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My life has been so unbelievably blessed in spite of everything and maybe because of it. I got married after two bouts of cancer. I have this whole different life and a career. I'm really like everybody else.

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in The New York Times, 1994


A Record Career for Laurie Beechman

NEW YORK- Listen to her heart and take the measure of a woman beating life at its own game.

New Jersey native Laurie Beechman is into new musical projects, including an album, "Listen to My Heart."

"I recently took part in the reading of a new musical, I'm preparing a new concert, doing a benefit..." she says.

Not that the performing part was so hard to take: The much-honored Beechman starred in the broadway productions of "Les Miserables," playing Fantine; "Cats," as the grizzled Grizabella, who sings the haunting "Memory" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," giving new meaning, with her larger than life voice, to the term "Bible belter."

Coming home
All of which explains why the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia is singing her praises these days; Beechman is the headliner for the JCC annual benefit concert, Sept. 18, at 6:30pm, at the Hotel Atop the Bellevue.

The performer is no stranger to the importance of a Jewish community center. "when I was growing up," says the former Westmont, N.J., resident, "we used to live in a predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood. So my family and I used to travel a distance to the JCC in Cherry Hill. I went for crafts. My mom (noted actress Dolly Beechman) directed a production of 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' there."

Beechman is popular with the Walnut Street Theatre crowds, where she has appeared in concerts and in a production of George Kelly's "The Show Off." She showed off her musical talents with the Philly Pops and once took the stage of the late, lamented Bijou Cafe in the 1970's.

Not all of Beechman's concerts took place in so formal a setting. She used to sing for her supper during the 1960's, performing at her father Gene's famous Walnut Street restaurant, Gino's.

She has had audiences eating out of her hand all over the country since, with an impressive list of dates including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Ballroom in New York.

But the actress who played the feline ascending to the heavens in "Cats" remains down to earth.

"I'm still a pain in the neck," she says. "That I can't stop."

Surviving ovarian cancer
What doesn't stop either is the lingering memory of what it means to be a cancer survivor. "Things are starting to take on a more normal look," says Beechman, who underwent two bouts with the diseasestarting in 1989, when doctors discovered she had ovarian cancer.

"But the fear never ever disappears."

The love and support of her family, which includes her husband of nearly two years, Neal Mazzella, a Broadway set-construction company impresario, has also remained strong.

Reflecting on her concerns, Beechman notes what she looks for these days. "I look in the mirror and see that I'm not in trouble," says Beechman, adding with a laugh, "I certainly haven't lost weight."

She has gained legions of fans and supporters over the years, not the least of whom are other members of Gilda's Club. Beechman helped found the organization named in honor of actress Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer. It serves as a support group for patients and their families.

Noting again how invaluable a support network her own family is, Beechman is intent on moving on and not letting the illness control her.

"I try not to obsess on it," she says.

She remains focused on the future. There are the concerts and appearances of tomorrow, and the continuing sales of her album, "Listen to My Heart."

What does Laurie Beechman hear when she listens to her own heart? The beat of a talented survivor.

"I hear the happiness of someone who is just glad to be up on stage," she says.

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