Mary Michael Patterson’s success story could have come straight from the pages of those musicals in which the fresh-faced acting ingénue arrives in New York City with — like every other aspiring starlet — talent, a few bucks and stars in her eyes. Then, right as she’s ready to question everything, opportunity strikes.
“I had just quit my [waitress] job, I had no money, couldn’t pay rent and I remember sitting with a friend at lunch with my head in my hands, not sure what I was going to do,” says Patterson, who also had nanny jobs. “Then that afternoon I got the call that I got the role.”
The role was as an understudy in the 2011 Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, a part she had been called back to audition for three times. That was enough to ensure other Great White Way and regional theater roles for the girl who grew up in Aledo and fell in love with performing when she was a Casa Kid at Casa Mañana in the 1990s.
After performing in musicals at Aledo High School, she studied theater at the University of Michigan and then took off for New York.
Now, Patterson is returning to the home theater that started it all in Casa’s current production of the musical sensation Les Misérables, the first self-produced professional Tarrant County production of the mega-musical since performance rights for regional and amateur theaters became available a few years ago, after decades of national tours. It’s on the Fort Worth stage until Sunday.
Patterson plays Cosette, following other ingénue roles such as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway for about a year and a half (much of that spent as the alternate, meaning she performed two of the eight performances each week), Marianne Dashwood in the world premiere of Sense and Sensibility: The Musical at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, which is headed by former Casa executive director Van Kaplan.
Les Mis director Tim Bennett says that Patterson’s name was brought up when they were casting, and while he had heard of her from her performance in Phantom, it was the knowledge that she grew up at Casa that partially sealed that deal. That, and the fact that she was right for the role.
“She has one of the most pristinely beautiful voices I’ve ever heard,” says Bennett. “To bring so much light to this show that is filled with darkness, and such a loving presence to those scenes, she’s wonderful.”
This is Patterson’s first time with Les Mis, a musical that has become even more popular thanks to the 2012 movie version.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel about students protesting an oppressive regime in 19th-century France and an officer on a decades-long hunt for an escaped prisoner, the stage version of the mammoth story was distilled by musical creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg into three hours (and later cut to two-and-a-half) of sung storytelling in a production that became known for the barricade, a revolving stage and such songs as I Dreamed a Dream, Empty Chairs and Empty Tables and At the End of the Day.
“I think it’s easy to play a generic ingénue when you do Cosette; it’s beautiful singing and she’s youthful,” says Patterson, “but she has a lot of strength to her; there’s interesting things you see about her as she goes through the journey of learning about her past of who her mother was. She’s the only [character] who signifies hope, well, because she’s one of the few people still alive, but she’s also a promise of a better, brighter future. It gives me something positive to play with and sing about.”
In Bennett’s production, the set not only spans the width of the stage but goes farther to the walls of the domed theater space. He’s also keeping the concept traditional, as opposed to the Dallas Theater Center’s 2014 production, which made national theater headlines for its modernization.
“I could see how that would absolutely work, but that’s already been done here,” Bennett says. “We have kept a traditional feel to the numbers and some of the staging which I remember being iconic. It’s a traditional production partly because I felt the original was so wonderful.”
For Patterson, part of her journey at Casa is coming home.
“Certainly Casa has changed a lot,” she says, referring to the renovation to a new stage configuration in 2003. “It feels very much like a homecoming because it’s where I learned to love theater.”
Of course, trying to survive as an actor in New York, always searching for the next role, you can never take anything for granted.
“You can be working at one point, then as soon as something closes, you’re back to square one. It never really gets easy,” she says. “You gotta be ready to get back into the hustle, but I do think it’s easier once you know what to expect.”
▪ Through June 28
▪ Casa Mañana Theatre, 3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth
▪ 817-332-2272; www.casamanana.org