Thursday, February 9, 2023

2 local actresses capture the essence of Marilyn Monroe in one-woman show 

Playwright Erin Sullivan (left) and Sydney Smith Martin both will portray Marilyn Monroe during Sullivan’s original play ‘With Love, Marilyn,’ running at Thalian Hall studio theater Apr. 1-10. (Photo by Bryan Putnam/Art Sublimina Photography)

WILMINGTON — It’s been five years since Erin Sullivan debuted “With Love, Marilyn” — an original show she started penning in 2016. Since its launch on Valentine’s Day the following year, Sullivan has toured through multiple cities, including Wilmington, where the show first made an appearance on the Thalian Hall stage in 2017. 

This weekend the 90-minute performance returns — this time with a few changes, including its first set, a few more cast members and another Monroe, portrayed by Sydney Smith Martin, who will rotate nights with Sullivan. Both portray the iconic blonde bombshell as she approaches her last performance before her untimely death.

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“It’s a show within a show,” Sullivan explained. “It takes place during Marilyn’s final dress rehearsal — for something we never got to see her do.”

Sullivan learned while researching Monroe for “With Love, Marilyn” that the star was in talks to do a Las Vegas residency before her death. Sullivan advised historian Samantha McLaughlin of L.A.’s All About Marilyn Organization — dedicated to preserving the starlet’s legacy — for tidbits of information to flesh out the show with as much historical accuracy as possible.

The two met during Sullivan’s yearlong performance as Monroe through playwright Mark Medoff’s “Marilee & Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess” (Medoff won a Tony and Olivier award for “Children of a Lesser God”). Originally from Wilmington, Sullivan moved to New York over a decade ago and was immersed in musical theater and Broadway-touring shows, having performed as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” Amber Von Tussle in “Hairspray” and Roxie Hart in “Chicago.”

She has performed as Monroe at least 50 times. “It’s time to pass the baton,” Sullivan said. She asked Smith Martin to share in the performance dates and carry a majority of the show during this run, which may be the last for Sullivan.

“One-woman shows don’t come around often,” Sullivan said. “I thought it was important to be able to give somebody else an opportunity. I was so blessed to have the opportunity to have been directed under [Medoff] and originated my work with him. He brought something out of me that I became very loyal to portraying Marilyn as honest as possible and not being like a commercial fraud.”

Sullivan said, even after the run of “Marilee & Baby Lamb” ended, she wanted to continue bringing vibrancy and life to Monroe’s legacy. Her tribute to Monroe is more of a play, with the timeline taking place between Monroe’s famous “Happy Birthday” song to President John F. Kennedy in May of 1962 and her death three months later in August.

“She was going through a lot of psychological issues and depression,” Sullivan said. “A lot of memories she’s reliving in the show are triggering memories.”

For instance, though Monroe’s very public marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio was well-known, the beginning of their courtship also included tender moments of surprise. Sullivan includes them, specifically one that touched on Monroe’s loneliness during holidays, something that reminded her of her childhood in foster care.

“When they first got together, she was at a party and Joe DiMaggio set up a Christmas tree in her living room as a surprise,” Sullivan said. “She apparently said it was the sweetest thing anyone had done for her.”

“With Love, Marilyn” has the superstar recounting everyone who helped throughout her illustrious career. It covers her transformation in Hollywood, the relationships in her life, from her tumultuous marriage to playwright Arthur Miller to the deep appreciation for her fan base. The actresses move between Hollywood’s Monroe and her real-life identity, Norma Jean. 

“My favorite scene is when you learn of how Marilyn got her name,” Smith Martin said. “All of the scenes within the Hollywood segment are just so sweet and fun, to get to peek into a part of her life that she loved so much.”

Smith Martin admitted not knowing a lot about Monroe behind the screen, only as much as everyone presumes of her: an ultimate sex symbol who captivated Hollywood in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “With Love, Marilyn” uncovers a more intimate persona and reveals hidden gems.  

“She was such an insightful, intelligent, and influential woman,” Smith Martin said. “It’s led me down a serious rabbit hole of her entire life and how far her influence reached and still impacts young women today.” 

Sullivan said the show is bookended by Monroe doing scene work as she prepares to launch her performance at the Sands Casino. For the first time, Sullivan has a set for her show: A faux proscenium and dressing room, built by Terry Collins, will be front and center in Thalian’s studio theater.

Sullivan also added in other cast members she and Smith Martin can work off of, to bring more dimension to Monroe. A wardrobe assistant named “Doris” — performed by Katie Mahn — helps Monroe prepare her scenes in the play. There is also voiceover actor Bradley Barefoot who can be heard overhead as the stage manager.

“These moments with Doris are actually really delicate,” Sullivan said. 

It shows Monroe opening up to basically a stranger and in effect portrays her as the  “kind and trusting person” she was, Sullivan said. “It also adds to the reality of the production.”

While Medoff’s play leaned heavily into the darkness of Monroe’s life, Sullivan said she added more light in her original script. Yet, it continues to evolve in 2022 as she edited it to highlight more of Monroe’s conflict.

“It is so much of who she was unfortunately,” Sullivan said. “We touch on a lot of emotion about why she was so torn; she was in such a fragile state at this point in her life. While this is a happy show, it is also very sad. I mean, we all know how this ends.”

Twelve songs are included in the play, which is less musical theater and more cabaret. “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and Sullivan’s personal favorite, “A Fine Romance,” all make an appearance.

“It’s a whole song about just sarcasm,” she said. “And it fit perfectly into the Arthur Miller section. Because her marriage with Arthur Miller was just tragic. He married a woman he just ended up not liking.”

Some songs have been rearranged as well. A live band will be part of the production, including musical director Brian Whitted, who also acts as Henry, Monroe’s pianist. On drums is Benjamin Baldwin and Nick Loeber will play bass.

Sullivan will perform on Apr. 2 and 8, and Smith Martin will perform Apr. 1, 3, 9 and 10. 

“Sydney’s opened my eyes to looking at the words I wrote so differently,” Sullivan said. “She has an essence that can’t be taught, and she has a beautiful jazz timbre to her voice that she’s really getting to showcase.”

Sullivan said audiences will see two different demonstrations of Monroe come to life with each of the actress’ performances: “There’s a little bit of Marilyn in every woman — that’s for sure.”

Thereafter, the show’s production team — Michael Rubenstein, Robin Milling, Dennis D’Amico and Stephanie Rosenberg  — is getting it translated into Spanish so a theater troupe in the Dominican Republic can launch it. 

Tickets to “With Love, Marilyn” are $32; the shows begin at 7:30 p.m. except on Sundays, which have 2 p.m. matinees. All six shows take place at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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