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Marilyn Monroe weaves her magic on actress in Asolo Rep's 'Forever Blonde'

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Sunny Thompson had no interest in playing Marilyn Monroe because no woman could or should be compared to the iconic actress and sex symbol.

Sunny Thompson plays Marilyn Monroe in "Marilyn: Forever Blonde" at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. HOWARD PETRELLA PHOTO PROVIDED BY ASOLO REP

"What woman in her right mind would do that to herself?" the actress and singer said in recalling her first reaction to the idea that she star in the one-woman show "Marilyn: Forever Blonde," which opens this week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.

She obviously came around to a different way of thinking.

The suggestion initially came from playwright Greg Thompson, who would eventually become her husband.

"I read it and said it's a lot of work for somebody else," she said. "I wasn't a real fan, but I like Marilyn Monroe; I just didn't know a whole lot about her."

Despite her reluctance, she saw the script as a real acting challenge, never having done a one-person drama.

"I had done a lot of comedy, but didn't have that real dramatic side. I've never been an impressionist or an impersonator," she said.

Thompson agreed to do some research, spending more than a year reading every book she could find about Monroe (and there have been hundreds), watching all her movies, as well as films about her, and listening to recordings.

She then felt ready to take on the play, which first opened in Hollywood in 2007 and has since been performed around the world.

In Sarasota, "Forever Blonde" is the third in the Asolo Rep's summer of one-person shows about iconic entertainment figures, after Hershey Felder's "George Gershwin Alone" and "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein."

One of Thompson's inspirations was Jimmy James, a longtime Marilyn impersonator, who was invited by the actress to create the right look for her performance.

Sunny Thompson strikes a Marilyn Monroe pose in "Marilyn: Forever Blonde!" at Asolo Rep. HOWARD PETRELLA PHOTO PROVIDED BY ASOLO REP

"I thought if he thinks I can do it, since he devoted a big segment of his life to playing her, then I can do it. He had the makeup down. It's really not just makeup. It's art. His design is so beautiful," she said.

At their first meeting, James spent about eight hours on Thompson's makeup. "Then he helped me with mannerisms and walking, which I flunked for the first week. Then I did a scene for him and he gave it his nod and said, 'I think you're going to do it. I think you're going to pull it off.' And I said, 'OK, maybe I can.'"

She was excited — for a moment — until Greg Thompson suggested they open the show in Hollywood, rather than someplace far removed, like Dayton, Ohio. "That's what I was hoping for."

 

But she got an enthusiastic response from critics and audiences "and here we are to tell the story, four years later," Thompson said.

The show is set in a photographer's studio on what could be the last day of Monroe's life and she is posing for what would be her last photo shoot. Monroe is 36 and wondering how things might be different if the real Norma Jean had her life to live over again.

In a way, the audience becomes the photographer, watching her and hearing her story, "and at the end of the play, the audience feels they've had two hours with Marilyn in a kind of intimate setting," Thompson said.

During the course of the show, while recounting her life and career story, Thompson sings a number of songs from Monroe movies.

All the words in Greg Thompson's script are taken from things Monroe was quoted as having said during her life.

"Greg has taken things from different books, good sources, and he put the quotes in chronological order so they would form the story of her life," she said.

Though she wasn't a fan at the start, like millions of others, Sunny Thompson became one.

"She pulls you in. You can't help it. It happens to everybody who starts to research her. She just pulls you in. You want to help her and take care of her. This girl did not get a fair shake."

Thompson worked a long time on getting the right tone to capture Monroe's voice, both singing and speaking, but the audience gets to see two sides of the actress.

"This is the Marilyn you would find in her living room, who's sitting there talking to you, having a conversation. She's not the icon, but you see some of that during the show," Thompson said.

The Boston Globe wrote that Thompson "does an impressive job of mimicking Monroe's famous poses and she speaks with the breathy, childlike voice Monroe projected, at least on camera."

During a run in London, the play was filmed with plans for a DVD to be released next year, the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death. Thompson said many events are planned "to mark that momentous occasion."

Sunny Thompson as Marilyn Monroe. HOWARD PETRELLA PHOTO PROVIDED BY ASOLO REP

Because even 50 years later, the fascination with Monroe continues. Just two weeks ago, news spread about the discovery of some previously unknown photos of Monroe and Jayne Mansfield that were found by a New Jersey photographer after a flood in his studio. Antony Fury said he didn't know where they came from or who took them. And there are sure to be more books to come.

Thompson will probably be reading them.

 

THEATER PREVIEW
“Marilyn: Forever Blonde” previews at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and opens at 8 p.m. June 18 and continues through July 10 at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $17-$65. 351-8000; asolorep.org
Last modified: June 13, 2011
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