Counting her lucky stars (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
Nancy Pelosi is a biker chick when Ellen Toscano is under her skin
Beyond their talent for hyperbole and headlines, these four famous females seem to have almost nothing in common. Nothing, that is, but Ellen Toscano, who inhabits each of their public personas like a comically demented voodoo priestess taking possession of their souls. They, along with Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Princess Catherine, to list just some of the personalities Toscano routinely adopts in the longest-running musical revue in theatrical history: Beach Blanket Babylon.
But unlike the divas she roasts on stage at Club Fugazi in North Beach, Toscano doesn’t have an iota of the pretension and impudence for which her characters are infamous for.
Anything but. She’s the kind of girl who makes you believe in karma. More likely to hug you than shake your hand, Toscano doesn’t have a bad word to say about pretty much anything. In the vernacular of one of her easier targets: Ellen Toscano will happily put lipstick on pigs–without even realizing she’s doing it.
Carried on wings of unfaltering optimism, Toscano has soared into the kind of career any 28-year-old actress would be envious of. The start was a little rocky, but at each major crossroad, the stars seemed to align, putting her in just the right place at just the right time.
After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied in the Atlantic Theater Company founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy, Toscano struggled to chart her next move.
“I was doing the acting thing, working at a restaurant, going to auditions. I had a manager, she would put me on dance calls for Broadway only because I’m five-ten and they like really tall women. I just kept thinking ‘I’m not a dancer, this is embarrassing.’ It was horrible.” And yet, she laughs.
She longed for the slower pace of Wine Country, and while visiting Sonoma in 2005, a friend said he was going to an open audition for Beach Blanket Babylon. Toscano decided to tag along.
“I thought, yeah, why not, I’ve got nothing to lose. And in my mind I was, like, I’ll just audition. It’ll be great practice,” she says.
As one of a few hundred vying for only a handful of parts, Toscano managed her expectations by keeping them low. She knew she was a long shot, but when her number was called, she did her best rendition of “Always True to You” from Kiss Me Kate, and she nailed it.
“The director,” she recounts, “said, ‘OK that was good, now sing the same song, but do it as Cher,’ Then he said, ‘OK do it again like Barbara Streisand. Now do it like a Brazilian bombshell.’ He was just throwing out all these different characters and I was loving it, it was awesome.”
Not only did she love it, she was good at it. The fates seemed to have plans for Toscano, because the part she was perfectly suited for–spoofing starlets–needed to be cast. She was hired and immediately went to work as the Pineapple Princess.
Beach Blanket Babylon has been a theatrical icon since Steve Silver launched the satirical showcase in 1974. The ever-changing performance highlights absurd headline-grabbers from politics to pop culture, poking fun at the personalities who crowd the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and gossip rags. With tongues planted firmly in cheek, the actors take to the stage in larger-than-life costumes, oversized props in hand, providing peppy parodies of the day’s news, often in huge hair or enormous, staggeringly tall, Carmen Miranda-style hats. The show is constantly fresh, sometimes naughty, sometimes mean and always hilarious.
“If it’s big enough in the media, they’ll throw it in the next day,” Ellen says. “My director will give me new lines after warmup. That’s at 7:15 and the show’s at 8 p.m. and we say, ‘OK.’”
After six years with Babylon, Toscano knows she’s found her place in the world, happily splitting her time between her home in Sonoma and the seven performances a week dedicated to the characters she loves like family. “The stage has always been that place of comfort and confidence,” she says. “I am just really grateful to be working and performing.”
It’s that gracious outlook that keeps Ellen Toscano grounded in reality in an industry where many drift away into La-La Land. Her niceness knows no bounds, to the point that you wonder if there isn’t at least a smudge of darkness below the surface, maybe a little larceny behind that radiant smile. So you ask an innocent, innocuous question: Hasn’t she ever been tempted to appropriate one of those over-the-top costumes or props that give BBB its signature style? Wouldn’t a gigantic wig look cool in her living room?
The very question leaves her vaguely offended.
“I’ve been pretty good,” she answers seriously to the silly inquiry. “It’s kind of hard to be discreet when everything is gigantic.” Press her a little further and she admits some shoes might be tempting. But it’s utterly clear that the only thing Ellen Toscano will ever steal from Beach Blanket Babylon is an avalanche of applause and rounds of raucous laughter.
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)