If you know Diana DeGarmo only from her “American Idol” days, you haven’t been paying attention. In the past five years, she’s jumped head first into theater, working on Broadway, off-Broadway and all across the country.

She’s grown a bit, too. She’s 23 now, has her own place in Nashville where she works as a songwriter and is happy to ride the musical theater train for as long as it will carry her. Ideally, she says, she’d spend half her year doing theater and half writing songs.

DeGarmo’s stage career may have been predestined. As a teenager chasing “Idol” success at a cattle-call audition she sang, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” A show tune. From Dreamgirls.

DeGarmo’s role in 9 to 5 brings her full circle. She’s back at the Fox Theatre, where she did both Annie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as a child, and she’s closer to Snellville, where her mom still lives and where her career was launched.

She began getting serious about theater when she was 17 or 18 and had just left her post-“Idol” record label. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do or who she wanted to be, she says. Then came a call from the American Musical Theatre of San Jose, asking her to audition for Maria in West Side Story. DeGarmo, typically self-effacing, says she had no idea what she was doing. But she got the role and her Actors’ Equity card, an all-important pass that brands her as a professional theater artist. That was in November 2005.

“Once I did that,” she says, “my name got tossed into the musical theater pool.” An ethos of “let’s go with the flow and see what happens” has led to role after role after role.

She did two stints in the Broadway revival of Hair and played gal pal Penny Pingleton in Hairspray. Off–Broadway, she played Sarah, the sexy, blind librarian, in the cult favorite Toxic Avenger. On the road, she performed the title role in Brooklyn: The Musical; played the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; and did Dorothy in Oz, the Musical, a contemporary take on The Wizard of Oz. She’s also done revues and workshops and sang at Carnegie Hall in 2007 at a Neil Sedaka tribute.

Because DeGarmo has largely been cast as a replacement, critics haven’t often reviewed her work. But Toxic Avenger fans were quick to comment online. “Diana DeGarmo is a comic gem who can also bring down the house with her singing voice,” said one. “The star of the show on all levels is Diana DeGarmo,” said another. “What a revelation she is! I never saw her in Hairspray and now I wish I had. She’s very funny and sings everybody else right off the stage.”

DeGarmo first encountered Doralee Rhodes, her 9 to 5 character, in the 1980 movie. She saw the Broadway production just before it closed in September 2009.

“I waited outside and got all of [the cast’s] autographs,” she recalls with the fervor of a serious fan. “I actually went because I am a huge Dolly Parton fan. Who would have thought that a year later I’d be playing the role she made famous?”

DeGarmo was so excited to get the job that she leaked her casting via Twitter before producers could make an official announcement.

The challenge of playing Doralee, she says, is to avoid making her a caricature. Doralee is, essentially, Dolly Parton, “but you could go too far with that. You have to remember that Doralee has a heart and everything comes from that place. She’s a real person.”

As is DeGarmo. She’s funny, raucous, open, honest, enthusiastic, realistic and optimistic. She’s been talking to potential collaborators about writing a country musical and adds, “I think the challenge is great, and I’m up for it.”

Doralee, she says, may be the first step in blending her writing and performing passions.

Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre.

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