About ten minutes into Who’s Holiday, the new holiday-centric solo show currently playing at the Westside Theatre through December 31st, a meek, demure Cindy Lou Who peers out at an older gentleman in the first few rows. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says, innocently. “Was that word offensive?” And just as soon as this man can give a response, her expression immediately turns stone-faced. “It gets worse.”
She’s not wrong. You may think you know the demure little Who with “a coo like a dove” from Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s book, but we guarantee: 60 minutes with this boozy, drugged-up, twerk-tastic reincarnation and you’ll never look at Cindy Lou the same way again!!
The brilliantly irreverent parody, courtesy of playwright Matthew Lombardo, imagines the Who in question as a 40-something Whoville pariah, banished to the depths of Mt. Crumpit and condemned to living in a trailer. While preparing for a lavish Christmas Eve party for her friends, she fills us in on the gaps between that fateful night meeting the Grinch and the bizarre turn of events that led her to her current situation — all in rhyming couplets, to boot!
Complete with an original rap, a semi-cooking (and drinking!!) segment, deadpan delivery, and plenty of holiday cheer, this raucous romp is the surefire antidote to cure those “Bah humbug!” blues and make your spirits bright. And with Cindy Lou at the center of it all, there’s no question a huge part of that enjoyment for the audience is in watching the hijinks of her portrayer, the fabulously funny Lesli Margherita.
No stranger to comedy, with acclaimed turns as Mrs. Wormwood and Mona Kent already under her belt, Margherita meets the already top-notch witticisms the dialogue with a brand of charm and humor all her own. What results is a riotous performance for the ages you just have to see to believe.
On a break from her insanely busy schedule — and in between preparations for a post-run flight to Los Angeles, where she’ll soon recur on three (count ‘em, three!) television series — we caught up with the perennial funny lady to dish all about her history with The Grinch, her deep-rooted beliefs in female empowerment, her personal holiday prep and why she feels the heartfelt story should appeal to the masses in the present moment. Check out her answers below… and then run — don’t walk! — to see her in action. But don’t let the whimsical Dr. Seuss aspects fool you; Margherita forewarns, in contrast to her previous work, “this one ain’t for the kids!”
It’s fair to say you’ve been known, since your arrival on the New York theatre scene, to play these high-camp, over-the-top, and outrageously comedic women. What is it that draws you to these larger-than-life characters, and what’s the key, in your opinion, to nailing such a comedic role?
Well, to be honest, the majority of stuff that I did before I got here was dramatic. (Laughs). All the crazy stuff I started getting when I moved to this coast! I was actually cast in Matilda because the director, Matthew Warchus, had seen me in a drama, and he wanted people for the show who wouldn’t sacrifice the realistic [aspects] for the over-the-top [ones]. (Gabe Ebert, too [who played opposite me as Mr. Wormwood] has done a lot of dramatic stuff). [Warchus] wanted them to be real... and I think that’s the key to playing all these people. They can’t just be cartoons. They have to have some humanity. All the funny has to come from a real place. And I think, for me, it’s actually easier to approach these roles the same way I would a dramatic role, because that’s how I make them real. Otherwise, you can’t connect with them on any level. And I love doing the big, over-the-top characters just as much as I like the smaller, dramatic stuff. It’s all fun. Whatever gets me the paycheck. (Laughs).
Turning toward this show specifically, do you have a history with Cindy Lou Who? Were you always a fan of The Grinch? How did that image of her affect your ability to flip her inside out for this show?
Yeah, I was a fan of The Grinch, but I never really liked Cindy Lou Who. (Laughs). I liked Max the dog. (Laughs). And so, when I got this script, I was a little like, “ehh,” ‘cause I didn’t know what she was going to be. And then I started reading it and thought it was hysterical.
I was so drawn to the idea that her life had gone so wrong. I really love stories like that, ‘cause really… nobody’s life turns out the way they think it will, you know?
And what really made me love this version of the character in this story was the fact that she rises back up in the end. You have a woman whose life really went off the rails, and here she is, laying it all out on the table, facing it head-on, and learning to accept herself for who she is and pick herself back up… which, at one point or another, is what we all have to do. It makes it relatable… makes it, again, more human.
But back to the question, no, my previous experience with this girl had been... not the greatest. (Laughs). She doesn’t even speak in The Grinch. I think she just makes a noise. It’s very little to go off of when creating a character. I’m lucky I have this script. It makes things, you know, a little bit easier. (Laughs).
Can you talk about how you became involved with this production? What drew you to this role in particular and made you say “yes”?
It really came out of nowhere. They were supposed to do it last year [with Jennifer Simard, a production scrapped after a much-in-the-news dispute with Dr. Seuss Enterprises]. I had heard about it last year, and had always thought it was a great idea. And then, I was out in Virginia shooting a TV show and I got a call from Carl [Andress], the director, who I had worked with before [on a benefit reading for a show called Hollywood Nurses]. He said, “Look, I’m doing this play and I think you’d be perfect for it. What do you say?” And I knew that I had six weeks open in my schedule. And this show was set to run for six weeks! (Laughs) And I thought, “Okay, well, that’s a good sign…” And then, when I read it, I was like, “Oh my God, I totally have to do this!” It’s just hysterical. How could I not? Of course, I’ve been panicking ever since ‘cause I’d never done a one-person show before… and it’s really hard! (Laughs).
How does doing a solo show like this differ from doing a solo cabaret act, such as All Hail the Queen or Rule Your Kingdom?
Well, first off, with my solo act… I write it, so it’s easier ‘cause… well, I’ve written it. Also, I have my MD up there, my band, my back-up girls, so I’m not “alone” alone. With a show like Who’s Holiday, it’s terrifying because I’m 100% alone. There’s literally no one to bail me out if I get into trouble up there.
And also, when you write something yourself, you just sort of naturally know the order of things. Do you know what I mean? Like, [the memory] comes more organically, ‘cause it’s your story. You don’t necessarily have to study it as hard. This [Who’s Holiday] I had to memorize really thoroughly, ‘cause it was all in rhyme too, and that was a challenge [to overcome].
But now that I’m doing it, I do have that sense of [pride] like “I’ve conquered it,” you know? I feel like I can say, “Oh, I can do anything!” (Laughs). Pssh! Rhymes! Please! No, I’m kidding. That still scares me every night. (Laughs).
Can we talk a bit more, on that note, about how the whole play’s in rhyme? Did that trip you up when rehearsing or performing?
You know, I honestly thought it was going to make [memorization and performing] easier, and I was so wrong! It actually makes things way harder, ‘cause if I mess up one word in a sentence, I’m screwed. I’ll sort of have to, you know, make up a rhyme, or it just, like, doesn’t rhyme... and then I’m caught, you know?
And that’s the thing with this show in general. I really have to be careful with what I say. It truly tests my ability to focus for the entire show. And that’s different from a regular Broadway show, where, you know, of course you’re focused, but it may only be for a scene or two, and then you can go offstage and have downtime and play Candy Crush. It’s never just one hour straight where you’re the sole focus and you never leave the stage! It’s probably why I’m so exhausted at the end of the night! (Laughs).
Does it get you excited to possibly pursue other projects in rhyme?
(Laughs). I don’t know… I’m not sure anybody else has written anything quite like this! (Laughs).
Looping back to your cabaret act, you’ve been known in the community, especially through your act and your various social media platforms, to be such a strong proponent of self-empowerment and living by your own rules, especially as a woman. In what ways do you feel Cindy Lou Who exemplifies these ideals?
It’s so funny. I always find myself drawn to playing these types of women. They’re not perfect on the outside, but they wholeheartedly believe they’re right on the inside.... they believe in who they are.
Even Mrs. Wormwood, like, she was so wrong, but she 100% believed she was right. (Laughs). She was loud and proud... and I think that’s a really great quality to have, no matter who you are... to be able to just take a breath and say “This is who I am and it feels amazing to be me!” No apologies necessary.
And I feel like, with Cindy Lou, she totally has her issues [to resolve], but at the end of the day, she loves who she is. She recognizes some of her choices were wrong, but she made the best of them. She accepts herself for who she is. I think that’s empowering.
And that’s what I was trying to get at before. Nobody’s life is going to turn out exactly the way they think it is. But it’s all in how you deal with the outcome. If you don’t like something about your life, then change it, ‘cause you rule. Like, everyone knows I call myself “queen.” I rule my kingdom, I rule my life.
You know, people can only upset you if you let them. You have the power not to let things get to you — and you’re the only one who has that power. You rule your kingdom, you rule your life.
And these women — all of them, not just Cindy Lou — all rule their own kingdoms. Yes, they may be crappy kingdoms, but they rule them, warts and all.
Though obviously a comedy, the show enters some really dark, deep territory and gets into heavy topics, like racism, domestic abuse, poverty and homelessness. Can you speak to why it’s important to have these thoughts expressed, specifically, at this point in our history? Does approaching it with humor make it easier to digest?
I think… like, come on! It’s incredibly important, especially now, because people are being stripped of their rights, and being told who to love and what to do all over the place. It’s so essential that we show people that it’s okay to live their truths.
Love who you love and follow your heart. It may not lead you to where you thought it would, but at least [in doing it] you were true to yourself.
I really hope that’s what people take away with them after seeing this show. ‘Cause yes, it’s hysterically funny, but it also presents a really great message. And [one that’s] relatable, too. Everybody goes through this stuff in one way or another. The holidays are not always fun. (Laughs).
Approaching it with humor makes it easier for people, too... when we go into the darker stuff, they’re more willing, I guess, to go on that ride. We really surprise them in a way they might not expect. And it really has an effect on them. It’s super cool.
Cindy Lou prepares pigs in a blanket for her Christmas Eve guests. What’s on the menu at your holiday bash?
Whatever I can order from Seamless. I don’t cook. At all. Honestly, it would probably just be bottles of alcohol and a few snacks I bought at Costco. That’s pretty much what you’re gonna get. (Laughs).
Who’s Holiday takes a classic character we all know and love and completely turns her on her head. If you could tackle another character from classic literature in this revamped way — be it from the Dr. Seuss canon or not — who would you choose, and why?
Huh. That’s a good question. (Pause). Well... I always find myself gravitating toward [stories that address], “What happens after ‘happily ever after’?” I guess that’s why I love Into the Woods so much. The second act is great, ‘cause it shows what happens when fantasy ends and real life begins. Again, life doesn’t always turn out like we thought it would.
I guess I’d love to see what happens to any of the classic Disney girls. Like Belle, Snow White, Ariel, Cinderella... you could take any of these women that had so-called happy endings.
But then, I also think it’d be great to see [what happened to] the villains. Like, what do you do with the rest of your life? No one’s going to trust you again... you’re banished from the kingdom... you’re out of a job. What are you gonna do? That’d be great to sink my teeth into... something I’d really love to explore. We’ll see…. all in due time.
Who's Holiday is currently running at the Westside Theatre (407 W. 43rd Street) through Dec. 31st. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.whosholiday.com. For more laughs, sass, and general feel-good inspiration, follow Margherita on social media @queenlesli, or visit www.leslimargherita.com.