Among the terms Kristen Hertzenberg would care to hear in reference to her health, “vocal cord paralysis” would be near the bottom of the list.
But that’s what the former cast member of “Phantom -- the Las Vegas Spectacular” faced, possibly, in the late summer and fall of 2011. In August, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Within a month -- on Sept. 11, oddly enough -- she had her thyroid surgically removed.
“If you have to have cancer, it’s the best to get because it can be treated effectively,” Hertzenberg, co-starring in “[title of show]” at Baobab Stage in Town Square at 8 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Monday, said in a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon. “However, the highest risk is vocal cord paralysis, and that is a very tough thing to hear.”
At the time, Hertzenberg was the swing performer in the role of Christine Daae in the Venetian production, which closed in September. But how it works in musical theater is no voice, no job. She performed on Sept. 10 and the next morning was admitted for cancer surgery. She underwent radiation treatment a month later -- she was, by definition, radioactive -- and was kept away from her husband, Dana, and daughter, Shea, for two weeks.
Buoyed by the confidence of her Las Vegas surgeon, Dr. Sina Nasri, she gradually regained her voice. First she caught herself singing quietly to Shea. Then, in October, she sang in public for the first time at a keg tapping at Hofbrauhaus. “I sang the German song you always sing when tapping a keg.” Over time, she explored the high notes again and by Nov. 7, less than two months after undergoing surgery, was back onstage at the Venetian.
That Hertzenberg worked through that cancer scare in full voice is remarkable, and the city is fortunate that her family and she have remained in the city after the closing of “Phantom.” As the show was dismantled, many cast members departed for work elsewhere. But Dana (who rents gallery space at Emergency Arts on Fremont East) and she are active in the Las Vegas arts and entertainment community. Hertzenberg is among an impressive list of performers in this weekend’s all-Actor's Equity musical, all of whom have Strip production-show credits (tickets are $30 and $40 and available at titleofshowlv.com).
Also in the show are “Mamma Mia!” holdovers Greg Kata, Robert Jarrett and Sarah Lowe (who is now in “Jersey Boys” at Paris Las Vegas). The music director is creatively tireless media darling Keith Thompson, also of “Jersey Boys.” The show’s director is one of the city’s most inventive comedy minds, Matt Donnelly, who is co-host of the Penn Jillette podcast, “Penn’s Sunday School,” among a lengthy list of performance credits. The choreographer is Louisa Lemos (also of “Mamma Mia!” and the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company).
The production trumpets its position as the first all-Actor’s Equity theater piece performed off the Strip. What does that mean?
“If the performers are in the union, you know they have all worked in professional theater,” Hertzenberg said. “Everyone in the show has had one of the highest contracts you can have in Vegas, a casino contract, which is the equivalent to being in a Broadway show.”
Having said that, she adds, “I want to celebrate all theater at all levels in Las Vegas, and I’m grateful for all that is happening here.”
The “[title of show]” story is of two “nobodies” in New York who take on their own musical, casting themselves in the lead role. With Thompson playing on the keyboard in the background, the cast conveys the development of the show.
The show depicts a test, and that’s true outside the plot, as well. Producer Jeff Tidwell is underwriting the production. If it can make money, we’ll see more projects follow. It’s an effort worth giving voice.