Since making her Broadway debut as Urleen in Footloose, young singer-actress Jenn Gambatese has been a consistent presence on Broadway. She created the role of Brenda in the original Broadway cast of the Tony-winning musical Hairspray before movin' on up to replace Kerry Butler as Tracy Turnblad sidekick Penny Pingleton. During her Hairspray run, Gambatese also made a brief departure to star in the short-lived, kid-friendly musical A Year with Frog and Toad. And, now, she's back on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, playing two roles (Natalie and Ed) in the hit new musical All Shook Up, which employs the songs of Elvis Presley to tell a charming tale about a female mechanic (Gambatese) and the guitar-playing roustabout (Cheyenne Jackson) who shakes up her life as well as all the lives of her fellow townsfolk. I recently had the chance to chat with the talented performer; that brief interview follows.
Question: Let's start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Jenn Gambatese: I was born and raised in Cleveland, OH — actually in Richmond Heights, OH, which is a suburb. I was there through high school and then came to New York to go to NYU.
Q: When did you start performing?
Gambatese: I started performing in community theatre and at my mom's church, probably back when I was six.
Q: Did you perform in shows all through high school?
Gambatese: Yeah, I did. I was the president of the Drama Club. [Laughs.] We performed in a middle-school gymnasium, so it wasn't an illustrious beginning! Q: What were some of the shows you did back then?
Gambatese: We did Our Town, My Fair Lady. It was actually a big deal when we did My Fair Lady because my school was really small, and we hadn't done a musical in years and years. I was like, "We have to!" We also did The Outsiders.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to make performing your career?
Gambatese: I remember a moment when we were doing the production of Our Town. I played Emily, and I remember afterwards, my mom's good friends had been in the audience, and they came to say "good job," and they were still crying. They were still so moved, affected by the show, and it was almost like they couldn't look at me as Jenny — I was Jenny back then [laughs] — and I thought, "Gee, they know me, and I still had this effect on them, so maybe I could really do this."
Q: Was there anyone you admired at that time — any theatre role models?
Gambatese: I have to say I wasn't one of the theatre kids, but I did come to New York. My cousins at the time were living in New Jersey — I think I was in middle school — and I saw City of Angels. It was my first Broadway show, and Dee Hoty was in it, and I came to learn that she was from Cleveland. And I thought, "Wow, well she did it." And, then, my first Broadway show that I was in was Footloose, and it was with Dee Hoty. And I was like, "That's so cool!" [Laughs.]
Q: Skipping ahead a bit, how did you get involved with All Shook Up?
Gambatese: I was doing Hairspray. I was playing Penny, and a bunch of my friends had gone in for [All Shook Up], and they kept saying to me, "Have you been seen for this yet?" I said, "No, maybe I'll get an appointment if they're interested." I was locked in at Hairspray, so I didn't really think too much about it. And then my agents did call, and I went in for the appointment. This was for the smaller production that we did for Goodspeed Opera House last spring. So, sure enough, I had an audition. And then I was on vacation, and they said, "Can you come back [to audition for] everybody?" I couldn't come back when they wanted me to, so I came back when my flight was scheduled and wound up auditioning with the boys, which I thought was funny since I wound up playing Ed. And then they offered it to me, and the people at Hairspray were really nice and let me out of my contract early.
Q: Did you know Elvis Presley's music before the show?
Gambatese: I was probably most familiar with the big hits, "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog." But through this process I've definitely become well versed in my Elvis. [Laughs.]
Q: You played at Goodspeed opposite Manley Pope and now on Broadway opposite Cheyenne Jackson. Did you ever get to work with Jarrod Emick [who was originally announced to open All Shook Up]?
Gambatese: I didn't. I was at a final audition with him. We did a photo shoot, I think. [Laughs.]
Q: Tell me a little bit about working with the two All Shook Up leading men you have worked with.
Gambatese: Oh, they're both so wonderful, and they're both really different. Manley was so funny, and Cheyenne — I really think in Cheyenne's case it was a matter of fate. He was this huge Elvis fan, and all growing up people told him he looked like Elvis. His family always listened to Elvis. And, then he was going to be the understudy for Jarrod, so the way it all happened, I think this was meant for Cheyenne.
Q: Are you all enjoying working together?
Gambatese: Oh, so much. It's a really fun show. We have a great time on stage and off, and I'm very lucky. I've been so lucky with all my leading men over the years — good guys.
Q: How has your character changed from Goodspeed to Broadway?
Gambatese: I would say I'm definitely much more comfortable in my Ed skin. Initially, up at Goodspeed, it was really challenging just to get my voice to drop down. It's so funny because I think [my voice is] so low now, and when we recorded the album, I [heard] my Ed voice, and I'm like, "It's not really that low." [Laughs.] But it's much lower than it was Connecticut, because I was coming off of playing Penny [in Hairspray], and she's so up there in the stratosphere. Definitely, I think that has become easier.
Q: Who's more fun to play, Natalie or Ed?
Gambatese: Ed, definitely. [Laughs.] The thing of it is actually — and this is something I really discovered when we came back from [the out of-town tryout in] Chicago — there's a lot of Ed in Natalie already. I knew that she's this mechanic, she's this tomboy. But I had this realization [that] when Natalie gets the idea and becomes Ed, in a strange way that's more comfortable. Being in Ed's drag is more comfortable [for Natalie] than being in a dress. That feels more like drag for Natalie. [Laughs.]
Q: You talked a little about Hairspray. What was your experience like in that show?
Gambatese: Hairspray was quite a journey for me because I actually did the very first reading of it back in spring 2000, and I was in Footloose at the time. And then we did a reading every six months for two years. Then we went to Seattle, and I was so thrilled to be a part of it. I made some amazing friends through that process. I think every show I've done, the best gift is always the friends and the relationships that come out of it, and that's especially true of Hairspray. And they were so good to me.
I wound up leaving to do Frog and Toad because I really loved that show and believed in it. And, it was a risk to leave the biggest hit on Broadway. But it was one I knew I needed to take and wanted to take. Then we opened Frog and Toad, and sadly it closed pretty soon after. Then Kerry Butler had been cast as Audrey in Little Shop, so they were reauditioning. I'd never gone on for her. She's so solid — I covered her for nine months, and I never went on. [Laughs.] So I said, "Of course, I'll reaudition. You never saw me do [the role]." That was just terribly exciting and big shoes, big saddle shoes, to fill! I got to go back and do the part I understudied. And then I left to do Goodspeed, and then it wound up that they asked me to come back anyway. They've been very good to me. I guess I learned so much through that whole experience, being in an ensemble, and understudying, then taking over the role. I learned a lot about myself and the business.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Gambatese: Not at the moment. We pretty [much have] tunnel vision promoting the show, and I'm so happy about it. It looks like we're going to get a nice run. And the audiences are loving it, and I'm having a blast! So, right now I'm just enjoying myself and working very hard.
Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
Gambatese: I'm definitely there through November, because it's a year contract from when we first started. But I could see myself doing this [role] for a good long while. I'm still finding tons of new things, and it's just a fun show!
[All Shook Up plays the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway; call (212) 307-4100 for tickets.]
ROSIE O'DONNELL'S SUMMER CRUISE
A host of Broadway talent, including many of this column's favorite performers, has been assembled for the second voyage of R Family Vacations this summer.
Founded by Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell and Gregg Kaminsky, the upcoming seven-day cruise will depart from New York City on July 10 with ports of call to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Provincetown, Boston and Martha's Vineyard. All are welcome on the cruise: singles, couples, families, gay, straight and in between.
Co-founder Kelli O'Donnell spoke to me earlier this week about the genesis of R Family Vacations, which launched in summer 2004. "Gregg used to work for Atlantis Vacations, which offers the same sort of [cruise], except it does it for all gay men. He had done about 30 charter trips for them, and at the last minute, he had a cancellation on his talent, and he called Ro and said, 'Do you know anybody who'd be interested?' And she said, 'Well, what about me?' So, she went on his trip and performed and thought it was an amazing idea. We all talked and opted to start one for gay families."
About last year's maiden voyage, Kelli said, "It really was the magic of all different kinds of people coming together. I loved the fact that it was both men and women. I liked that people brought their extended friends and family. Probably ten to fifteen percent of our ship were straight friends and family. I like that everyone is accepted — you don't have to have kids to come on board, [but] you can have children if you want. It's a cruise for everyone. A lot of people are bringing their parents this year. It's really turned into a great extended-family vacation."
O'Donnell said that among the Broadway stars scheduled to entertain on this year's cruise are Avenue Q Tony nominee John Tartaglia, who will present his acclaimed "AD-Liberty" concert, as well as Baby's Liz Callaway, La Cage aux Folles' Gavin Creel, Saturday Night Fever's Orfeh, Pippin's Michael Arden, All Shook Up's Paul Castree, Parade's Andrea Burns and Marie Christine's Darius de Haas. "Chatterbox" host Seth Rudetsky will be the musical director for all the musical performances, including the "Broadway Belters" extravaganza. Rudetsky will also present his latest "Deconstructing" evening.
The cruise will also boast a concert with pop star Cyndi Lauper as well as performances by Suzanne Buirgay and Kinsey Sicks. Rosie O'Donnell will host the opening-night ceremonies and a "Queer as Folk" screening that includes a question-and-answer session with "QAF" star Sharon Gless. The former talk-show host will also host the world premiere of the HBO documentary "All Aboard: Rosie's Family Cruise," which was filmed during last year's R Family voyage to the Caribbean. Other entertainment offerings will include a comedy showcase hosted by Judy Gold and a motivational speech by NFL player Esera Tuaolo.
Additionally, passengers will be able to enjoy yoga and fitness classes with fitness guru Susan Powter, and Oprah Winfrey's personal chef, Art Smith, will offer a cooking class. The week-long trip on the Norwegian Dawn will include themed parties, cabaret shows and dances.
The mammoth ship also features the Stardust Theatre, a plush, comfortable full-sized theatre; the Spinnaker Lounge, a large cabaret with different arrays of chairs and tables and a full bar; the Fitness Center, which is open 24 hours a day and includes treadmills, a spin-cycle room, weight machines and free weights; numerous pools and hot tubs on the ship's top deck as well as a more private indoor pool downstairs from the health club; Gatsby's Champagne Bar, which adjoins the piano bar; an internet cafe with approximately 20 computers; the Dazzles Lounge and Night Club; the Java Café; the El Dorado Spa & Beauty Center; a Las Vegas-style casino; a jogging track and a basketball/volleyball court.
For the second year, "Diva Talk" will also be part of R Family Vacations, bringing Playbill.com's readers stories about this performance-packed cruise.
Call (866) 732-6822 for reservations; cabins start at $999 per person. For more information, Click Here.
I've heard "Meadowlark" sung so many times in the past two decades that as much as I still enjoy hearing the tune — as it offers the chance for a belter to strut her stuff — the song had stopped drawing any emotional response. That is until I heard Alice Ripley's rendition this past Sunday afternoon at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Ripley, who is currently playing Genevieve in The Baker's Wife through May 15, delivered a superb rendition of the Stephen Schwartz ballad that was as powerfully sung as it was beautifully acted. She not only thrilled with the sheer volume of her tones, easily navigating the song's highest notes, but completely moved this listener as she acted out the song, which employs the tale of a meadowlark as a metaphor for Genevieve's own complicated relationships. Ripley also impressed with her two other solos, "Gifts of Love" in the first act and the touching "Where Is the Warmth?" in the second. And, her final scenes were also supremely moving, as she and the Baker (Lenny Wolpe) reconcile while the townspeople welcome Genevieve back to their provincial village. Other highlights: Max von Essen's soaring "Proud Lady" and Gay Marshall's charming "Chanson." [Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein's The Baker's Wife plays New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse through May 15. Tickets, priced $31-$68, are available by calling (973) 376-4343. Visit www.papermill.org for more information.]
Did you miss Donna McKechnie as La Mome Pistache in the London production of Can-Can? Were you able to catch her Mama Rose in an Ohio production of Gypsy? Or how about her superb portrayal of Sally Durant Plummer in the Paper Mill mounting of Stephen Sondheim's Follies? If you didn't, or even if you did, theatre fans and diva lovers should not miss the Tony Award winner's sensational new cabaret act at Au Bar, Gypsy in My Soul. McKechnie, a true Broadway gypsy whose talents have always included much more than terrific dance steps, has structured her new show around the fact that although she created roles in several Broadway musicals, she has spent the bulk of her career on the road. McKechnie speaks of the difficulties of a life spent traveling and through song touches upon the topics of loneliness, divorce and life's other challenges with such tunes as "But Not For Me," "By Myself," "A House Is Not a Home" and "Patterns." But it's not a maudlin evening at all; in fact, the singer-dancer-actress also shares the rewards of her profession and includes a few wonderful anecdotes, including her time spent working with screen legend Ann Miller in the aforementioned Paper Mill Follies. McKechnie also offers glimpses of her early career-making work — performing all three parts in the Company trio "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" and dancing a bit of Promises, Promises' "Turkey Lurkey Time" — before dazzling the audience with the three theatre tunes that form the evening's climax: a medley of Can-Can's "I Love Paris" and "It's Alright with Me"; a mix of tunes from Follies that includes "Don't Look at Me" and the haunting "Too Many Mornings"; and the Gypsy show-stopper "Some People." McKechnie was in terrific voice this past Monday night, her alto impressively belting the higher portions of "A House Is Not a Home," "Some People" and "Patterns." Other highpoints included the comical Ed Kleban tune "Better" and the Rodgers and Hart gem "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." McKechnie also spoke about the joy of her career and ended the evening — performed in front of a crowd that included fellow gypsies Chita Rivera, Lee Roy Reams and Harvey Evans as well as cabaret's Karen Akers — affirming "Life Is Good." An encore of A Chorus Line's "The Music and the Mirror" that was as thrilling as ever brought the packed house to its feet. [Donna McKechnie performs Gypsy in My Soul through May 1 at Au Bar, 41 East 58th Street; call (212) 308-9455 for reservations.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.