“I still can’t believe it,” Florrie Bagel, 24, says from Las Vegas, “Sister Act’s” last stop before D.C.
Where might you have seen her? At Walter Johnson High School, playing Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” At Arlington’s Signature Theatre, where she got a part as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters in “Into the Woods” while she was still in high school. Singing “I Come From the Land of Betrayal” in last year’s concert version of the rock musical “Two Gentlemen of Verona” with the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
For the past year, she has been on the road with “Sister Act.” That Hollywood title was never anyone’s idea of a particularly accomplished movie (in 1992) or musical (it lasted nearly a year and a half on Broadway in 2011-12). But it has reliably attracted audiences ever since Whoopi Goldberg first played Deloris Van Cartier, a worldly nightclub singer who hides out with nuns after she witnesses her mobster boyfriend whacking someone.
The movie was set in the 1990s; the musical takes place in the 1970s, with a score by Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Little Mermaid”) that puts rhythm, blues and Philadelphia soul into a Broadway-ready package. Kathy Najimy played Mary Patrick in the movie. Bagel sings the part now.
“She can do the legit chorale music early in show and then belt with the best with them,” says Christopher Youstra, director of musical theater at the Olney Theatre Center.
Bagel has done several projects with Youstra: “Peter Pan” at Olney, “Jerry Springer: The Opera” at the Studio Theatre, “Nobody’s Perfect” with the Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences. “Nobody’s Perfect,” adapted from a book by Marlee Matlin, included a rapid passage in which Bagel and other cast members rapped while using American Sign Language.
“Singing and rapping and doing ASL is one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen an actor do,” Youstra says.
Kim Peter Kovac speaks affectionately of Bagel’s 2007 appearance with the Young Audiences production of “Nobody’s Perfect” and then her time with the 2010 national tour of the show. As with “Sister Act,” Bagel took a supporting role and made it shine.
“What was so special is that I don’t know if deep down she knows how good she is,” says Kovac, who heads the Young Audiences program. “Back then she certainly didn’t.”
Bagel has been stage-struck since she saw a local production of “Annie” when she was 5. She went home and played all the parts in her basement, learning that it was actually more fun to be the flamboyant Miss Hannigan than the steady Annie.
Two years later she auditioned to be in a summertime kids’ production of the show. She slipped during a dance routine and broke her wrist, but before she was carted to the emergency room, the casting pooh-bahs asked her to sing.
“I had a cold Coke can on my hand, and I sang ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,’ ” Bagel says. “I think I was crying a little bit.” (She got a part in the show.)
During her sophomore year, Bagel attended Overtures, a program of master classes and scene workshops run by Signature at the Kennedy Center. It was there that Bagel ran into Jane Pesci-Townsend, the admired performer and teacher who played the wicked Miss Hannigan in the “Annie” that Bagel saw when she was 5.
“There’s a kind of perform-y quality that I didn’t know I had, that was a little inauthentic,” Bagel says. Pesci-Townsend was among a group of teachers who would point out when Bagel was doing obvious things such as furrowing her brows to indicate sadness. Bagel reckons, “I think I was afraid to let go a little bit.”
She adds that she was 60 pounds heavier then and says frankly: “There was a lot of pain in that, really. I think that was holding me back, too.” Pesci-Townsend, who died in 2010 at age 51, was inspiring: “She was a fabulous, big personality and a voluptuous woman. She was a mentor. I thought, if she can do it, I can. She was so strong and encouraging to me.”
Youstra once saw Pesci-Townsend perform the John Kander-Fred Ebb song “Ring Them Bells,” and he found similarities when he heard Bagel deliver the number years later.
“She had the same big, versatile voice and comic timing Jane had,” Youstra says. “And she could also be very sincere, very heartfelt.”
Jobs that Bagel got while she was still a teen included that 2007 “Godspell” at Olney, where director Eve Muson recalls that “we were really floored” to learn how young Bagel was.
“She just seemed like such a natural performer,” Muson says. “She was so natural in the way she sang and in the way she talked to us.”
Bagel knew a four-year college wasn’t what she wanted — “I’m happy that I don’t have loans,” she says now — and local stage work soon included a praised turn in the non-musical “Speech and Debate” that Muson directed at Rep Stage. That was two years ago. By then, Bagel had moved to New York, making ends meet with “survival jobs” (a Chelsea coffee shop is a favorite).
“Auditioning there requires a good mind-set,” says Bagel, whose pluck led her to try out for “Sister Act” several times. She even auditioned for “Motown,” knowing it was a long shot but figuring there was little to lose.
“I go in, tell my story, be myself,” she says. “And even if I’m not right for the part, maybe they’ll remember me and think of me for something else.”
Doing eight shows a week on tour — something Bagel suggests is a reality show just waiting to be filmed — has been an unmatchable education, helping her develop discipline that’s impossible to replicate in school.
“I’ve never been with a character this long,” Bagel says. “Consistency is a huge thing. I’m able to give a very consistent performance in different theaters, with different cast members, different audiences. It’s been a huge learning experience.”
Her advice for high-schoolers with Broadway stars in their eyes: “Work hard, but don’t be too hard on yourself. And be a genuine, nice person. . . . This business can be judgmental and very competitive. You can be one of five women, 5 feet 9 inches tall with brown hair, but if they want you, they want you.”
And after “Sister Act”?
“The only thing I know is that I want to put together my own little show,” says Bagel, whose musical tastes range from 1960s-70s folk and rock to the jazz and blues of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. “An audition could come around in two weeks that could change everything. It’s very much the land of the unknown. But I’m loving where I’m at right now. The unknown is very scary, for sure. But I’m up for it.”
Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater. Tuesday through Nov. 10 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.