Dallas — The best way to describe a lunch and chat with actress Linda Kay Leonard is “high energy” as in the late Mary Martin. Linda’s energy rolls off her in waves. To keep going, she eats like a pro. Caesar salad, a big pasta dish and to share (mostly) crème brûlée.
The occasion for our luncheon conversation was her return to a role she began 18 years ago when the production of Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts’ I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change! was just a glimmer in the eye of Theatre Three producing artistic director Jac Alder.
With strong Midwestern roots in Indiana, Leonard has almost always been involved in theater. Her childhood story reveals that at the age of 17 she was working at the Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis—and has never stopped.
Her career has taken Leonard all over the world, and even included a stint as a back-up singer for Isaac Hayes at age 19. She received her BFA in theater and two associates degrees: One in psychology and the other in dance. Linda has appeared as Grizabella in Cats for the National and European companies and as Ellie in Hal Prince’s revival of Show Boat. On this show, Linda worked with the celebrated choreographer Susan Stroman who developed a version of the classic that was widely hailed as a triumph by critics and audiences alike.
In 1993, Linda and her former husband came to Fort Worth, where he began to teach at Texas Christian University. She loved the feel of Cowtown but knew there was more work in Dallas.
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts opened in New York on Aug. 1, 1996, until it closed on July 27, 2008. After 5,003 performances, it is the second-longest running off-Broadway musical, after The Fantasticks.
Jac Alder, the founder of Theatre Three, thought that the show would be a good fit for his smaller basement theater, called Theatre Too!
Linda remembers the casting of I Love You with four actors, each playing multiple roles. With no more than 30 seconds to change costumes, it was a whirlwind. While the initial performances began upstairs in T3, it was redesigned to be downstairs and there it has remained. The current run, through March 4, will be the final appearance of this title at Theatre Three—one of the changes new Artistic Director Jeffrey Schmidt as he makes his mark on the future of one of Dallas’ longest-running theaters.
“The show begins with the cast in robes chanting and then quickly robes are shrugged off and the play begins,” Leonard says. “From then on, the action is non-stop.”
The show was an instant hit with Dallas. In 2000, when the only social media was word of mouth, the production was often mentioned in the press. It consistently sold out and Leonard remained in this show for the next three-and-a-half years.
“The show was intended for a run of four or five weeks,” Leonard says. “But its success drove it to being extended for eight weeks and was the first show that director Jac Alder had ever extended.”
For herself, Leonard credits the long tour of the show to giving her a solid bank account which helped her buy her own house with her husband, actor Bill Jenkins. She had insurance and more benefits that come from a long-running production, which are common in New York but rare in Dallas.
As she describes it, “the play was a cash-cow” for the theater and helped Jac Alder have the funds to produce other material upstairs.
“The theater space was directly underneath the 8.0 restaurant next door,” Leonard says. “While the show was running, Alder once went to the restaurant and bought rubber feet for all the chairs so they wouldn’t scrape overhead during the performances.”
Leonard remembers the lack of back stage space for the players. “The men’s dressing room was the former office for the theatre. With the mold on the walls, it always seemed to resemble a New York theatre.”
The off-Broadway musical revue soon became a Dallas institution. It closed when Equity salary increases made salaries for the actors more than some of the theatre staff. By closing for six months, they could reopen with base salaries.
Since those days, Linda has gone on too many productions, including the stellar one-woman show, Ann, in which she played Ann Richards, produced by Stage West. She also teaches at KD Conservatory.
To celebrate T3’s last run of I Love You, a special one-night-only fundraising performance featuring an all-star cast of past ILYYPNC productions will be performed on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m. on the Norma Young Arena Stage upstairs.
To be directed by B.J. Cleveland, who was one of the original cast members, this will feature an all-star cast of past productions. The players include Ashley Wood, Carrie Slaughter, Linda Leonard, Greg Dulcie, Amy Mills, Doug Jackson, Bradley Campbell, Lisa J. Miller, Jason Villarreal, Trey West, Janelle Lutz, Kim Swarner, Liz J. Millea, Aaron Jay Green, Greg Hullett and B.J. Cleveland.
Cleveland released this comment regarding the upcoming performance. “In an unprecedented evening, we are celebrating Valentine's Day with an all-star performance, featuring cast members from all 18 years of the show, even if you've seen the show in the past. We are moving it to the main stage for that night only and it will be a one-time chance to see a lot of great talent in a lot of different scenes usually performed by only four people.”
Cleveland invited the returnees to pick the scene they each want to do. Leonard will perform one of her favorites. This special performance is also a fundraiser in memory of Terry Dobson. Proceeds will help fund a new piano in his name and the Theatre Three Annual Fund.
Performances of ILYYPNC continue through March 4 in Theatre Too. Valentine's weekend performances which include a rose, chocolate and a sparkling wine toast; it’s $75 for Feb. 14 gala. Call 214-871-3300 or visit Theatre3Dallas.com.