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Birmingham actress Kristi Tingle Higginbotham has acted in dozens of plays on various stages over the past four decades.
She has played roles in four different productions of The Sound of Music: twice as Maria and twice as Elsa, the dual love interests of Captain Von Trapp, the head of the Von Trapp family of singers.
In 1989 she played Maria in a production of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Summerfest in Birmingham, which later became the Red Mountain Theatre, and 10 years ago she played Elsa for the Red Mountain Theatre. She also played Maria in a church production.
This year she reprises her role as Baroness Elsa Schraeder in the production, which runs until June 26 at the Virginia Samford Theater in Birmingham, which was damaged by flooding in March when torrents of water from Caldwell Park poured into the building’s lower floors. We spoke to Kristi about the show and the resilience of the theater.
Q: First off, how difficult is it to do something that’s so familiar from a movie?
Kristi: Oh God. It is. I even got some people to quote lines from the film that the Baroness says aren’t actually in the stage version. There are some differences. In the film, she leaves him more because she sees that he is falling in love with her (Maria). But in the stage version, she sees that, but it’s also part of the politics, which is why it has this song (“No Way to Stop It”) in it that I do with Max and the captain. It’s a fine line. This is such a popular film, you want to give them what they know, but you’re an artist yourself and you want to do your own interpretation of the character. You kind of hit that middle ground.
Q: There are script differences between the play and the film. I think your role carries more weight in the play.
Kristi: I really think so too.
Q: The leading lady, Julie Andrews so to speak, is Kristen Campbell. You’ve been in the theater for a long time. How do you rank them in relation to the theater in Birmingham?
Kristi: Oh my god, wasn’t that just the most beautiful performance? She just embodies that character. The three of us, the captain, Maria and Elsa, we’re all maybe a little too old to play these roles. I’ve done that a few times in other roles. But this is our community. We know we wouldn’t be cast in New York for these people at that age. I guess we paid our dues. There is no other person who could give such a beautiful performance, I don’t think.
Q: It’s like we have Julie Andrews who lives in Birmingham.
Kristi: I know. She doesn’t copy her from the movie, she’s just Kristen. She’s got that beautiful voice, she’s got that love for children, she’s got that love for the Lord. It all comes through in her performance.
Q: I love how the audience becomes part of it, when the nuns come in at the beginning, they lead you like in church; at the end, when the Nazi soldiers are looking for the family, they come through the audience with flashlights in the dark, and the audience is the audience of the Salzburg Festival.
Kristi: I think Henry (Scott), the director, did a great job with that. When we were talking about my character, Elsa, he gave me the freedom to create her, but he said, ‘Don’t make her look like a total bitch.’ We want to take care of them. I thought “The Lonely Goatherd” was one of the most adorable ways I’ve seen this song with the kids in bed. We started rehearsing the set changes weeks in advance. Sometimes you don’t get that luxury at the local theater. You start the weekend before when you bring costumes, the band and the mics. That also helped with the smooth transitions. I just loved the lighting of all the scenes in the abbey, the cathedral and the abbey at the end.
Q: It seemed like every one of the child actors was great.
Kristi: It is wonderful.
Q: I thought Ava Williams, the Liesl in this play, resembled the Liesl in the film, who was also a little over 16 when she turned 17.
A: In fact, she and Julie Andrews were very close.
Q: Charian Carr?
Kristi: Yes, that’s it, Liesl from the movie. She came to Birmingham years ago. The Alabama Theater screened the sing-along film. She just came out and gave a little speech. For some reason I think I led the sing-alongs. I have to have lunch with her.
Q: Ivy Thomas, the little girl who plays Gretl, just blew us away.
Kristi: What an experience this will be for her. She will never forget. Our director Henry sort of broke the rule and her mother was the only parent who was able to stay at rehearsals because of her young age. Mother sat at the back and didn’t say a word.
Q: Some of the other child actors had stand-ins or understudy, but didn’t they?
Kristi: The plan was to have another, and they just couldn’t find another at that perfect height.
Q: What are your thoughts on the level of talent in Birmingham at the moment?
Kristi: This is interesting because on Monday night, our night off, I went to teach Pilates classes. One of my clients had seen it and she said, “So they weren’t all local, right?” I said, no, no, they’re all local. The set designer, the lighting designer, there was a whole band that was below you. Sometimes I wonder if the audience even notices. Below that are live players. The theater was flooded in March. The whole lower floor of the theater, the music room, all the offices and the costume department. It’s a total loss. They’re down there in a moldy, gross room.
Q: What’s new about this?
Kristi: We recently had a huge rain again. The park is like a soup bowl and once it’s full, it’s running down this alley. A few weeks ago there was a meeting with the city. The VST had no flood insurance. They’re trying to maybe set up a fundraiser. When you buy your ticket it says if you want to donate. Many people don’t realize that the entire basement is a complete loss. Luckily they have this black box theater upstairs so all the offices are up there now. They had already agreed to rent our costumes from the Shakespeare Festival.
“The Sound of Music” runs until June 26th The Virginia Samford Theaterbut all performances are currently sold out.