- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

NEW YORK — Sara Ramirez sure doesn’t look like a criminal.Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt and with her hair swept up in a pony tail, the 29-year-old actress and singer resembles more a laid-back beauty contestant than a woman capable of theft.

However, according to the buzz around “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” Miss Ramirez has not just stolen the show from David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry and Hank Azaria, what she has done is grand larceny.

No, no. Miss Ramirez insists she’s not guilty.

“I’m kind of like the filler in between the Monty Python bits,” she says in her small Shubert Theatre dressing room, still piled with moving boxes. “I’m just sort of filling in the gaps.”

Never has mere filler been so praised.

Reviewers have left the theater drooling over Miss Ramirez: “Smashing,” the New York Daily News cheered, while the New York Times hailed her as “a toothsome devourer of scenery” who “knows how to send up vintage performance styles until they go into orbit.” For its part, Associated Press called Miss Ramirez “a voluptuous, vocally powerful siren” who “seems to be channeling Liza Minnelli by way of Cher.” Of course, there’s talk about a Tony nod.

Miss Ramirez just laughs at such award predictions.

“It’s almost like talking about a wedding: I don’t know if I’m going to get married,” she says, “but if it happens one day, great. And if not, life will go on.”

Miss Ramirez, after all, has been in the vortex of hype before. Her Broadway debut came in 1998 with a part in “The Capeman,” Paul Simon’s $11 million musical, which closed after just 68 performances.

This time, Miss Ramirez’s role as the Lady of the Lake is pure goofball, a part substantially enhanced from the character in the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” from which the show is “lovingly ripped off.”

As envisioned by Python veteran Eric Idle, who also co-wrote the music with John Du Prez, Miss Ramirez’s character has morphed from a strange woman lying in ponds to the love interest of King Arthur.

One of her big numbers is “The Song That Goes Like This” — a gorgeous parody of a saccharine Andrew Lloyd Webber ballad from “Phantom of the Opera” — that she shares with Christopher Sieber, complete with oversize chandelier.

“It’s very cool to see somebody on the verge of quite possibly being one of the biggest Broadway stars in history. After the critics and the audiences see her, she’s going to explode,” Mr. Sieber says.

“People are going to be knocking on her door left and right. She’s going to be the next biggest, bona fide, huge Broadway smash star that everybody is going to want for every show they ever produce.”

In the musical’s second half, Miss Ramirez returns for another star turn, this time with “The Diva’s Lament,” in which she loudly complains about her diminished stage role. “What happened to my part?” she sings plaintively.

“I have a very fun, silly job,” Miss Ramirez says. “People would kill to be doing this.”

Born in Mexico and brought to San Diego by her Mexican-American mother after her parents divorced, Miss Ramirez won her role in “The Capeman” before graduating from the Juilliard School’s drama department.

She followed with two more short-lived Broadway shows — “A Class Act” and “The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm.” Her TV credits include “NYPD Blue,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Third Watch,” “Spin City” and “As the World Turns.”

After her agent called her in Los Angeles about a potential role in “Spamalot,” Miss Ramirez’s friends were shocked to learn that she hadn’t actually ever seen a Monty Python skit. They arranged an intervention, plundering a local Blockbuster for available tapes.

“When I was watching it, I lost almost all sense of reality,” she says.

Miss Ramirez easily connected to the utter zaniness of the British comedy troupe, crediting her father’s love of Far Side cartoons and her stepdad’s fondness for Spanish-language sketch shows.

“When I think of it now, there was a foundation of silliness,” she says.

Even so, the roars that greeted Miss Ramirez and the rest of the company when the show premiered in Chicago earlier this year were stunning — those and the eager folks who showed up dressed as medieval knights.

“I think that’s when I realized just how big Monty Python is,” she says. “I knew it intellectually, but that’s when I got it. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, there are people out there who cannot wait for their bit to come up.’ ”

One of the added benefits of the show hangs in her dressing room: Long, clingy, low-cut gowns and several bustiers that enhance her curves. “The way they make me look is just crazy,” she says. “I’m thinking, ‘If I ever have to go to a party, I’ve got to work something out.’”

While her acting and comic timing are being cheered, it’s her singing that shines in “Spamalot.” Her voice doesn’t wash over you but smacks you in the solar plexus when uncoiled, demanding attention.

Having never formally trained her voice, Miss Ramirez chalks it up to genetics. “It’s not something I worked at growing up,” she says. It was just there. “My shows never lasted long enough for me to need a vocal coach.”

That voice might one day be heard beyond New York stages. Besides contributing to the cast album, Miss Ramirez hopes to release a CD of her own — but it won’t be typical.

“I don’t want to do the whole ‘I was just in a Broadway musical, and here’s my pop-rock album, everybody,’ ” she says. “I’d be more inclined to do an album that makes fun of that.”

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