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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

Trouper brings back the good times in 'Follies'

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Wisa D'Orso, veteran star of the Broadway stage and Hollywood television series, plays Carlotta Campion in Stephen Sondheim's musical about ageing Broadway stars, memories and friendships. D'Orso said she regards the part as something of a bio.

Diamond Head Theatre


A musical by Stephen Sondheim, with book by James Goldman, produced by Diamond Head Theatre Premieres at 8 p.m. today; repeats at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays, through June 8

Diamond Head Theatre

$10-$40; discounts for seniors, students, military


Cast includes: Chuck Anctil, Rose Marie Barbee, Peter Clark, Wisa D'Orso, Cathy Foy, Bob Frederick, Renee Garcia, Candes Gentry, Devon Guard, Lisa Konove, Tisha Love, Deanna Luster, Richard McWilliams, Nanilisa Pascua and Tom Sinnett

Directed and choreographed by: John Rampage

Musical conductor: Donald Yap

Wisa D'Orso, a veteran stage and club performer, returns to the limelight in "Follies," premiering tonight at Diamond Head Theatre.

"It's my life," she said of the Stephen Sondheim musical about fading Broadway stars reuniting to reassess past liaisons, memories and mates in a crumbling old theater. The Carlotta Campion role she'll inhabit earlier was played by the likes of Yvonne DeCarlo and Polly Bergen, and D'Orso is ready to put her imprint on the part.

"It's been a long time since I climbed stairs," she moaned a bit the other day, referring to the up-and-down demands of the show's main set. "It's up, down, in and out — and these old knees are creaking and screaming pain."

But the part — and her solo song, "I'm Still Here" — will stop the show, if the rehearsal buzz is a barometer. Enough for her to endure the aches here and there.

"Honey, Carlotta now has meat, and her song, about 'good times, bad times' ... well, I used to do it before, but I was much too young. Now, it's become my bio. It's me. Been there, done that."

Indeed, the venerable stage trouper, a firecracker from Papakolea with a smokey voice and credits as long as a spiral staircase, is the stuff of legends. D'Orso's achievement stretches from the legit Broadway stage to Hollywood television. She co-starred with Bea Lillie and Billy DeWolf in "The Ziegfeld Follies," danced and swam in Esther Williams' aquacade spectacles, co-starred with Nanette Fabray in "Bloomer Girl," and appeared in prime-time TV shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Steve Allen and Andy Williams.

Offstage, she's a feisty sort, irrepressible and largely tita in attitude.

"I love Sondheim," she said of her present vehicle.

"I thought I was gonna do another part, singing 'Broadway Babies,' but Carlotta is more up my alley. But I've been having this beef with the hair. (Hers is usually worn short). I was letting it grow, but I was told that Yvonne DeCarlo had a lot of it, and me and wigs don't get along. Did Polly Bergen have long or short hair?"

(Short, for the record, though it might have been faux.)

"I ain't wearing no wig," she said.

"I was looking in the mirror (with the wig on) and it was Anna Mae Wong with the bangs. They told me I looked wonderful; I told them, don't bull me."

So she asked director-choreographer John Rampage. If she could unreel Carlotta as herself. "Big, pregnant pause, da buggah gave me. I mean, what's wrong with short hair?"

D'Orso, who admits to being 39 ("like Jack Benny"), has to put some restraints on and contain her tita-ness, but with good reason: "I wear this stunning, glittering, sparking gown," she cooed. "Honey, got so many rhinestones; off-white. blinding. It's fabulous, sexy. Gotta hold back the tita."

For a while, D'Orso wondered if she'd land Carlotta, because another actress had vied for the part. "I mean, where they goin' put this tita in this show?" she said of her queasy moments. "If I didn't get Carlotta, I would have passed."

For a while, she was running between rehearsals for "Follies" while assisting ex-husband Jim Hutchison at Army Community Theatre's "The Music Man" musical, for which she served as assistant director. "Jim had a pacemaker installed recently, and he needed help. Can't put his arms all the way up; without the pacemaker, he would pass out, 'cause his heart stopped with every fourth beat. Now he's fine."

Working with the greats of another era has given her the foundation that befits a stage legend.

"When I did 'Ziegfeld Follies' with Bea Lillie, her timing was fabulous; being on stage, or just near here, was exciting, because you learned a lot, simply by watching."

Whenever she does a show, there are legions of younger theater folk also learning from her.