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NEW YORK — Stephanie Block and Isabel Keating are traveling a road that perhaps only female impersonators have traveled before them.
In the new musical, “The Boy From Oz,” which stars Hugh Jackman as singer-songwriter Peter Allen and is now in previews, the two actresses are playing, respectively, Allen’s ex-wife, Liza Minnelli, and her mother, Judy Garland. For all intents and purposes, it’s the first time the two performers have been portrayed in an original Broadway musical — and they’re not exactly easy shoes to fill.
“It’s daunting to know that Liza can come and see me play her,” explained Block over lunch with Keating at Angus McIndoe, an actor’s hangout in the theater district. “I haven’t met her yet and I will be excited to know after the performance is over that she’s been in the theater.”
Because Garland died in 1969, Keating doesn’t face the same pressure, but she still feels Garland’s presence. “Ever since I found out I was going to be doing this, I’d be sitting in the dentist chair or in my apartment and ‘Over the Rainbow’ would come on.”
“She’s popping in to say, ‘I’m so pleased with what you’re doing!’” Block told Keating.
“Oh God, can you imagine if she wasn’t? What kind of song would that be?” Keating mused.
Keating, who last week earned the moniker, “Hurricane Isabel,” which quite aptly describes her tear-down-the-rafters performance, isn’t surprised that she’s been hired to re-create a real-life figure. “Mimicry runs in my family,” she explained. “My mother has a Spanish accent and my father has a strong Southern accent, so I’ve always had a good ear. But I’d never ‘done’ Judy, I’d just done her voice.”
Block was especially cognizant of not doing an impersonation. “I needed to stray away from the drag show,” Block said. In place of over-the-top acting or vocal choices, director Philip McKinley made aesthetic ones: big eyes and a wig.
“You can’t imagine the time and energy spent on my eyelashes. There was even talk of cutting out construction paper, but that’s where I had to draw the line,” Block said, laughing. Onstage, “It feels like I have a little insect on my cheek,” she added.
For the two actresses — Block is 31; Keating will only say that she’s “not 31” — “The Boy From Oz” represents more than just pronounced eyelashes. For one, it’s Keating’s first foray into musical theater.
“The other day, I was on stage with Hugh and both of us were just giddy and he said, ‘Isn’t this the best thing in the world? You never want to go back to doing anything but musicals, do you?’” Keating recalled.
And this is Block’s first time on a Broadway stage, though she has certainly had her share of credits in Los Angeles, including playing “all the princesses” at various Disney events, as well as the voice of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel Barbie in television commercials. “Barbie’s voice is, of course, higher pitched than Liza’s,” Block said. “I had to think of reaching out to three-year-olds.”
Through two months of working together, the playacting mother-daughter relationship has stretched outside of the theater, though not exactly taking the twists and turns of the actual Garland-Minnelli one.
“Offstage, we don’t really say, ‘Hi, Isabel,’” Keating said. “We say ‘Hi, Momma!’ and ‘Hi, Baby!’”
But that’s where the similarities end.
“Judy used to stay up till 7 a.m. and went out every night,” Keating explained. “But my nights now involve going straight home.”
And Block, who has bad allergies, is already on a specific New York diet to keep her system clean. “No sugar, no caffeine, no acids, no yeast,” she divulged. “It’s the complete opposite of Liza. She was allowed indulgences and I’m allowed nothing. It’s not easy to be Liza Minnelli.”