Heather Ayers, a Midwestern girl-next-door who, along with her sister, has gone and tackled the Big Apple, can play the sophisticated, sassy mature woman (Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes”), and turn around and act the fresh-faced ingenue (Eve in “Children of Eden”). She can sing the soft ballad, a pop tune, and then belt out a rousing roof-raiser in the finest gospel tradition.
“That’s called being an actress,” marvels her “Children of Eden” co-star, William Solo, who plays the role of Father.
Ayers and Solo highlight a talented ensemble in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s “Children of Eden,” which is running through Jan. 2. The busy actress graced the Rep stage three years ago in “Anything Goes,” directed by Rep founder Cliff Baker.
“Heather has an incredible gift when it comes to performing and has an amazing vocal range that you don’t find too often. It’s on wonderful display in this play,” says Bob Hupp, the director of “Children of Eden.”
When the Rep’s casting director was looking for an actress for the hard-to-fill role of Eve/Mama Noah earlier this year, Ayers jumped at the chance.
“We did all of our New York auditions, and I wasn’t satisfied where I was with that role [of Eve],” said Hupp, the Rep’s producing artistic director. “I began looking back through other productions at the Rep and Heather came immediately to mind. She wasn’t in New York during the regular audition process and we didn’t get to see her then. We cast her outside the auditions.”
Coincidentally, her sister, Becca, had acted in the same role in regional theater — and in another coincidence, Becca debuted in a starring role in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in St. Louis the same night Ayers opened in “Children of Eden” here, Dec. 3.
“I really like singing, and this role is special because of the challenge of it, the challenge of learning it and then performing it,” Ayers said.
“People want to find a mold for you, something to define you,” she adds, but that would be difficult with Ayers, and makes her well cast to handle the diverse styles of Stephen Schwartz’ music in “Children.”
Her resume is diverse as well — her most varied starring role was playing a collection of famous musical stars, complete with different costumes, in the Off-Broadway production of “Forbidden Broadway.” She’s performed in “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Pardon My English” at the City Center Encores! in New York, and she’s worked with “Children of Eden” and “Les Miserables” writer John Caird in a workshop staging of “Jane Eyre.”
Her regional musical theater roles have taken the 5-foot-5 blonde from Massachusetts to Texas and several points in between. She had the lead of Madison in the indie film “Forever For Now” and has landed bit parts in TV’s “Sex and the City” and “Law and Order.” Ever staying busy, Ayers has done voice work for commercials, including one for Wal-Mart.
Rep fans have been brought to their feet by Ayers’ rousing numbers in “Anything Goes” (singing the dynamic “Blow Gabriel Blow”) and “Children of Eden” (“Ain’t It Good”).
“I wish every leading lady role had a hot 11 o’clock number like those,” she said.
Ayers grew up in a family that participated in community theater back in Columbia, Mo. Dad, Becca and Heather acted while mom worked backstage making costumes.
“Even our dog got in the act as Sandy in ‘Annie,’ Mom marking his eye,” Ayers said.
She says she realized as a freshman in high school, performing in “Little Shop of Horrors,” that professional acting was a possibility. She recorded at home, attended Columbia’s Stephens College, a women’s school that also produced actresses Annie Potts and Dawn Wells, and moved to Kansas City to act and earn an Equity card.
Then it was to New York, where she’s spent the last five years. Her sister, three years younger, followed the same route. Now they room together.
“We didn’t get close again until we moved to New York,” Ayers said. “My family had moved to California when I went to college. I stayed in my hometown, but I didn’t really have a home to go to there. We had to really reacquaint ourselves after being apart six years — it can be crazy getting up in the morning, auditioning for a show, sometimes for the same show.
“I’m her biggest fan. If she gets the part, that’s fine. Becca just blows me away with her voice. She makes me cry every time I see her sing.”
Some in the Rep audience may have the same sentiment about Heather, whose dual roles have her disobeying Father like an independent daughter in Act 1 and trying to keep her family together as a concerned mother in Act 2. “Children of Eden,” though literally following the Book of Genesis, is a metaphor about family and second chances. Schwartz, who composed the music for “Godspell,” “Pippin” and current Broadway hit “Wicked,” has put a pop-music touch to this play, which first debuted in 1991. It has never reached Broadway, yet has strong appeal in regional theater.
“I can see the appeal of this show,” Ayers said. “It’s as good as your imagination, what you believe paradise is. You just have to open your mind.”
Hupp said, “Heather brings remarkable energy and presence to the production that I think is really quite wonderful.
“She makes a connection with the audience that brings them into the production whenever she is on stage.”
Rep sets special holiday showtimes
After the presents have been opened and the wrapping and boxes trashed, you can spend Christmas with the “Children of Eden.”
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre has scheduled a special holiday performance at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 25.
Other showtimes include a 2 p.m. matinee on Thursday, Dec. 23, which will feature live animals from Heifer International on display in the lobby for children to pet.
There is no show on Christmas Eve, but along with the Christmas Day show, the Rep will have shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 26. After two days off, the cast resumes performances on Wednesday, Dec. 29, with shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Performances on Friday, Dec. 31, and Saturday, Jan. 1,also start at 7 p.m. “Children of Eden” closes its run Sunday, Jan. 2 with shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Tickets are $35 for adults and $17.50 for children. Call 378-0405.
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