NEW YORK JoAnne Worley swirls into Angus McIndoe’s, the Broadway theater hangout, notices a crooked painting on the wall, straightens it and then settles into a back corner table for a light bite.
But then Worley is a take-charge kind of gal, even more so on stage where her raucous comedy style is currently earning cheers in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the hit musical at the Marquis Theatre.
As Casey Nicholaw, the director of “Drowsy,” puts it, “She just sort of knocks you over the head with it. There are no apologies at all: `This is what I am, this is what I do and love me.’ ” And audiences do.
“For me, the show is a joyous ride,” said Worley, describing the musical in which she plays the ditsy dowager, Mrs. Tottendale, a woman who knows how to wear a tiara and swing her pearls (a Worley specialty). “It’s so beautifully constructed that doing eight shows a week is a pleasure and energizing.”
Energy is what the actress is all about this quiet summer morning before the lunch crowd has started to drift into the restaurant.
It doesn’t take long before Worley, dressed stylishly in a black, vaguely Mandarin-looking outfit and gold earrings, bursts into song. It’s a little ditty she wrote for “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” that legendary, late 1960s TV hit that showcased her unique comedic talents.
“I’m loud, I’m loud, I’m proud that I’m loud,” she sang. “People can hear me when I’m in a crowd. Those soft-spoken, shy folk would never be my folk ‘cause I am a folk who is loud.” She holds the last “loud” for full sonic effect.
“Thank God, we’re in here alone,” she said with a laugh before digging enthusiastically into a salmon salad. The impromptu warbling demonstrates Worley’s sure way with a revue song.
The Indiana-born performer got much of her early show-biz education in Los Angeles with the fabled Billy Barnes, a master at creating revues. She worked with Barnes in California and came to New York in 1961 with “Billy Barnes People,” a short-lived Broadway edition of one of his shows.
“When I first started, I was so dumb, but I did know how to make people laugh,” Worley said. “All I know is I learned early on that I could do that, and it was a wonderful thing.”
She remembers once, as a child, standing with a church choir in front of the congregation and chewing gum, pulling the gum out in a long string and then slowly nibbling it back into her mouth. “I got a wonderful laugh and in church,” she said. “Do you know how seductive that is?”
One of Worley’s first New York theater gigs was standing by for Carol Channing in the original production of “Hello, Dolly!” But Channing, famous for never missing a performance, told her, “JoAnne, you will never have to go on.” And she didn’t. “I knew to trust Carol,” Worley said. “I knew she was telling me the truth.” But Worley didn’t mind the inaction. At the time, she also was working with the fabled improv group, Second City, “so it was nice to get two paychecks.”
It was Nicholaw who got Worley to come back to New York from California for more than just a short stay. Earlier this year, he cast her in a City Center “Encores!” concert version of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical, “Follies.” In it, she belted the big production number, “Who’s That Woman?”
“JoAnne is someone I’ve always wanted to work with,” Nicholaw said, recalling that he was first blown away by her performance in a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” in Los Angeles.
“When I got `Follies,’ I said, “I don’t know what part yet, but she has to be in the show,’ ” Nicholaw said. “I’ve always known how talented she is. Everyone just thinks of her from `Laugh-In’ and that she only does that persona although we let her do a lot of it in `The Drowsy Chaperone’ because that’s the kind of show it is.”