The bubbly Michele Mais, a triple-threat performer affectionately called Maisey by her friends, confesses that she was once an indefatigable party girl—always ready for late-night merrymaking after a show. She admits that as her life priorities have shifted, she has settled down quite a bit. But that familiar spark of giddiness is still very much a part of her personality. In her latest role, in the hit Off-Broadway show Menopause the Musical, Mais has found a vehicle that serendipitously mirrors her personal rites of passage.
Joining a four-member female ensemble in this zany spoof of the physical/psychological transformation that every woman faces, Mais exudes her wit, charm, and showstopping vocal prowess. She plays Power Woman, a take-no-prisoners female executive who meets three other women shoppers at the lingerie counter in a department store and joins them in a childlike revelry though the various floors of the store, as they try on sundry outfits and wigs and share tales of menopausal angst. Mais observes that the role is more down-to-earth than many she has tackled. "I've played roles such as lizards, goddesses, and vampires. I often play outlandish, absurd characters underneath a ton of glitter," she says. Yet it's not just the character that corresponds to her journey toward a more mature Maisey; it's also the underlying theme of the play.
The thinly plotted show, with book and lyrics by Jeanie Linders, is built on parodies of popular songs from the 1960s and '70s, offering a lighthearted glimpse at the trials and tribulations of menopause. Mais sees it as a celebration of things natural. "Physiologically things happen to us, and our bodies change," she said. "We make it bad thing, but it's really just a different thing. This show is a celebration of women as opposed to just moaning and complaining. I have lost so many friends over the years—to everything from AIDS to cancer to heart attacks—that I think we need to embrace our life changes and be grateful that we're alive. The large female audiences get very caught up in it and enjoy a tremendous camaraderie. It's an amazing phenomenon. People say that the show makes them very happy, and some are already paying repeat visits."
Mais' journey to her current state of personal nirvana and career satisfaction traces back to her adolescent years in her home state of New York, when she was a member of a children's theatre company. She landed a role in a national tour of Godspell, and thence followed countless acclaimed performances in theatre, film, and television. My first encounter with her extraordinary talent was in the 1998 Laguna Playhouse production of Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin's smash musical The Last Session, which Mais reprised the following year at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood. She deservedly won an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for her charismatic and heartfelt portrayal of a brassy diva.
Day by Day
Mais indicates that she knew she wanted to perform since she was a child, when she started taking dancing lessons. When she was cast in Godspell at age 18, she dropped out of college, much to her mother's chagrin. "I had to swear on a Bible that I would finish my schooling later," she says, chuckling. And she did, earning a B.F.A. from City College of New York. "To this day, I can't believe all that has happened in my career," she says. " I'm very lucky to work doing what I love. If I had to sit in an office all day, I think I would lose my mind." In the years following Godspell, she amassed many impressive credits, including the national tour of One Mo' Time, and Zoot Suit and El Bravo on Broadway, and roles in television shows such as Silk Stalkings and films such as Trading Places.
She first worked in Los Angeles when the Harold Prince musical Roza, based on the film Madame Rosa, came to the Mark Taper Forum in 1987. In an audition held in New York, she was cast in a sizable singing and dancing role as a prostitute. The show played the Baltimore Center Stage and the Taper prior to its short-lived Broadway run. Says Mais, "It's one of the most beautiful shows I've ever done. I loved it. [The show's star] Georgia Brown was brilliant. The show was very cathartic, and audiences were very moved. I was really shocked when it didn't do well. We had sold out in Baltimore and L.A. In New York, all of our previews were sold out. Then Frank Rich from The New York Times came and gave it a scathing, mean-spirited review, and that was the end of it. It was very sad. I loved and respected Georgia immensely, and I miss her so much."
A Rocky Road
Mais settled in L.A. following the show's Broadway failure and has worked here almost nonstop. She left the state for a time to work with the New Mexico Repertory Company in Albuquerque in a production of The Rocky Horror Show. During one performance, she fell through a trap door and suffered a major knee injury; the paramedics rushed her to a local hospital. This unfortunate incident disabled her for about a year. Her supportive company members surrounded her at the hospital. In her typical whimsical manner she quipped, "I did my operation to 'Honky Tonk Woman' and had pepperoni pizza as an anesthesia. One nurse asked me if I was a prostitute, because I was in fishnet stockings and such—my costume from the play. I said, 'No I'm an actress,' and she said, 'Same thing.' I needed two operations, and it was a pretty intense recovery. I couldn't walk for a long time. Ironically, as soon as I recovered, I was cast in The Rocky Horror Show in San Diego." She also won wide acclaim for the musical Twist of Fate in 1995 at the now-defunct Tiffany Theatre, directed by the late Ron Link, but she left the show during the run to accept a role in Dick Clark's American Bandstand stage show at a Lake Tahoe casino for an extended run.
Mais missed good career opportunities while laid up, such as a call from CBS and a shot at Harold Prince's workshop version of The Kiss of the Spider Woman. But she always seems to look on the bright side. "I learned a lot about myself that year," she said. "People were very nice, but they have lives to live. It made me have to deal with myself a lot and really get to know myself. I got to the point where I was really happy and fine being alone." In June 1998 she auditioned for the West Coast premiere production of The Last Session at Laguna, following its successful Off-Broadway run. She also considers this bittersweet but uplifting show—which deals with an AIDS victim who decides to commit suicide but changes his mind—among her most memorable and satisfying career experiences. She says, "It was a beautiful, amazing journey just to be around the wonderful energy and the show's message of faith. Many people who came to see it were very sick and derived so much hope and strength from the show. Unfortunately I always figure if they ever film it, they will probably bring in Hollywood people to star. That's the reality of theatre."
Mais says she loves to work in different mediums but feels especially at home on a stage. She adds that she likes doing nonmusical work but that she finds creative satisfaction in a song that she can't find in dialogue. "There's a certain freedom of emotion that I find in singing," she explains. "For a period of time, I decided that people wouldn't really consider me an actor if I just did musicals. So I set out to prove I could act, doing Shakespeare and Shaw. But I missed singing and always look forward to the chance to do a good role in a musical. I remember one play I did—a futuristic piece. I was Mother Earth, and all my children were screwed up, and the apocalypse had arrived. It was a scary, gloomy piece but an intense acting role. At the end, I decided when my son died to throw in this quick little spiritual song, like four bars. Here I was acting my butt off, and all the reviewers could say was, 'Her voice is magnificent.' So I decided that if my voice has that much power, I might as well use it." For the amazing Maisey, who accentuates the positive in everything from menopausal malaise to a shattered knee, career success seems attributable to much more than a twist of fate. BSW
"Menopause the Musical," presented by TOC Entertainment and Entertainment Events Inc, at the Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. Tue.–Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Indefinitely. $42.50. (310) 657-7377.