The last time we saw actress Connie Manfredi onstage, she was portraying the diminutive, African-American child star Gary Coleman singing the generational lament It Sucks to be Me in a local production of the puppet musical Avenue Q.
Things have picked up since then for Manfredi, who is making her professional debut in the contemporary musical comedy Ordinary Days, the Winnipeg Studio Theatre production opening Wednesday. And even more heartening is that she is getting to play a role that bears some resemblance to her life as a recent University of Winnipeg graduate.
"It's the first time I've been cast in a role that I could actually play, not like parts where I am some woman's mother, a randy devil or Gary Coleman," says Manfredi, sporting a frumpy green sweater over a grey Kurt Cobain T-shirt and green pants. "In Ordinary Days, I'm playing a mid-20s university student who doesn't know what her life is about, which is where I am right now."
It's such a perfect fit that when her costume designer Scott Penner arrived from Toronto with her stage clothes, they were essentially identical to what she was wearing that day. To dress as Deb -- she's the high-strung student in the Adam Gwon musical who loses the notes to her graduate thesis and unwittingly starts a chain of events that turns the ordinary days of four New Yorkers into something extraordinary -- she could just pull a few things out of her own closet.
Manfredi is the only Winnipegger in the show's acting quartet and she feels both ecstatic and perplexed at being given this break. She sits in the theatre lobby during a recent interview, a vivacious presence fussing with her mass of dark brown curls while trying to explain why she's not worthy.
"Well, I'm nobody," says Manfredi, who is 24 but tells people she's 23, which she wants to be until she's 30. "I think it was a very big risk for them to cast me. There is no actual reason I have the role. There are reasons but there are so many people more qualified."
Self-deprecation is a natural defence mechanism for rookie actors too used to rejection from casting directors. When they suddenly do win the part, they can appear to be the proverbial deer in the headlights.
"It's the biggest part I've ever had," she says. "I feel a lot of things about it like fear, uh fear, excitement, fear again."
The director of the Canadian première of Ordinary Days is Kayla Gordon, who taught Manfredi musical theatre at U of W and cast her in the 2010 fringe festival hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, as well as in a supporting role in Spring Awakening a year ago.
"This a huge jump for her," says Gordon, the artistic director of WST. "I guess I took a chance on her but I knew what I could get out of her. She is fresh and funny and she's not afraid to put herself out there."
Gordon says Manfredi's comic chops remind her of ex-Saturday Night Live icons Tina Fey and Gilda Radner. It will please Manfredi to have her name spoken in the same sentence as any SNL player -- she just wishes it was Maya Rudolph.
The Glenlawn Collegiate grad once tweeted, "I'm a poor man's Maya Rudolph." It's become her comedy mantra.
"I'm obsessed with her," says Manfredi, holding her SNL travel mug (she's currently reading Live From New York: An Oral History of Saturday Night Live). "I have loved her for as long as I've known who she was. People tell me, through my own coaxing and wanting to hear it, that I remind them of her. I take that and try way too hard to be like her so they don't take that statement back. So if you can't get Maya Rudolph, I'm the much crappier version of her."
Her ultimate fantasy would be get a gig on SNL, but until that happens she will be satisfied just to be working anywhere -- she points outside to the corner of Rupert and Lily -- until the day Lorne Michaels calls. She sees how hard it is for talented classmates to find work, which is why she is a founding member of District Theatre Collective, which debuted with Avenue Q last February.
Her confidence that there is a future for her in theatre spikes when she hears about a classmate landing a part at Rainbow Stage or that her friend Samantha Hill is off to Broadway.
"Every friend that takes that next step makes it more possible for me," she says.
Winnipeg Studio Theatre
Opens Wednesday at Tom Hendry Theatre Warehouse, to Nov. 25
Tickets: $26-$34 at 204-942-6537