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Major Movie Role For State Native
December 17, 2006
By RON DICKER, Special to The Courant

Anika Noni Rose stars in the film musical "Dreamgirls." You just wouldn't know it by the attention lavished on cast mates Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.

"It's expected," says Rose, a Bloomfield native. "That's what we do in this world of celebrity. I'm still in the movie, and you are still going to see me when you pay your $10, and you will see what it is that I did."

Rose is the only main player with a big-time music-theater background. She won a Tony as best featured actress in 2004 for "Caroline, Or Change," a musical about racial relations in the 1960s by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, directed by George C. Wolfe.

The trophy spread inspiration.

Rose tells one anecdote of an aspiring performer who flew to Los Angeles just to watch her on stage in a road version of "Caroline." But Tony did not make the movie world send more scripts, she says.

"Dreamgirls" writer-director Bill Condon, a theater buff, saw Rose perform in "Caroline." He expressed interest. She missed a New York audition for "Dreamgirls" because of another commitment, so she paid her own way to Los Angeles for the next round of tryouts. She was keen to avoid a videotape audition, knowing she had an advantage in strutting her stuff live.

"To walk out of the room and feel that there's nothing you would have changed - that is Halley's-Comet rare," she says in a recent phone chat.

She was one of the last principals to be cast, erasing concern that she would be a victim of Hollywood's knack for bypassing Broadway actors. "It's not really a linked bridge," she says.

Rose plays Lorrell Robinson, who overcomes heartbreak and showbiz craziness to form a Supremes-like Motown group with other Detroit strivers. Lorrell is based loosely on former Supreme Mary Wilson. Beyoncé is the front woman, of course, with a nod to Diana Ross.

The popular stage original of "Dreamgirls" had its prem iere in 1981. The cinematic version languished in development until producer David Geffen leased the rights to Paramount/DreamWorks and Condon.

"We were of a like mind," Rose says of Condon. "The script was so clear to me. I could hear Lorrell's voice literally from the first few pages."

Condon, who wrote the screenplay for "Chicago," storyboarded "Dreamgirls." Rose says she was allowed to put her stamp on the character. Moments with Murphy's soul singer, who has an affair with Lorrell, had their own organic give and take. "Eddie and I have a fantastic working relationship and we got along really well as characters," she says. "He was so absolutely open. You want to have a real tennis volley. You want to hit that ball 90 mph and know it's coming back faster."

Despite huge pre-release hype and colleagues known for attracting an audience, Rose kept her hopes in check during production.

"If you do it out of love instead of expectation, then you'll make some thing fabulous," she says. "It makes a huge difference."

She planned to spend the movie's release day on Christmas visiting the families of her mother and father (John Rose Jr., Hartford's corporation counsel). This is a personal engagement only. Talks with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra about a concert went on hold when "Dreamgirls" emerged. She last appeared here in September 2005, doing "Antebellum" for the Hartford Stage's "Brand: NEW Fall Festival of New Works."

"There's always a large enough venue to come home," she says. "I don't know what it will be. It would have to be exciting, something that would stretch me and allow me to be able to dig into it."

Rose (Bloomfield High School Class of 1990) first realized she could sing and dance with panache as a freshman in Bloomfield High School's mounting of "Fame." She later trained with the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and acted at other Northern California venues.

"The Bay Area is supportive of their theater," she says. "Once they get you in their sights, they'll follow you in what you do. It's a great place to do your thing."

In 1999, she moved to New York in search of a bigger platform. After just three months, Rose introduced herself to Broadway as a replacement in "Footloose." In 2001, she shared the Obie Award, the off-Broadway Tony, for "Eli's Coming" and continues to snag key stage roles.

The film side has been tougher going. Her most prominent credit is "From Justin to Kelly" (2003), a musical with "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson. Rose once called it " `Grease' on the beach." It turned out to be a bomb that got sand-kicked in its face by critics.

Things are looking up, however. She has a supporting role in an upcoming Danny DeVito comedy called "One Part Sugar" and is also in a TV miniseries with Debra Messing called "Starter Wife."

The "Dreamgirls" buzz train continues to chug along, too. Rose insists she had no idea the buildup would be so huge. She is trying to enjoy the ride, even if it is not her name being bandied about on "Access Hollywood" or for Oscar consideration.

"The fact that somebody specifically saw me as that singular person who can do this, it's an amazing honor," she says. "And I hope it's something that will continue to open that door."

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