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I used to have an inner debate with myself. Am I in denial about my disease? Or am I just an optimist? I now believe I'm an optimist. Miracles can happen!

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in TheaterWeek, 1995


A Winning Actress Plays a Spirited Role
After a fight for her life, Laurie Beechman is ready to make her overdue debut in Philadelphia

Laurie Beechman, who stars as the singing narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, stands spotlighted at midstage, her head bent over a fat paperback- Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar.

The scene is last Tuesday's technical run-through of the musical, which opens tomorrow at the Walnut Street Theater for a five-week run. the run-through involves coordinating the cues for the production- light cues, sound cues, curtain cues, scene changes.

Beechman wears jeans, a black leather jacket and high-heeled lace-up boots that make her look taller than her 5 feet, 31/2 inches. Her black hair is short, accentuating her gamin air. She makes her entrance for the third- or is it the fourth?- time.

Director Charles Abbott stops the piano music yet again. He asks someone to please bring down the curtain quicker, then worksout some other stage business. Beechman has nothing to do but stand there. So she reads.

Laurie Beechman doesn't like to waste time. She wasted enough of it this year- but of that, more later.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice pop-opera version of the Old Testament story of Joseph, son of Jacob. Sal Viviano plays Joseph, who managed to survive and triumph after his envious brothers sold him into servitude.

The show had its beginnings in London, in 1968, as a short musical for children. Beechman played the narrator's role in the expanded Off-Broadway and Broadway versions in the early 80's, and received a Theater World Award, along with nominations for Tony and Drama Desk awards, for her performance.

The show at the Walnut is yet another version, says Abbott, who's directing his fifth musical at the Walnut. It's infulenced by MTV and rock videos, he explains: "I wanted to do a Joseph for the 90's. It's very different from the original [Broadway version], which was more Godspell-ian. There's less innocence and more specificity, more detail- we've added five dance sequences.

When Beechman makes her entrance tomorrow night, she'll chalk up a couple of firsts. One is her Philadelphia debut, which might be considered overdue. She was born and brought up in Westmont. Her father, Gene, was the owner of the old Gino's restaurant on Walnut Street; her mother, Dolly beechman Schnall, still lives here. (Beechman's parents divorced when she was 11 and her mother married Natahn Schnall, a gynecologist and obstetrition.) So do her two sisters, Claudia and Jane, and their families.

But Beechman, although she came close a couple of times, has never performed here- at least not in a show. Back in 1980, she made a rock-and-roll album, Laurie and the Sighs, and promoted it in a one-night stand at the Bijou. the record, she admits cheerfully, was a flop.

After that came a job as an offstage voice in the Broadway chorus of The Pirates of Penzance- somehting of a comedown from her first big Broadway role (or, rather, five roles, including the prophetic "Star to Be") in the original Annie in 1977. but then things picked up.

Way up. First there was Joseph, and all kinds of critical acclaim- composer Lloyd Webber called her the show's "great discovery." Then there was a 4 1/2- year run on Broadway in Lloyd Webber's Cats as the faded glamour-cat, Grizabella, singing "Memory." She appeared a half dozen times on TV's Merv Griffin Show. She sang on TV and radio, in concerts and cabarets.

Last year, she played the leading lady in the Tom Eyen/ Henry Krieger musical. Dangerous Music, at Burt Reynolds' Jupiter Theater in Jupiter, Fla. After that, she was tabbed to replace Ann Crumb in the role of Fantine with the national touring company of Les Miserables that was then playing at the Forrest Theater here.

That would have been her Philadelphia debut. She began rehearsing for it but fell ill, although a regular checkup in September had found nothing wrong.

"I thought maybe I had a stomach problem," she recalls during a break. "So I had a CAT scan, and it showed something that was not a good thing."

It showed cancer.

For the next seven months, she went through chemotherapy. Having cancer at any age- she's 35- is no fun. "You're thrust into a whole different kind of reality." Beechman says. "You have to fight for your life and you hope you can beat the thing, and it becomes a part of your life."

She did a lot of reading- among other things, Kirk Douglas' memoirs, The Ragman's Son; two novels by Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth; F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, and Elia Kazan's autobiography, A Life. She was still going through chemotherapy when the Walnut offered her the chance to reprise her role on Joseph.

She wasn't sure she was ready for it, and she and her mother talked things over. Her mother- an actress (she appeared a few years ago in the detective romp Shear Madness) and playwright (Sojourner, with Pat Sternberg)- encouraged her to take the role.

"The theater is her life and I thought a return to work would be a healthy and wonderful thing," Dolly Schnall says. In addition, this first appearance in a show since her illness would be a chance for Beechman to finally play Philadelphia, a chance for her four nephews to see her perform and-not least- a chance for the family to be together for the Thanksgiving holidays for the first time in maybe a dozen years.

Her family is very important to Laurie Beechman. "I couldn't express to you adequately how unbelievably supportive and caring they are," she says. "I'm very lucky."

The prognosis for her health is good. She seems to have beaten "the thing," although she says she's reluctant to talk about it "because it hasn't even been a year and I don't want to press my luck."

And she loves the show. "It's about the triumph of the human spirit, right?" she says.

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