b. 19 July 1957, Hampton, Virginia, USA. An actress and singer who came to prominence in stage musicals during the 80s, with a style and voice reminiscent of the much-missed Ethel Merman.
Criswell grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where, so she says, the ‘live’ theatre used to arrive in a bus and stay for just two nights. Her early influences were Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland, and, like them, she started performing from an early age. After graduating from high school, she studied musical theatre at the University of Cincinnatti’s College Conservatory of Music before moving to New York where she gained a featured part in a revival of Annie Get Your Gun. She made her Broadway musical debut in The First (1981), and then appeared in Nine, which was staged by Tommy Tune and had a cast of 21 women and only one male adult. Her other Broadway credits during the 80s included revivals of the Three Musketeers and The Threepenny Opera (re-titled as 3 Penny Opera). In the latter show, Criswell played Lucy, one of the leading roles in a production that was headed by the popular rock singer Sting. She has appeared as the featured soloist with several of America’s leading symphony orchestras, and took part in concert stagings of Jerome Kern’s Sitting Pretty at Carnegie Hall, and George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy at the Lincoln Centre. She won the Helen Hayes award for her performance in Side By Side By Sondheim, and played the role of Grizabella (the feline who sings ‘Memory’) for six months in the Los Angeles production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Between 1989 and 1991 Criswell starred in three London studio recordings of famous Broadway shows, Anything Goes, Kiss Me, Kate, and Annie Get Your Gun, accompanied by a large orchestra directed by John McGlinn. He also conducted the London Sinfonietta when Criswell joined Brent Barrett in Cole Porter And The American Musical at the Royal Festival Hall. In September 1991, she presented her one-woman show, Doin’ What Comes Naturally, at the Shaw Theatre in London, and, just over a year later, co-starred with John Diedrich in a West End revival of Annie Get Your Gun. The show was acclaimed by the critics (‘Criswell is the best Annie we have seen since Dolores Gray’) but it folded after less than two months. In 1993 she appeared in two very different kind of shows in the UK. The first, Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens, was a musical play that purported to tell the real-life stories of 33 individuals who have met their death through AIDS; while the other, a touring nostalgia show, Hollywood And Broadway II, with Bonnie Langford and Wayne Sleep, found her on more familiar ground. Her 1993 record releases were dissimilar, too: The Lorelei contained a mixture of well-known and neglected show tunes, while Human Cry turned out to be a pop album in a contemporary, and sometimes funky style, and the single, ‘Moment Of Weakness’, demonstrated her ability to cross over to the pop scene.
During the remainder of the 90s Criswell starred in musicals such as Dames At Sea (1996, Covent Garden Festival), The Slow Drag (1997, Freedom and Whitehall theatres), Of Thee I Sing (1998, Opera North), and featured prominently in Side By Side... By Cole Porter (1998), a tribute to the famous composer at London’s Palace Theatre, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John McGlinn. She also continued to appear regularly on the concert platform, in cabaret with pianist and musical director Wayne Marshall, as well as recording a number of studio cast albums, including Simon Rattle’s setting of Wonderful Town.