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Ann Morrison reflects on Sondheim in freeFall cabaret show

Bill DeYoung

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Broadway veteran Ann Morrison first settled in Sarasota in the 1990s. "This community allowed me to do all my creative work, so I hung my hat here," she says. Photo provided.

Her animated-pixie speaking voice still carries a hint of her native Wisconsin, but Ann Morrison – actress, singer, educator and fulltime Florida resident – is all Broadway.

Morrison, who originated the role of Mary Flynn in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (winning the 1982 Theatre World Award in the process), is the veteran of numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals, and an equal amount on professional stages in Los Angeles, where she made her home for a number of years.

Since 2008, however, Morrison has lived in Sarasota (she bought her first part-time condo there in the 1990s). She is the co-founder, with Blake Walton, of SaraSolo Productions, a theatrical organization that helps people develop solo work.

Because solo work is her passion.

“There are a lot of people out there with fantastic stories to tell,” she explains, “and we’ve developed now an educational component – which we’d like to scale all over – for getting into performing arts schools.

“It’s something that I wished I’d had when I was in high school. Whether you ever do it for the rest of your life, it’s an important skill to have, to be able to communicate with an audience as your scene partner – and to develop storytelling that’s theatrical and not a TED Talk.”

Morrison will perform Sunday at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Her solo cabaret, Merrily at Center Stage, tells her own behind-the-scenes version of that classic musical, and more. Pianist John Shirley will be her accompanist.

“I love cabaret, I love to sing, but I’m not your typical cabaret artist,” she explains. “A good cabaret show should be a theater piece. I’m more of a storyteller.

“I tell people when I’m working with them, if you ever stand up and say ‘This next song was written by …,’ I’ll shoot you. I don’t care that much about who wrote it – I can find that out myself – I’m interested in you. What story do you want to tell? Your song is your emotional life, of the story you’re telling.

“So a lot of my solo cabaret shows have been that. This particular piece is profound for me.”

Sunday’s performance is a dry run for Merrily at Center Stage, which Morrison will bring to Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City Tuesday. It’s her regular stage-away-from-home.

Her first Floridian stage was Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre. Morrison made her Asolo debut in 1978.

She and Walton later founded Kaleidoscope, a musical theater workshop for persons with developmental disabilities.

Next came SaraSolo, to encourage and develop solo cabaret, solo theater and spoken word performance art.

In addition to her semi-regular appearances at Feinstein’s/54 below, one of Manhattan’s toniest cabaret rooms, Morrison continues to act and sing in musical productions around the country.

She counts Eric Davis, freeFall’s executive and artistic director, among those who “get it,” with regard to theater in 2022.

“I love freeFall Theater and what they do,” she explains. “I love Eric and I love his artistic eye. And because of the pandemic, we all had to re-learn and re-invent ourselves, to understand all the other aspects of ourselves that we can play with. If theaters were smart, they did that too. I know that Eric is thinking ‘Yes, we can do these kinds of plays, but we also need to factor in cabaret and solo theater, interspersed.

“Because it’s important. And he’s smart.”

And always, there’s Sondheim. The theater legend, who died last November, was instrumental in launching Ann Morrison’s career.

She recalls the last time she saw him, at the 2019 memorial service for producer Hal Prince. They had a sweet reunion once it was over.

During the service, Morrison, along with several other original Merrily We Roll Along cast members, sang Sondheim’s song “Old Friends,” from that show.

Lin-Manuel Miranda said to her later: “You should have seen Sondheim’s face, Annie, when you guys came onstage. He was just beaming.”

Tickets for Sunday’s performance are here.

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