Eager Diva

Melissa Errico has a pair of recurring nightmares. Bad dream No. 1: She’s trying desperately to get to the stage, but the distance between her and the proscenium keeps widening. “It’s the most horrible feeling,” says Errico, 27, who stars as the high-born, high-minded Tracy Lord in High Society, the stage version of Cole Porter’s MGM version (starring Grace Kelly) of the movie version (starring Katharine Hepburn) of Philip Barry’s Broadway comedy of manners The Philadelphia Story (also a Hepburn vehicle). Bad dream No. 2: She’s in The Music Man, “a show I don’t know,” she says. “I look at the other actors and look at my dress and try to figure out my character. The conductor is saying the words and I’m singing to the pitches, but I’m late.” Standard actor’s nightmare stuff, except for one thing: “I always pull it off.” Even Errico’s nightmares end well.

“I hate it when people who have a good life don’t recognize it, so I’m not going to be one of those people,” she says over spiced tea and honey one day. “I’ve had a blessed life.” And yet, almost immediately, the Ivy League grad-fetching soprano-elegant dancer-charming actress-gifted gymnast (“I’m trying to get a cartwheel into the show”) starts sounding uncannily like one of those people she doesn’t much care for: “Being a young girl in the business, I had a sort of Lolita image, and I was mistreated.” How so? “At theater camp, the counselors called me jailbait. I’ve had to fight to keep my joy alive,” says Errico, who got her first break at 18, playing Cosette in a touring company of Les Misérables. “This is a naturally happy child, and in a weird way, that’s a burden because this is not really a world that nurtures that.”

Errico, who has a long (“five foot eight”), lean, flexible body – attributes she mentions just about as frequently as she does the Yale degree, the sterling academic record, the packed schedule, the father who’s an orthopedic surgeon – is Broadway’s babe of the moment. She’s collected an unbroken string of critics’ valentines ever since she played Liza Doolittle in a 1993 revival of My Fair Lady that required her to hold her own opposite the scenery-chewing Henry Higgins of Richard Chamberlain. Later, she was singled out for praise in revivals of The Importance of Being Earnest and Major Barbara, and for her turn as the goddess of love in the 1996 “Encores!” series concert staging of One Touch of Venus at City Center.

Though Kelly’s colleagues Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra did most of the singing in the movie, Errico gets the lion’s share of tunes in the new show, which has been beefed up with added Porter standards to showcase the star. Smart move: During a tryout last summer in San Francisco, the critics were mixed about the show but very high on Errico. Now in previews before an April 27 opening at the St. James, the production is still being arduously doctored – and Errico’s performance continues to generate the musical’s most positive buzz.

Okay, so hers is a résumé guaranteed to annoy some people. “Some people? Many people,” corrects Errico. “Oh, sweetheart, that’s the thing. You get to a certain place, and so many people just want to put ice under your feet so you’ll slip. But there are a million things I can’t do. I can’t do higher math. I can’t play an instrument well. I haven’t held up my Italian. I never find time to floss.”

Maybe it’s her ineffable earnestness or clean prettiness, but as a leading-lady-in-waiting, Errico seems less of this era than a throwback to Broadway’s Golden Age (or the pretentiously intellectualizing character Hepburn played in Stage Door).

“In our culture, popularity is mistaken for the acquisition of skill,” says Errico, best known to the non-theatergoing public for her role as a tabloid reporter in the flop CBS series Central Park West. “Gaining your craft is not gaining the recognition of the waiter. That’s not actually my goal.” Here’s her goal – a life in the theater: “I want to be like the Jodie Foster of Broadway. I don’t need a million people to know who I am, just the theatergoing public. I know what I do well: that sensuous, mischievous soprano singing.” Or, as cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran puts it, “Melissa doesn’t have that icky Broadway bray.”

Even so, “a lot of Broadway casting directors told me, ‘Honey, you’ve got to get a big movie so we can really do something with you,’ “ says Errico. “That makes me so mad. My body, my age, my voice, we’re ready to dance and sing. With these skills, I’d be an asset to this city or this business.”

Errico’s devotion to hard work is endearing; her devotion to herself is equally unstinting. For the past twelve years, she has documented her life on a daily basis, in a series of diaries piled high in a closet. “And in the middle of everything else,” she announces one night, “I’m planning an engagement party.”

“You’re getting married?”

Errico is a bit indignant. “Don’t you read the papers? Didn’t you see Liz Smith this morning?” (In case you missed the news, she’s engaged to John McEnroe’s brother Patrick, a pro tennis player turned CBS sports commentator.)

Her career-building extends to cyberspace, where she has just established a Website that includes a “professional biography,” a photo gallery (see Melissa shaking hands with President Clinton), and a section labeled MELISSA’S PERSONALITY.

“It’s no accident,” says an actress who has worked with her, “that Melissa’s initials are M.E.”

Growing up in Manhasset, the second of three children, Errico trained in gymnastics and ballet, but as an adolescent, she became stagestruck – an event the art-history major likens to that in the Caravaggio painting The Conversion of St. Paul. “He’s in a barn with a horse and he’s filled with light, and at 12, I got hit by the white light. I kind of identify with Tara Lipinski, ’cause I know what it’s like to be that little and say, ‘I’m going to be a star.’ “ Her fiancé, she says, wants to help her get to the top. As for Errico’s famous future brother-in-law: “I know John will get jazzed when he sees me onstage, but he doesn’t know anything about musical theater. He’s seen stories, and he says, ‘You’re really, like … what do you do again?’ ”

In Manhasset, on the other hand, everyone knows what Melissa does, and there’s a hot market in tickets for High Society. Each hospital with which Dr. Errico is affiliated – Long Island Jewish, North Shore, Lenox Hill, and New York – has bought a night. “If somebody asks, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ “ Melissa chirps, “everyone is going to raise his hand.”

Eager Diva