For This Tony-Winner, It’s a Dog’s Life

BY DAVID NOH | There is no better demonstration of ace comic timing on the New York stage now than Annaleigh Ashford playing a dog, in the titular role of A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia.” It’s the kind of twee whimsy that rises or falls on the casting of this central role and one almost shudders to think what it would be like without her. Added to her arresting presence are the kind of huge-eyed, waifish adorableness Al Hirschfeld would have killed to caricature and a lovely singing voice which gets a brief chance to glow here on Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

I’ve been a devoted fan of Ashford’s ever since “Kinky Boots.” As a British blue collar working girl, she took a peripheral role and, again using that distinctive, cannily gauged, slightly delayed comic performance rhythm (as original in its way as the technique of Jean Arthur or Judy Holliday), stole the show and was by far the best and freshest thing in it.

Consolidating my adoration of her was her debut act at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below. Cabaret is not as easy as it looks, and I’ve seen talent like Sutton Foster, Megan Hilty, Lena Hall, and Alexander Gemignani be less than brilliant in their attempts at it. But Ashford, clad in an outfit that resembled a glittering silver disco ball, got it down perfectly, slyly paying homage to the club’s infamous past, with the entire performance like the most delicious in-joke, possibly the most purely festive act I had seen since the early, greatest days of Bette Midler live.

She’s returning to 54 for the New Year’s show, and I snatched the chance to chat with this very busy, white-hot star on the skies-the-limit ascendant. I asked her what we could look forward to on New Year’s 2016 and she said, “We are giving you a couple of the favorites from the first time around, but exploring some new material. It wouldn’t be a New Year’s show without looking back on the year, so we will be celebrating some of the highlights of 2015!”

Regarding the “Sylvia” revival, Ashford said that producers “Daryl Roth and Jeffrey Richards are great dog lovers and have wanted to produce this play for quite a while. The stars aligned for it to happen this year, and I was lucky enough to be invited to help tell the story. My dog, Gracie, has served as a great inspiration! And, for my costume, [designer] Ann Roth was so brilliant and generous! She made sure that we found a wonderful organic hybrid of pup and person.

“Julie White and Matthew Broderick make me laugh every night. They are both such wonderful, dynamic, organic actors, so it has been such a joy to work with them. It only works if it’s organic.

“You ask about my timing — where it comes from? It comes from a childhood of watching and appreciating comedy that stemmed from vaudeville like ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

Ashford took home the Tony for her hilarious performance as Essie, the worst — but most instantly lovable — ballerina in the universe in the delightful Roundabout revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.” She described that award evening as “an overwhelming dream come true. For Essie, like every character I create, I started with the clues from the playwright and shaped her with the director. I was so lucky to work with such a brilliant company of actors who took care of me so beautifully. James Earl Jones is everything you want him to be and more. I want to be him when I grow up. I did see the [1938 Frank Capra] film of the play. I love Ann Miller! And I love what she did with Essie in the film.”

Ashford confided that her dream role is “Sweet Charity,” and the mind fairly reels at what comedy and pathos she could mine there, beyond, of course, nailing the singing and dancing. “Lost in the Stars: Live at 54 Below,” her album of her cabaret act was just released, and you can also catch her on the fourth season of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”