things they are and what made them that way. Some characters required a lot more history than others but I found it necessary in order to build some color and truth into them. Otherwise they would just be cartoons. I can then take these characters who only appear for a short amount of time and give the audience something significant to remember.

If any of these characters were real, I’d want to meet Shoshana Feigenbaum, because I think she’d be hysterical conversation! In the show, she’s the over-enthusiastic mother of a young boy who’s a regional theatre “star.” I grew up in Rockland County, New York, and did a lot of theatre in the surrounding areas so I met a lot of women very much like her. To create her, I combined bits of three different people I know. She’s so passionate about everything and so loud! I’m sure she’d be slightly frightening to talk to but also highly entertaining The only one I’d attack with a meat cleaver is this one character named Jerry. The audience never learns his name but every night the reaction to him is the same. He’s a scary, scary man! (You’ll have to come see the show to learn more!)

Bonus question:

6) Who would you most like to do a diva impression of but have yet to master? What’s the challenge or obstacle that is preventing you from mastering it?
I’m still working on plenty! For example, I’ve performed Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton in public several times but I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be with them. However, I have to do the impressions in front of an audience and keep practicing in order to improve. A diva who I haven’t tried yet but I’d love to master is Jessie J. I think she’s an incredible vocalist who will be around for a long time! Then there are some people that I just can’t do because of who I am physiologically. I don’t have a whistle tone so I can’t do Mariah Carey. I have my natural limitations!