It isn’t just about being in the spotlight—sometimes you need to make sure your glistening high heels don’t literally reflect too much as you bask in the fabled metaphor for success.
Twenty-seven-year-old Katie Webber is the young lady fulfilling her dreams with the spotlight trained on her during this Friday rehearsal for one of the production numbers in Peepshow, a topless revue starring Mel B and Kelly Monaco at Planet Hollywood that has its grand opening on Saturday (though soft-opening performances have already started).
The man concerned about her shiny shoes is Peepshow’s creator/director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Mitchell has an extensive Broadway resume, having created revivals and transferred movies onto the stage. The Broadway revivals Mitchell has been associated with include The Rocky Horror Show and La Cage Aux Folles. His first Broadway effort as a director was a musical based on the movie Legally Blonde. He has worked on movies, and his upcoming projects include choreographing the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.
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But the experience most relevant to Mitchell’s foray into a Vegas show can be found in a less-celebrated corner of his resume, in a charity show he conceived and has created every year since 1990: Broadway Bares. According to his biography, this annual event offers “a comedy burlesque.”
Titles are important. “I pretty much knew that topless was going to be involved when I auditioned for a production called Peepshow,” Webber says. This is the first time she has performed topless.
Before relocating to Vegas with her boyfriend (another Peepshow cast member), Webber was working on Broadway as a dancer in the hit Wicked. She had been with the cast for more than three years when she auditioned for Peepshow, primarily, she says, because of Mitchell’s involvement. She wound up quitting her steady gig for the chance to step into a solo spotlight where she sings an old Connie Francis hit, “Teddy.” Webber’s version is less orchestral and more cabaret, and she bares plenty of skin covered only by a bearskin rug.
Mitchell says he was impressed by Webber from the start. “What appealed to me about Katie Webber is she is unbelievably beautiful, tremendously talented, and she sings live in the show, and she is a great dancer. She was perfect for the show.”
As Mitchell ponders how to get the spotlight off those shoes to properly frame her, Webber simply holds her position onstage. It is a sensual pose that, while appealing from an audience perspective, physically is not a comfortable way to freeze. Finally Mitchell decides the issue by pulling back the spotlight, thus widening the frame. The moment, like most of those being rehearsed on this day, involves a transition. As a result, during the five-hour rehearsal most cast members sit in the audience and wait for brief moments to work out how one moment should introduce the next. To make it all look seamless to an audience, Mitchell works at these moments with intense focus.
Almost everyone does exactly as Mitchell says, trying in a very obvious way to please him. When Mel B comes out for a transition, she asks a lot of questions, and the pace of rehearsal pretty much drops. A cast member mumbles to the person sitting next to her, “Stop complaining and just do it, Mel.” Both laugh. In general, though, stars and cast seem to get along fine—even if stars are onstage less and have private dressing rooms. Webber says, “I was expecting with so many girls there would be drama, but there hasn’t been any. We all get along really well.”
Webber has been actively pursuing the spotlight for some time. “I grew up in a dance studio,” Webber says of her California childhood. She participated in the third season of American Idol, where Simon Cowell at first suggested she could make the top 10, before turning on her and comparing her to Jessica Simpson—a comparison he did not mean as a compliment. After Idol she lived low-key, working as a dance teacher. She drove hours to audition for Wicked on a whim. Las Vegas offered her the next step. As for appearing topless, her mom took her as a child (along with her dance teacher, a former cast member) to see Folies at the Tropicana. And, while others refer to the nudity in Peepshow with words like “erotic” and “tasteful,” if you ask Webber about the impact she hopes the show has on an audience, she is far blunter. “I hope it makes them horny,” she says.
Webber arrived to rehearsal shortly before noon. After an hour of makeup, Webber is led by a publicist to the theater lobby, where each cast member is doing a photo shoot. No one seems exactly clear what the photos will be used for. There is also a ubiquitous television crew making some sort of reality show or documentary of Peepshow’s creation. Webber doesn’t sweat those details; rather, her focus is following very exactly the photographer’s instructions, which start out goofy (“Make a squealing noise”), move to uncomfortable (“Arch your back until it hurts”), become bossy (“Your hand is covering your butt”) and end some place bizarre (“Now you are in a coffin”). She tries but can’t entirely hide her displeasure with some of the results. She inspects them closely. But she does not dwell on it, and heads into the rehearsal.
The first time she yanks on the gigantic bearskin rug, suspended across an even larger mirror, the bear won’t release. So the set-up is repeated. Then the bandleader consults Mitchell at length about Bar 43 of the music. They decide to play that three times. But the hardest part is the ending, in which, with the bear draped around her, Webber walks upstairs. Mitchell wants the head and paws of the bear to dangle exactly off the last step. Even with a mark, this is difficult, because the front of the bear is behind her, and as she is supposed to expose her back, there is an inherent difficulty in consistently holding the bear in the same spot. She rehearses it three times until she is sure she has it down. “I am going to get it right tonight,” she promises afterward. Then comes another hour and a half of waiting before rehearsal ends.
Usually Webber would get this time for a dinner break, but Peepshow is trying to get noticed in a competitive show environment in a horrible economy, so there’s a little extra job to do first. She and some of the other performers dress up and head across the casino to walk a red carpet at Privé, where there are photographers. But they do not actually enter Privé or whatever event is taking place inside there. Instead, the Peepshow cast disperses to grab a bite to eat before reconvening for the night’s soft-opening performance.
The next morning cast members can expect a series of notes on little details of their performance. These will be massaged into the next night, all leading up to April 18 with Peepshow’s grand opening. Then, finally, Webber intends to learn something about her new home. She moved to Vegas two weeks before rehearsals began, and the rehearsals run six days a week. “I miss New York, but my favorite part is ‘Teddy.’ It is hard, because it is pretty much only me on stage, but that is what you work to be able to do.” In short, Katie Webber is ready for her spotlight.