This is the final week for the Black Rep's rambunctious production of the baseball musical Damn Yankees!. The entire lineup is delightfully cast, but the not-to-be-missed performance is delivered by McKenzie Frye, a cleanup hitter if ever there was one. Her take on Lola, the devil's temptress, is so svelte, sultry and downright sexy, she makes Gwen Verdon, the original Lola, seem as tomboyish as Peter Pan -- for which everyone in town can thank Pringles potato crisps.
Three years ago, when Frye was majoring in musical theater at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she needed to learn a song for performance class with a range low enough to fit her voice. That's when she heard the Pringles TV commercial built around "Whatever Lola Wants." That Damn Yankees! standard became one of her audition pieces, and she developed a yen to appear in the musical someday.
Earlier this year when she heard about the Black Rep production, she pursued the role. As she explains during a recent conversation, "I phoned [Black Rep producing director] Ron Himes and left a message on his answering machine. I said, 'My name is McKenzie Frye. You don't know me, but I am your Lola.' Oh, the guts! It was so unlike me. But I was unemployed in New York, so I had nothing to lose. A week later Ron called back and asked for my résumé. Then we talked again. He said, 'All right, we'll see what you can do. If you're not good, we'll just fire you.'" As it turned out, Frye is the one who sets things afire.
This bravura performance has been a long time coming. As a child growing up in a Detroit family "that has nothing to do with the arts" (her father was a firefighter), her parents put her in dance class "just to keep me off the streets." By the time she reached age 10, the amateur recitals were far behind her; already she was dancing with adults. Soon she was choreographing, too. "It all came so naturally," she says. "It wasn't till later that I realized people struggle their entire lives to try to do this."
Although she is only 22, years of dancing have instilled in her a stage poise that belies her youth. In high school, after one of her closest girlfriends was gruesomely murdered, the despondent Frye withdrew into herself and stopped dancing completely. She enrolled in Howard University as a communications major. But broadcasting bored her; instead, she gravitated to musical theater. Slowly the dance embers began to rekindle. Debbie Allen saw her in a Howard University production and was so wowed that she cast Frye in Harriet's Return, a five-person revue starring Allen that played the Kennedy Center.
After she graduated from Howard twelve months ago, it was expected that Frye would move to New York City. Instead, "just to be contrary," she went to Los Angeles. After four frustrating months, she took a job as an airport security guard. On her first day, instead of reporting to work, she packed her bags and drove to Manhattan. After several months of pounding the pavement there, Damn Yankees! is her first legit role. Some debut.
"It was intimidating to come to St. Louis," she says. "I am painfully shy, and I arrived here not knowing a single person. Neither Ron nor the director had ever seen me work. But the Black Rep turned out to be such a supportive community, and the rehearsals were so creative, this is the first show I've ever been in where I wasn't afraid on opening night. We were ready."
During rehearsals, several cast members screened the Damn Yankees! movie video, but Frye refused to watch. "I didn't want to duplicate Gwen Verdon," she says. "I think individuality is the beauty of being a performer." Whereas other Lolas radiate sex and little else, Frye has uncovered surprising variety in the role. "Lola doesn't enter for 50 minutes," she says. "When I finally get onstage, it takes me a while to get the juices going. So I sing the first number, 'A Little Brains, A Little Talent,' cool, like Diahann Carroll."
But by the time Frye performs the show-stopping "Whatever Lola Wants," her batteries are charged and "I'm the woman from hell." It's a kick to be the spark plug of a hit show, but the once-insecure Frye has gotten as much as she's given. When Damn Yankees! closes this weekend, she will return to New York a changed person. As she explains, "This production has taught me that I can do whatever I set my mind to do. It sounds so simple, and people say it all the time, but as a young performer you really have to learn that lesson for yourself."