Annaleigh Ashford Returns to Broadway in ‘Sylvia’

Annaleigh Ashford Returns to Broadway in ‘Sylvia’
November 10, 2015 ALEX NAGORSKI

Annaleigh Ashford
Returns to Broadway in ‘Sylvia’

Annaleigh Ashford is redefining what it means to be a funny girl on Broadway.

It’s no coincidence that the Great White Way’s last true laugh-out-loud play was You Can’t Take It With You, in which Ashford was featured. In a show full of heavyweights like James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne and Elizabeth Ashley, Ashford was not just the most hilarious actor on stage, but she also took home the show’s sole Tony Award. Only 29 at the time, Ashford’s win already felt overdue, thanks to her standout and consistently side-splitting performances in Kinky Boots, Wicked, Hair, and Legally Blonde, and the Off-Broadway productions of Rent and Dogfight.

Now, Ashford is back on Broadway with Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s endearing and comedic exploration of the relationships between dogs and their human masters. In her first starring role, the triple threat comedienne plays the titular character of Sylvia, a stray dog that gets adopted by a middle-aged New York couple after a chance encounter in Central Park.

To prepare for the role, Ashford took her own dog – a toy Australian shepherd named Gracie – to obedience, agility, and sheep herding classes. Instead of just dropping Gracie off, Ashford stuck around and diligently observed and studied the canines. She also immersed herself in nine books—both non-fiction and fiction– about dog psychology. And from the first moment that she leads her body on stage with her nose, it’s instantly clear that this homework more than paid off.

Ashford wears knee-pads and patches of fur to add to the illusion that she’s man’s best friend as she jumps up and down off chairs and sofas, rolls around the stage, and sprints through the aisles of the theater. But her costume is not what transforms her into an animal. It’s the nuanced and dedicated physicality she brings to the part that makes those watching really forget that they’re not actually baring witness to a talking dog. She’s so committed, in fact, that when an audience member’s cell phone interrupts mid-performance, she reacts as any dog would to an unexpected high-pitched sound – by “barking” (or yelling “Hey hey hey!” as it’s represented in the show) until the ringing stops.

“We don’t have that many highly physical female clowns,” Sylvia director Daniel Sullivan told NPR. “I mean, she is really extraordinary in her ability to keep a thing very true and honest and, at the same time, much larger than life, physically.”

When Sylvia debuted on the New York theater scene in an Off-Broadway theater in 1995, it was Sarah Jessica Parker who originated the title role. Now, twenty years later, her husband Matthew Broderick is co-starring in the show’s Broadway premiere. As Greg, the man who takes Sylvia home to his less than enthused wife, Broderick is at his best. As Kate, Julie White excels at playing the skeptical and confused wife who just wants to come home at the end of the day without finding bite marks in her favorite shoes and books – and her marriage.

But no matter who else is on stage, this is truly the Annaleigh Ashford show. Even seasoned stage veterans and Tony-winners like Broderick and White sometimes struggle to maintain a straight face and not burst out laughing at the comedic gold Ashford churns out line after line and movement after movement.

While Greg and Sylvia become more and more dependent on each other, attached at the hips as it were, her presence in his life illuminates who he needs to be in order to become the happiest possible version of himself. This means that maybe the job where he’s been for years but constantly feels put down by his boss is no longer the right fit for him. However, this also means that his wife of 22 years might start to feel jealous that Greg is calling Sylvia “sweetheart” and saying “I love you” much more frequently than he does to her. What ensues is a complex and ultimately heartwarming look at the importance of being honest and willing to compromise with the ones we love.

“By the end, there’s a sense that I’m perceived as the other woman,” Ashford said to USA Today. “From Sylvia’s point of view, this is the man I love. I treat him like my dad in a lot of ways, but he’s also the great love of my life.”

While Kate doesn’t initially take too kindly to Sylvia’s addition into her and Greg’s lives, it becomes increasingly apparent to her that the kinship her husband feels with this dog is unlike any he has felt before. With their kids off at college, Kate enjoys a reawakened professional drive as an English teacher. But for her husband, that same rejuvenated sense of purpose derives from his relationship with their dog. Despite her initial reluctance, she comes to see that, for Greg, Sylvia is not only a pet but also a source of inspiration. And thanks to this dog, her husband is more fulfilled than ever.

Gurney’s decision to make Sylvia have the ability to talk is genius. This tactic not only lends itself to constant hilarity, but also allows the show to paint a very real, multi-layered picture of what humans and dogs expect from one another. The conversations that Sylvia has with both Greg and Kate brilliantly illustrate who these characters are, what they’re thinking, where they are in their lives, how they feel about one another, and what they need to achieve to feel accomplished both as individuals and as a couple heading into the later years of their lives.

The audience members who have doggy bags under their seats to take home to their pooches from their pre-theater dinners can relate all too well to Gurney’s touching ode to the significance of the deep bonds between people and dogs. And for those audience members who have never understood the appeal or entertained the notion of owning a pet, Sylvia shines a light on not just how beautifully symbiotic such companionships can be, but also how much caring for another creature can bring out the qualities within yourself you may need to enhance your own life.

Although Sylvia’s limited run only goes through January, Ashford’s fans can look forward to catching the actress in her popular role as Betty DiMello on the upcoming fourth season of Showtime’s Master of Sex. And on November 13th, her acclaimed cabaret act, Lost In The Stars, will be released via Broadway Records as her first solo album recording.

With this show, Ashford has upped her A-game to a whole new level, and she certainly shows no signs of slowing down. She masters a role that could have very easily fallen flat or not resonated even a little bit as funny or poignant in the hands – or in this case, paws – of a less skilled actress. It’ll be exciting to see if this terrific performance lands her back-to-back Tony Awards, and her first in the Best Actress category (time to start watching out for that record, Audra McDonald!).

Whether or not you’re a dog lover, Sylvia will charm and amuse you, and you’re likely to find yourself barking its praises all the way home.

Click here to fetch tickets to the show, now playing at Broadway’s Cort Theatre through January 24, 2016.

Funny and heartwarming, Sylvia is about what happens when a smart, sassy, captivating canine befriends a New Yorker in Central Park and changes his life— and his wife’s life forever.

From Tony Award-winning® director Daniel Sullivan (ProofGlengarry Glen Ross) and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee A.R. Gurney (The Dining RoomLove Letters). Sylvia stars a brilliant cast of acclaimed comedians: two-time Tony winner Matthew Broderick (The ProducersHow To Succeed…), Tony winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed), Drama Desk Award-winner Robert Sella (Stuff Happens), and fresh from her 2015 Tony-winning performance in You Can’t Take It With You, Annaleigh Ashford as Broadway’s friskiest new heroine. This wonderful look into the complexities of love and commitment asks what it truly means to be devoted to your partner…and how do you choose between the love of your life and man’s best friend?

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.