She's certainly no ten-cents-a-dance girl, but Patti Cohenour has returned to New York City. Alas, it's for a limited, five-performance engagement only, in the Encores!, Great American Musicals in Concert [at City Center February 13-16] staging of Sweet Adeline.  Helen Morgan, fresh from her Show Boat, first played the role in Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's 1929 tuner. Series artistic director Kathleen Marshall was among the many who thought Patti's absence had been much too long.

Not that she hasn't been working!  After winning accolades and a Featured Actress Tony Award nomination (as well as the prestigious Clarence Derwent Award and a Drama Desk nomination) as Rosabud in Rupert Holmes' 1986, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and being hand picked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to play Christine Daae in 1988's The Phantom of the Opera (first as alternate to Sarah Brightman), Cohenour was chosen by director Hal Prince and Garth Drabinsky, head of Canada's Livent, Inc., to star opposite Colm Wilkinson in the Toronto premiere and subsequent Canadian tour.  Then, when the Show Boat cast of Livent's revival came to Broadway in 1994, Cohenour assumed the role of Magnolia in Toronto.  On holiday, Cohenour and husband Tom Bliss found an ideal vacation spot in coastal Washington and so fell in love with the area that they relocated.  Washington's gain was Broadway's loss until last October, when Cohenour returned to record a solo CD, "To An Isle In The Water," produced by Grammy Award-winning Thomas Z. Shepard. The CD, conducted by Paul Gemignani, a veteran of Sondheim musicals, features Cohenour as a woman reading the love letters she received during her long-ago love affair with poet William Butler Yeats.  The song cycles are wildly romantic and sensual -- just the type of high-caliber, emotional singing Cohenour is famed for. She took advantage of her recording date to contact old friends, and in the wink of an eye she was cast for the Encores! concert.  She appears opposite Dorothy Loudon and Tony Randall in this musical comedy about the romantic misadventures of a girl from Hoboken, New Jersey, who aspires to Broadway stardom.  [Stephen Bogardus, Gary Beach, and Nancy Marchand are also featured.]  The score includes the standards Helen Morgan made famous, "Why Was I Born?" and "Don't Ever Leave Me."  Expect them also to be showstoppers as sung by Cohenour, who, except for work with vocal coaches, has had no formal voice training.

"My voice is naturally strong from A below middle C to high E," she said.  "Three and a half octaves.  I have a big break from D to E flat and E.  I call myself a lyric soprano. I have a certain warmth -- a huskiness - to the bottom part of my voice that's interesting. That came from singing country." Yes, country!  "I wanted to be a singer in the Emmylou Harris tradition and spent two and a half years at Nashville's Opryland."  After that, she toured with the New Christy Minstrels and with vocal group on tour with Perry Como. After West Coast work, Cohenour appeared in the short-lived Broadway musical, A Doll's Life, directed by Prince. This led to auditions with the New York Shakespeare Festival for their La Boheme.  That was the first time Cohenour was an alternate, to Linda Ronstadt's Mimi.  She was cast as Mary Jane Wilkes in Roger Miller's 1985 Big River, winning a Theater World Award and a Drama Desk nomination.  Her auditions for Drood had co-stars George Rose and Cleo Laine glued to their seats.  Holmes, on hearing her sing, exclaimed, "We've found our Rosabud!"

"This was the first  major part I had a hand in creating," said Cohenour. In London to recreate her Drood role, Patti saw  Phantom.  "I had auditioned for Christine and knew it was a part I wanted.  I kept thinking, 'Could it possibly happen?'  I kept my fingers crossed."  She later auditioned for Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Broadway buzz was "Patti Cohenour can do Christine."  But the musical was delayed because of the Actors' Equity dispute over the star status of Sarah Brightman and bringing her to Broadway.  "I saw Christine slipping away," said Cohenour.  Then one morning in October 1987, while she was out west, she got the call to audition for ALW.  "I immediately flew to New York.  After I sang 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,' Andrew came and shook my hand.  Hal (Prince) gave me a hug and said, 'Why are you shaking?'  A friend literally had to take me home.   An hour later, the phone rang and I nearly jumped out of my skin.  There was this music playing and I said, 'That's from Phantom!  What kind of omen is this?'  I hung up and the phone rang again.  It was my agent.  He exclaimed, 'Well, it's yours, babe!'  And I hit the ceiling."

Cohenour impressed the creative team, but it was when Brightman left and she began playing six performances a week that she really blossomed.  As dazzling as Michael Crawford was, Cohenour managed to find her place in the spotlight, mainly by dazzling audiences "cranking out high Bs at fortissimo triple forte quadruple forte."


Key Subjects: 
Patti Cohenour, Encores!, Sweet Adeline
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).