Part 5 of ‘Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s: The Series of Interviews That Goes On and On’: Actress Priscilla Cuellar (Lady of the Lake)

Whatever happened to her part? This series has gone on long enough without mentioning the stunning singing sensation The Lady of the Lake! It’s a tough life being a watery tart who hands out swords and guides Kings on their epic grail-hunting quests, and here to tell us all about exactly how that life goes is the exceptionally talented Priscilla Cuellar, the 2013 Helen Hayes Award Winner for Best Supporting Actress in a Resident Musical (for her performance as Paulette in Toby’s Legally Blonde).

Priscilla Cuellar. Photo by Amanda Gunther.

Priscilla Cuellar. Photo by Amanda Gunther.

Amanda: What was the last thing in this area that our readers may have seen you performing?

Priscilla: In this area, I most recently did The Full Monty at Keegan Theatre. I played Vicki, one of the main women and that was a lot of fun. Before that it was Legally Blonde here at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. I played Paulette and won a Helen Hayes Award for that performance. That was so awesome, and so exciting and so very rewarding to get to be a part of that production and then win an award on top of it. I have a full time job in the area so I usually only do a couple shows a year because it’s a lot to commit to otherwise. It’s kind of nice because I can scope out what I want to do and pick projects I am really excited and passionate about, and end up in really great productions.

You’ve worked with Director Mark Minnick before. What is it like getting to work with him in this new project?

This is actually the third time I’ve worked with him. We did Hairspray together at Riverside Dinner Theatre; I played Tracy in that production for him. And then last summer he directed Legally Blonde and now we’re together again for Spamalot. I love Mark. I will do anything that his name is attached to. When we did Hairspray together he had cast me as Tracy without really knowing me. We had known of each other but had never worked together before that. I was kind of shocked, and really honored because I had heard of him and I had seen his work before. That first day of rehearsal the first time I worked with him, we did a sing through for that rehearsal and something just clicked between him and I. We just work so well together.

I think he’s an incredible actor’s director. At least for me, he knows how I work and how I am, so he knows the right things to say to me to get what he wants out of me. Sometimes it’s two words and sometimes it’s four sentences but he knows how to get what he wants. He’s very good at wanting you to find it yourself. He gives you the right words and the right tools to push you in the direction that he wants you to go but then you have to discover the rest. That’s what I love about him. He is always open to new ideas, and he’s open to me trying new things as crazy as they are. I don’t think many actors could say this about many directors but I completely trust him 100%. He could tell me to go out dressed in a monkey suit because it’s the best thing for the show and I would be like “Ok, if that’s what works, I trust you.” It’s rare that you find that sort of trust with a director and that’s why I say I would do anything that his name is attached to because I completely trust him. He cares about the pieces he does, he’s very passionate about them, and he wants them to be the best that they can be.

 Priscilla Cuellar (The Lady of the Lake) and Lawrence B. Munsey (King Arthur). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Priscilla Cuellar (The Lady of the Lake) and Lawrence B. Munsey (King Arthur). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

What was it that made you want to audition for Spamalot?

Well, it’s Spamalot. How can you not want to be in it? This role is amazing. I saw Sara Ramirez (who won a Tony for her performance as Lady of the Lake) perform this role for the first time during the Tony Awards and I was like, “Who is this woman, what is she singing, what is this show, and I need to know everything there is to know about it right now.” So I started doing some investigating and I heard all the music and I said “Oh my God, this part is awesome! And the singing is amazing!” And I just wanted to know everything I could about it. I went to see it on Broadway, unfortunately I didn’t get to see her, but I did see the tour that then came through here last spring as well. I just immediately wanted to be a part of it. It’s an awesome show.

Was it unnerving going into the audition knowing that there really is only one female lead in this show?

I am not a dancer. So I knew it was either this or nothing. It was kind of nerve-wracking because Mark really likes to cast people who are best for the parts. He really put us through the ringer. We went in several times, sang a lot, and he had us read a lot of scenes. It was unsettling because you go in with a group of people that you know and that have seen on stage that you know are talented and that you know are amazing. And all you can do is sort of cross your fingers and do your best. It was very nerve-wracking, I will say that, but you’ve just got to go in there and do your best and hope. I got lucky this time!

What is it like to be The Lady of the Lake?

It’s so much fun. This part, when you look at the script, she only has one or two scenes where she’s speaking and not singing; it’s a lot of singing. At first it’s very scary to get into because you’re sort of thinking “I don’t really have a lot to go off of here; there’s no huge backstory.” Now, there’s a back story of where she came from and stuff but there’s not a lot of character to go off of, so you kind of just get thrown on stage and told “Go do this.” Despite it being a little bit scary it’s a lot of fun because you get to create her, you get to create this whole new character. I mean the costumes alone are so amazing and give you so much to work with.

You do have a lot of incredible costumes, five or six different elaborate dresses? Do you have a favorite?

One…two…three…yes six. There are six of them. My favorite? Oh no! That’s a toughie. You know, though, I wear this turquoise dress in the second act, it’s the only time I speak. I wear it for maybe three minutes. It’s that moment where I come out and I speak to Arthur and tell him that he’s in a Broadway musical. For some reason, I love that dress. I want to steal it and wear it to the Helen Hayes this year. It’s so tough picking a favorite outfit though because I do adore all of them. OK, maybe not the nude one-piece so much that I wear during the Camelot scene. That’s the only costume that makes me nervous every night…if those beads come off…uh oh!

The costumes are so fabulous, though. And they are very heavy; well a couple of them are heavy. They are made so well that they accentuate and hide everything they are supposed to accentuate and hide. And the detail is incredible. One of the nice thing about having these costumes at Toby’s is that you really get to see all the amazing detail work on these costumes that you miss if you’re not in the front few rows of a big proscenium house.

Did you come into Spamalot with a strong Python knowledge or a love of Monty Python?

I came into it with a strong Spamalot background. I know they are similar but different. I had seen the movie when I was growing up and I have definitely seen bits and pieces throughout the years growing up and getting older. But I wasn’t a huge Monty Python person. My family, we’re all Hispanic so the only musical I think I saw growing up was West Side Story, In The Heights wasn’t around yet. I knew the humor was different, and I knew British humor was different than what I was used to but I wasn’t really big into it growing up.

I’ll tell you I was very worried at first about how well this was going to work for people not familiar with Monty Python. I was originally thinking “Oh, if they don’t know the movie and they don’t know what’s happening they’re not going to get it and they’re not going to think it’s funny.” But I’m coming to find out that it’s really not that important for them to know it or not. As I wait tables I have people coming in and I’ll ask them, “Are you familiar with the movie, are you familiar with the show?” And it’s been about 50/50. The people who don’t know anything about it enjoy it just as much as the people that do. Obviously the people that do know Monty Python are asking “Is Tim in it? Is Denis in it?” And then they’re asking about the rabbit and all this other stuff. Everyone seems to be loving it. They are enjoying it regardless of what they know coming into the show.

One of my co-workers actually came to see the show and she doesn’t know anything about anything from Monty Python so I was a little bit concerned. I actually asked her did she want me to tell her about the story and she told me she didn’t want to know anything about it she just wanted to go in and see the show. After the show she was just in awes, she thought it was amazing and really funny. She said it was great, that she really understood it all, so I think it really does work for anyone.

 Priscilla Cuellar as The Lady of the Lake. Photo courtesy of Toby's DInner Theatre.

Priscilla Cuellar as The Lady of the Lake. Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.

What was the most challenging thing about the Lady of the Lake role for you?

I think it’s a little bit of what I was saying before about having no real back story. When I played Paulette in Legally Blonde she had a beginning, middle, and end for her arc of the story in the show. That gave me somewhere to start, begin, and end. But with Lady of the Lake there is a little bit more freedom to create something from scratch. I think that was the most frightening for me. Also, vocally it’s not an easy part. I knew I was going to have to discipline myself a lot during this run. Go to bed as early as I can, not go out, not drink. I’ve been very, very responsible with this. Everyone has a different process that they work with for shows, but I know me, and I know that I have to be strict with myself about this so that kind of freaked me out. Those were the two things that scared me the most. Having to create something and make it funny without it necessarily being written into her as far as how to do that.

You really do get a lot of freedom with her, especially during some of the vocal segments of certain songs where she is scatting and ad-libbing the jazzier bits. What is that like for you?

Scary! Especially with a show like this, you never really know what’s going to land and what’s going to be funny until there are people there laughing. So that is definitely nerve-wracking but it is also very fun. How many times do you get to do something like this? I mean I’m literally making up words during the scat part of that song and that is just awesome. There are opportunities to get the audience laughing in that bit. Like the homage to The Lion King, which I actually can’t take credit for because that came from Sara Ramirez, but the scatting right before that I find ways to really deliver new things every night.

This role is literally one of the most fun I have ever done. I have a job, like I said, and sometimes I’ll be driving here from work and I’ll be stuck in traffic saying, “Oh God! I have to get to the show!” But literally, and I’m not trying to sound cheesy, but when I get here and I walk on stage as Lady she just takes over. I get to sparkle and shine and make people laugh. It doesn’t really get better than that.

Do you have a moment in the show that consistently makes you laugh every night? Any musical numbers that you aren’t in that you love?

I need to think about that for a minute because there are actually quite a few that always make me laugh. I always laugh at the scene with Jeffrey (Jeffrey Shankle) and Nick (Nick Lehan) where Jeffrey is playing the guard and Nick is Prince Herbert’s father. I’m always backstage cracking up because I think that scene is hilarious. I think there are even little things that people probably miss because of the quickness of it but it’s still just so funny that I always laugh at that scene. And I can only hear it! I can’t even see it and I’m still cracking up. There are a couple of things that David Jennings does that always gets me. And of course now that I’m trying to think of what specifically, I can’t think of anything. But David Jennings, he’s always doing something that cracks me up. Probably his French Taunter bit. That keeps me laughing.

Musical numbers? I love the gay number. It’s so much fun and it’s fabulous. The ensemble girls get to come out in that number for a minute and I’m just like “Can I do that? I just want to be in it for just one minute.” I just love that number. I love the Dead number too because I think that opens things up for the audience to laugh out loud and be okay with laughing out loud.

Lady of the Lake gets almost every song style in this musical from love song to jazzy doo-wop, to belt ballads, and everything in-between. Has that been a challenge for you?

I have been telling people that I am really lucky with this part. A lot of people know me for being able to belt and do riffs, which is not a bad thing, and I do love that, it’s probably my favorite thing to do. But the fact that I get to sing a little legit, and prettier, more operatic I guess, is a lot of fun for me too because I do enjoy singing that way. I don’t think a lot of people know that I can sing that way. I get that a lot of people don’t recognize that I can sing that way because I am known for something else in this area but it’s really cool to be able to sing such a wide range of things all in one show.

It’s really fun and I love doing it. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite number because it’s tough. But I guess if I had to…I love “Find Your Grail.” I get so into it. It’s really the motivational piece that gets everyone going. Especially the second time I come out during the song with that big hand holding up the grail. It’s not only that you can feel it from the audience because that’s where the music starts to pick up and the dancing gets a little bigger, but that’s where you can feel it in the cast. We are pumping it, we are wailing it, the whole cast— I can see it in their faces they get so pumped! They are smiling from ear to ear and I just love looking out at them and seeing that energy there. I can tell they’re just giving it everything they have and I’m giving it everything I have and we all just come together and it’s my favorite moment.

As Lady of the Lake you get to be a bit of a Diva with a fabulous attitude and big throw-down musical number.

I love that song, “Whatever Happened to My Part?” But I will tell you it is probably the most scary for me, only because it’s not too often, at least for me, that I’m literally on the stage all by myself. There’s no set, no big lighting or people dancing around me. It’s just me, out there in a robe, a little exposed. So it’s a little scary. The second half of that song powers its way through, it’s all belting, and it sits in a place that’s good for me, and I do love it. But I was very, very scared of it in the beginning. Now as time has gone on and I’ve gotten to really practice it I’ve become a lot more comfortable with it. I’ve become more excited to go on stage and sing it. When it is over I do go off-stage and give a little sigh of relief, it’s done until the next show.

Are you a diva like Lady?

Oh no! At least I don’t think so! I’m not very picky about many things, I don’t like to complain about anything. I find that people who have that kind of attitude it just makes things really difficult for everyone. And I adore all the people I work with, and we all get along really well we don’t have those enormous egos and attitudes clashing backstage so it’s really great. I’ve worked with 70% of this cast before and there is something really nice about getting to be familiar with them, and trust them and we all hang out. It’s an awesome cast to be a part of a no-drama cast.

Have you ever had Spam?

I have never had spam. I kind of don’t have any desire to either. I don’t know, it has never appealed to me. I mean I did grow up around here, but my family is from Bolivia. Both of my parents were born in Bolivia so I think they weren’t very big on processed canned meat products. We were very Hispanic/Latino as far as food went growing up.  I’ve heard people eat it with eggs or mac-n-cheese. What does it taste like? Do you know? People keep saying maybe bacon. I wish they served it on the buffet this show, that would have been really funny.

Priscilla Cuellar (The Lady of the Lake). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Priscilla Cuellar (The Lady of the Lake). Photo courtesy of Toby’s Dinner Theatre.

What would you say to people who are familiar with Spamalot as a proscenium show to convince them to come see it at Toby’s, a theatre in the round?

I would tell them that I think it’s a neat experience to see it done in the round. Not only are you closer so you can see things better, but you’re experiencing something different that is all around you. I think it’s fascinating for people to come see how we work things out. I had a friend who came, who is a huge Spamalot fan, and he asked me over and over “How do you do the Black Knight?” and I told him he would just have to come see. And he was truly fascinated with how we did it.

All these costumes are built for the proscenium stage so Mark had to truly rethink so many things for this show to be successful. He is magical, that’s a good word, and just makes so many things work for this space. I know people are just going to be fascinated to see how we do it. When I saw the tour all I could think of was “How is he going to do this? How is he going to handle that?” But even as I was thinking those questions in the back of my head I was also saying “Mark probably already has a plan for every single question I’m thinking.” Mark loves this show and you can see it.

I would say that this show is a great time. I can guarantee that you will laugh several times out loud. It’s just fun. It’s a great night out. Come out for some food, some drinks and a lot of laughs. I think it’s fun for the people who are coming to see it to be able to talk to us as waiters, to get personal with us because that’s not something you can get at another theatre. It’s a different experience to be in the round. It’s all around a fun and exciting show. Come see it!

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Spamalot plays through March 23, 2014 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call (301) 596-6161, or purchase them online.

Click here to read the review for Spamalot.

Click here to read Part 1 of Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s: TheSeries of  Interviews that Goes On and On and On with Director Mark Minnick.

Click here to read Part 2 of Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s: The Series of Interviews that Goes On and On and On with actor Darren McDonnell as Brave Sir Robin.

Click here to read Part 3 of Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s: the Series of Interviews that Goes On and On and On with actor Nick Lehan as the Dashingly Handsome Sir Galahad.

Click here to read Part 4 of Monty Python’s Spamalot at Toby’s The Series of Interviews that Goes On and On and On with actors David James and David Jennings as The Character Man and Sir Lancelot.

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