"I always said Lea was born performing."
Shannon Katona is talking about her younger sister, Lea Thompson.
Most people know Thompson as the star of the NBC television series "Caroline in the City" or the mother in the "Back to the Future" movies. Beginning Tuesday, however, Mechanic Theatre audiences can see her in a considerably less wholesome role, that of "divinely decadent" Sally Bowles in the 1998 Tony Award-winning revival of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret."
Sally, a second-rate singer performing in a raunchy Berlin dive between the two World Wars, may seem like a stretch for Thompson, especially since this is her first musical. But the 39-year-old actress from Minnesota insists it suits her quite well, thank you.
" 'Cabaret' always spoke to me because I was raised in this kind of provocative artistic environment, and my mother is a painter and a jazz singer, a sculptor," she says. "Even though it was the Midwest, it was also that time in the '70s and coming out of the '60s when everything was up for grabs."
Which brings us back to Katona's childhood recollections. Thompson was the youngest of five and, as told by Katona (who is five and a half years older), the first time her kid sister ever walked, she was trying to dance.
"My mom used to play piano and narrate stuff for us to act out, and my brothers were lions and tigers and my other sister and I were deer," says Katona, a romance writer and longtime Baltimore resident. "This one night we were all dancing around the living room and Lea just went the whole length of the room, she wanted so badly to dance with all of us."
By age 4, Thompson was already eager to study dance, but her brother Andrew, who was then dancing with a company in Rochester, Minn., and now dances with the Colorado Ballet, insisted she wait until 10, telling her that's the age dancers begin at the Kirov.
"At one point my entire family -- my four brothers and sisters and my mother and father -- were all in 'The Nut- cracker' except for me," Thompson says with a trace of envy still evident in her voice.
At 14, she joined the Minnesota Dance Theatre, "a very cool company," she says in a phone conversation from Pittsburgh, where "Cabaret" played a recent engagement. "It was wild stuff we were doing. It was not running around in fluffy pink tutus. It was a real intense education."
This is as good a place as any to get to what could be called "Lea Thompson's Disclaimer": "Because I'm small and kind of have a youthful air of energy around me and a Midwestern voice, people have tended to think I'm some type of archetype -- the girl next door, and I've done well with it. But, of course, it's not who I am, because I'm not an archetype. I started my artistic career as a modern dancer, which is a heady kind of strange artistic thing."
Thompson, who graduated from high school at 16 and set off to be a professional dancer, is tired of talking about how that career came to an end, but she reluctantly sums it up. "I joined American Ballet Theatre [in New York], the farm team, briefly -- American Ballet Theatre II -- just like four months. Then I was let go," she says. "[Former artistic director Mikhail] Baryshnikov told me I was too stocky."
"It's a real hard thing when you've been dancing and it's been your whole thought process from day one. It's hard to move out of that," says her sister. But Katona remembers the resilient Thompson saying, "If I've got Baryshnikov telling me that I'm not going to make it as a dancer, then the next logical progression would be acting."
Thompson started out making commercials, including a number for Burger King, then rapidly moved into film, chalking up a dozen movies in four years. Among these were "Jaws 3-D" (1983) in which, as she puts it, she played "shark bait," and the first of the "Back to the Future" (1985) movies, in which she played "Oedipus' teen-age mother."
Even a box office dud like "Howard the Duck" (1986) had its advantages, giving her a chance to sing on screen.
But with the exception of frequent engagements singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sporting events -- she will sing at the June 11 Orioles game -- "Cabaret" has afforded Thompson her greatest opportunity to sing before a live audience.
"I figured out I spent the most money in my education on my singing classes," she says.
Granted, Sally Bowles, her ex-patriot British character, isn't supposed to be a polished chanteuse. In "The Berlin Stories," on which "Cabaret" is partly based, author Christopher Isherwood wrote, "She sang badly, without any expression ... yet her performance was, in its own way, effective."
"Don't let anyone fool you," says Thompson, insisting that all the actresses who play the role try to sing their best.
In the revival alone, that list ranges from Natasha Richardson to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Teri Hatcher.
Leigh was starring in the show, which is directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes, when Thompson saw it on Broadway two years ago.
She knew then that she had to be in it. A year later she got a chance to audition in Los Angeles, where she lives.
"I thought it went well, but then I didn't hear from them for a year," she says.
A demanding part
"Caroline in the City," in which she played a syndicated cartoonist, had just ended a four-year run, so she took a year off to stay home with her two young daughters and husband, film director Howard Deutch.
When the call finally came, she admits she was a little worried about the demands of the role. "I just didn't know if I could make it through eight shows a week, singing. I'd never done it before. [Sally] doesn't only sing, she smokes. I smoke through songs. I cry through songs -- things they don't teach you," says Thompson, who hadn't been on stage since appearing in a production of William Inge's "Bus Stop" at the Pasadena (Calif.) Playhouse 10 years ago.
"It takes everything I've got to play this part. I think that she's so vulnerable. I'm giantly sensitive, and I do a lot to hide that. I bring a lot of that to her. The way that she covers her fear or her sorrow by performing is a lot of what I've done my whole life. I've never [played] that kind of character."
"She brings a good heart to the part. She makes Sally Bowles, in essence, have a good heart," says Katona, who saw Thompson in the role in Dallas two months ago. "To me, she was not a mean, nasty, lowdown Sally Bowles. It comes across very differently. I really liked Sally. She was just caught up in a life that wasn't what she would have chosen."
Life on the road
Thompson acknowledges that it's difficult to be away from her family on the road, and she's excited that her husband, children, mother, brother Andrew and sister Colleen will all be with her in Baltimore, as well as, of course, her Baltimore-based sister.
But even though touring means frequent separations, "Cabaret" was an opportunity she couldn't refuse.
"Every once in a while as a parent, a woman or a human being, you just have to do something you have to do," she says. "I think Vanessa Redgrave said to [her daughter] Natasha Richardson, 'When someone asks you to play Sally Bowles, you say yes.' "
And in a sense, Thompson has been rehearsing for the role all her life.
"First and foremost, [Sally] is a performer -- whether or not she's good is for you to decide," she says. "She loves to perform. That's her whole life, and that was my childhood."
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: June 6-18. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. June 18; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and June 7 and 18; 3 p.m. June 11