Something bigger than herself: Molly Bell brings it for us all


Singer/dancer/playwright is a star of the stage, and someone who makes the time to do good works

By John Orr
May 19, 2013

That blond whirlwind flying through the San Francisco Bay Area is not a meteorological phenomenon, it is Molly Bell -- actress, dancer, singer, writer, mom, charisma coach, blogger, director and all-around superperson.

I ain't kiddin'.

I first became aware of Ms. Bell when I saw her as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre in an excellent production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at San Jose Rep in 2009.I've seen several productions of this delightful little musical, but I've never seen a better Logainne than Bell.

Logainne is a very challenging character -- she is the youngest of the spellers, so has a certain childish vulnerability, yet she is also the most politically aware, and carries the heavy burden of need to succeed, because of her two overbearing fathers.

And she has a problem with sibilance: She lisps. Which is why she gets all the "S"-sounding words. "Cystitis. C-Y-S-T-I-T-I-S. Cystitis."

It's a lot for an actor to balance, but Bell is the benchmark by which all performances of Logainne are measured.

Her lisp, for instance, was a weather event of its own. And yet it doesn't overwhelm the pathos of this little girl who must make a moral decision against the wishes of one of her overbearing fathers.

Bell, as we say in blues music, really brings it when she performs. She really brought Logainne to the stage.

Bell's current theatrical outing is in the title role of "Sweet Charity" at Center Rep in Walnut Creek, California, directed by the great Timothy Near. Book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Bell plays Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer with high hopes for romance that never seem to work out.

(One of my pals who caught a preview on May 18 was effusive about how great Bell is in the role. I believe him.)

Bob Fosse won a Tony for his original choreography for the show in 1966. This show is being choreographed by Jennifer Perry. The cast is great, including Alison Ewing, who was in that "Spelling Bee" with Bell, and James Monroe Iglehart, who has been a huge crowd pleaser all around the Bay Area and on Broadway.

Bell, meantime, is juggling stuff faster than any four of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, including working out child-care issues for her two children, daughter Rylie and son Ryder, so husband Kurt Kuckein can see her in the show. She and her family live in Los Altos, Center Rep is on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. Kuckein can't be every place at once, either.

Rylie is eight months old and perhaps a bit easier to care for than Ryder was the last time Bell did a show with a babe in arms.

"I did 'Merrily We Roll Along' at TheatreWorks when Ryder was three months old. I don't remember any songs from it. The show was fun, but it was difficult. I don't remember a single thing."

That's because, when you have a three-month old baby, sleep is not really in the picture. Bell was sleep-deprived, she remembers, and breast-feeding Ryder during intermissions. The rest? A blur.

After that experience, she decided to stay off stages till her new baby was a little older, her theory being that it will be a little easier to acclimate to performing this time. Following "Sweet Charity," she is helping to organize and will perform in a Divas for Life show, on June 10 in Los Altos. It's the 10th anniversary for this show, which is sponsored by one of Bell's projects, Creative Habit Academy.

The Divas for Life shows gather together a bunch of the Bay Area's amazing stage talent and put them on a stage to sing and dance. The tickets pay for the hall and the technical stuff, and the rest of the dough goes to help cancer victims in various ways. This year, the recipients will be a couple of young boys, Isaiah Gaytan and Jacob Goeders. Read about these guys at the Divas Inspiration page.

That Bell and Daya Curley do this to help the families of cancer victims is a very good thing. Tickets aren't much to go to this show, and I certainly encourage y'all to go.

Here is a video of Bell performing in the 2010 show, doing the song "Show Off." It's funny and delightful, and will give an idea of why people think so highly of Molly Bell. Keep an eye peeled, you'll see the great Billy Liberatore on piano, and the excellent Amanda Folena sitting on a chair, waiting her turn to perform.

Amazing stuff.

Back to the blond whirlwind.

"I do maybe five or six different jobs," she said, "a lot of little businesses. I fancy myself an entrepreneur."

She teaches voice lessons, for instance, with "10 or 15 students," at her home.

She teaches dance at health clubs in the Bay Area -- "It's cardio dance," she says, "intensive exercise, not for people to learn the intricacies of technique."

She also runs a Broadway class, teaching choreography for Broadway tunes.

And, "About three, four years ago, I started getting calls from corporations, and started a side business. I go to companies and do team-building, exercise classes, dancing, singing, whatever. Four times a year I choreograph a performance for quarterly meetings. ... Out of that, I got a lot more corporate gigs."

A lot of work.

And she started a company, Creative Habit Academy, teaching after-school dancing, acting, singing, in elementary schools. She was getting too many job offers, so hired people to teach her curriculum.

And wants to figure out how to present her voice lessons on line.

I've been sent links to some of Bell's inspirational podcasts, blogs and other writing by friends on line. She is a global phenomenon.

"It's been interesting to see how many people download it, around the world," she said. "We're not sure why they do it. We have multiple downloads each month from Spain, Thailand, the Philippines, Canada."

Is it too much?

"I definitely have a problem with saying 'No,'" she said. "An overcommitment issue. Even when just working for myself, I have that problem. If I have too much on my plate, I worry it might get watered down, that the work I am doing is not as good as it could be."

"Doing an album, writing a new musical. If someone called ... I think I would say, 'Not this time.'"

Oh yeah. She said "new musical." She already co-wrote and starred in "Becoming Britney." It premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival, winning Bell an award, and played in 2010 at Center Rep. The San Francisco Chronicle's Robert Hurwitt said, "Bell's high-energy song-and-dance tribute-portrait of Spears -- half satiric, half affectionate and all brightly tuneful -- is unerringly winning."

But, also, she said that back in December, during our initial interview. Since then, Center Rep has commissioned her to do a new show -- "The Real Housewives of Walnut Creek: The Musical," to premiere in April 2014.

Here's what the Center Rep website says: "Inspired by one of America's favorite (and perhaps despised) reality series, 'The Real Housewives of Walnut Creek: The Musical' channels all the craziness and cat-fights that -- for better or worse -- keep audiences tuning in for more. Meet the wives: Penny, Lulu, Joanne, Babette and Beezus -- and come be a part of our studio audience as we tape their "reunion special.'"

If anything, Bell is getting better and more productive. She owns any stage she's on, and she has plenty of other project coming along that will enrich the Bay Area theater scene. She will be directing "Guys and Dolls" for Broadway By The Bay, for instance.

And being a wife and mom has helped.

"Having a family and being able to concentrate on that has helped me let go of the anxiety of an audition," she said. "I don't have that anxiety about auditioning anymore. At this point, I love the idea of doing a show, but it has caused a lot of consternation in my family. Being gone at night is sort of hard. It has to be a family effort, a group effort."

And that is more important.

"I'm sort of able to let it go. I'm not as concerned about the stage. And more things seem to come to me when I let it go ... It's kind of a good feeling. Allows you to relax. There is something bigger than myself. It's one of the things I've liked about having children."


Sweet Charity Interview

Michael Butler with Timothy Near (Director), Molly Bell (Charity), Jennifer Perry (Choreographer)

Center REP is closing its 2012-13 Season in big, brassy style with the great American musical, Sweet Charity.  This multiple Tony Award winner is loaded with big dance numbers like Hey Big Spender and great songs like If They Could See Me Now, and has a hilarious and heartfelt book by Neil Simon.  I sat down with the show’s director Timothy Near (Rumors, Noises Off), choreographer Jennifer Perry (Xanadu) and leading lady Molly Bell (Becoming Britney, A Marvelous Party) and asked these three dynamos of the theatre,

“What is it about Sweet Charity that gets everyone so jazzed?”

Timothy Near (TN)
Well it’s sexy, it’s funny and, like all great American classics, it’s about transformation.  Charity goes on a journey and in every scene she learns something.  People really respond to Charity’s kind of optimism.  She believes in love and she never stops believing that.  But as she goes through her journey, she begins to learn to love and respect herself.

Jennifer Perry (JP)
And it’s such a fun dance musical!

Michael Butler (MB)
It’s not only a dance musical, it’s a Fosse musical.  As a contemporary choreographer, what does that mean to you? 

Well, Bob Fosse was such a universal influence on dance.   I think a lot of contemporary choreographers find themselves using so much of his physical style, like the turned in foot, the way the hand holds the hat, the subtle finger and wrist movements. It’s such a famous style, it’s become part of the musical vernacular -  you see it in brand new Broadway musicals today.

And he invented that?

Yeah, and watch his feet movement.  Fosse was not born with a natural turnout, he was not born physically to be a "great dancer."  So he created moves that worked for him. Fosse developed a Jazz Style that is immediately recognizable. Very stylized, filled with sexuality.

Molly Bell (Molly)
And that turned out to be really forward thinking, whether or not he meant it to be.

So he actually used, what in the dance world might be considered an impediment, to create a new way of moving?

Yes, he used that to make his own style. He used his own turned-in knees, added style with rolled shoulders, and Jazz hands.

Molly, you’re what in the theatre is called a triple threat – a singer/dancer/actor.  And Charity is one the most demanding roles.  We actually picked this show for you!  Obviously we’re very excited about Molly Bell playing Sweet Charity.

Molly  Which is so funny because you know I’ve never seen the show!

It’s still months before rehearsal, but what are some of your thoughts about Charity herself and the play?

Molly  When people talk to me, they say I’d make the perfect Charity, so (laughing) she must be me!  But it’s not that really.  Everything Charity does is so authentic, the comedy needs to be authentic, she says what’s on her mind, and I have an easy time doing that on stage.  I’m able to be a little absurd, but make it real.  And that’s I think why people think of me for Charity.  I’m excited about the physical comedy aspect, I think that’s going to be really fun.  And of course the dancing.  It gives me a chance to do all three.

You have a wonderful ability to be both determined and vulnerable at the same time. 

Plus you’re so likable on stage.  Well you’re likable in real life too!


Every single person sitting in this audience…you’re just going to come into their hearts.  Every man, woman, grandma, grandpa or child…they’re going to love you!

Well hopefully!

Here’s a dramaturgical question about Charity; does she evolve and how is she different at the end of the play?

The play was written in the late ‘50s, early‘60s.  It was a transition era in which women began to feel that they wanted more equality.   I remember around 1962 women started burning bras on my college campus.  They were saying we don’t want to be restricted; we don’t want to be tied in. These were naive times.  The play is about a young woman at the dawn of that era.

But she still hangs onto the original dream, she still wants it.  For the most part she counts on somebody else to make her happy.  It’s not until the very end that she begins to see things differently.

That’s a struggle people still wrestle with today.

Yeah, she doesn’t go off and decide to be the President of the United States.  She’s not a feminist.  She’s a dance hall hostess…men get to dance with her for money.  But by the last scene she says, this is not a good place to be.  This isn’t nice.  She begins to rebel, to transform.  Charity and her two pals sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.  In the song they dream of having a job in which they have some power.  They are stuck, because in 1950s, working class women didn’t have much in the way of self determination.  But they dream of it. 

(Singing) Looking for love in all the wrong places…

Right.  That’s kind of her journey. She is looking for self definition by what guy she is with instead of realizing her own strengths. 

That song, Something Better Than This, is a big dance number.  Has REP ever done such an ambitious a dance musical? 

Yeah, I don’t think what’s going to appear on this stage is anything we’ve ever seen before!  The caliber of dancers is so exciting.  They all have such wonderful line and fantastic technique which makes for a really beautiful clean ensemble.  And they’re all really remarkable performers and actors and singers too.

A whole bunch of triple threats!  Usually we’re lucky if we have one or two. I can’t wait to see Molly, Brittany (Danielle) and Alison (Ewing) doing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.  They will burn up the stage!

That number just goes on and on and on, and they dance more and more…I’ve started working out a lot more now!  I told my dance class that I would be singing while teaching my dance class for the next few months so I can get used to it.

It might be interesting for the audience to know that yes, it’s a Fosse musical, yes, we’re going to be very influenced by Fosse, and it’s inspired by the period, but, it’s not just a nostalgia piece.  We hope to bring in a lot of nods to the present, both in costume design, in set design and dance. 

Molly  Is it typical of Charity to always be set in the same time period?

TN       It’s such a naïve piece, it’s hard to put it in the present, but looking at Vogue, there’s so much right now that’s a nod to the early ‘60s that it’s kind of easy to fuse the past with the present when it comes to fashion and to dance.

You look at an H&M window now and you think, are we in the ‘60’s?

Yeah and then in auditions we asked people to show us their best hip hop…

We have some very talented hip hop dancers….Keith Pinto is amazing!

We definitely want to bring in contemporary moves.  I don’t want the audience to just sit there and be thinking, “Oh, nice ‘60s piece.”  I really want them to feel the heat and passion of the play.  We’re going to put a contemporary edginess into the orchestration that will give it some muscle.  It should be exciting and dynamic.  People will want to get up and dance!