DIVA TALK: Chatting with High Fidelity's Jenn Colella Plus News of Peters and O'Hara

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with High Fidelity's Jenn Colella Plus News of Peters and O'Hara News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Jenn Colella (with Will Chase) in High Fidelity
Jenn Colella (with Will Chase) in High Fidelity Photo by Joan Marcus

JENN COLELLA
It's been quite a busy few months for Jenn Colella, the talented actress who made her Broadway debut in the short-lived musical Urban Cowboy playing the sassy Sissy, a role that earned the South Carolina native an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical. This past February Colella opened the world-premiere engagement of The Times They Are A-Changin' at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre; however, when the show arrived on Broadway last month, Colella's role had been recast. Fret not: The singing actress had already landed a lead role in the Broadway-bound High Fidelity, and the aforementioned Twyla Tharp-Bob Dylan musical recently posted its closing notice. Colella, it should be noted, has only good things to say about Times They Are A-Changin' and even better words for Fidelity, which begins previews at the Imperial Theatre Nov. 20. Based on both the film and the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, High Fidelity will officially open Dec. 7. The musical about a record store owner who revisits his past relationships features a book by David Lindsay-Abaire, a score by Tom Kitt (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics), direction by Tony Award winner Walter Bobbie and casts Colella as Laura opposite the Rob of Will Chase. What follows is a recent chat I had with the good-humored Colella.

Question: I was reading your bio, and I hadn't realized at one-time you were a stand-up comic. When was that?
Jenn Colella: Right out of graduate school. I went to get my master's degree at the University of California, Irvine. Right out of grad school I was a regular at the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory in L.A. before I came [to New York] to do Urban Cowboy.

Q: How did stand-up compare to working in the theatre?
Colella: [Laughs.] Well, you know, it really helped me with my comic chops. I learned a lot about myself as a comedian and as a courageous performer. That part of it was fantastic. I primarily did it in L.A. to be more visible within that particular industry, and the hardest thing about stand-up was not the stand-up itself but hanging out with all the comics. [Laughs.] They're kind of a dark bunch. They're not the happiest people in the world, and a lot of the humor was angry and biting, and that's just not my bag. So that was the toughest part about it. I'd rather be around mostly happy people.

Q: It's been a crazy year for you theatre-wise. Just wanted to go back to Times They Are A-Changin' a little bit. What was it like working on such a dance-focused show versus a more traditional musical?
Colella: It was terrifying, but in the best possible way. I learned so much about my body and again about being courageous. Twyla [Tharp] is the most courageous woman I've ever met in my life with the strongest work ethic of anyone I've ever met, so I was thrilled to work with her. It was an amazing experience. It had been a long time since I was that scared — I consider myself pretty ballsy. She pushes you past your limit and says, "You can do this as well."

Q: What were your thoughts about the show?
Colella: I dug it. I really enjoyed it. I have a biased opinion because I helped create that role and was right in the middle of it, but I really respected the fact that it was completely unique. I never had seen anything like that in my life, so I was game. I thought it was pretty fantastic. Q: Was it difficult when they let you know you weren't going to go with the show to Broadway?
Colella: Yeah, it was, of course, but I was also . . . hoping that High Fidelity would work out, and those two things kind of overlapped. . . . I'm a firm believer that it all works out the way it's supposed to. While I was bummed initially, I was really glad to have had the opportunity.

Q: How did the role in High Fidelity come about?
Colella: Well, I've been a part of the readings and the workshops and singing these songs for about three years. [Composer] Tom Kitt and I befriended one another when he was the associate conductor for Urban Cowboy. He wrote a song during that time with my voice in mind that we sang a lot at Birdland and all around New York, and then they kept writing more songs, so I've been involved with it for quite some time.

Q: What was that song?
Colella: The first one is not even in the show anymore. It's called "Too Tired," and it's no longer in the show. [Laughs.]

Q: Had you been a fan of the film?
Colella: Absolutely — a fan of the film and once we started working on the workshops, I read the novel and fell even more deeply in love with Nick Hornby, and just thought it was a great idea.

Q: Tell me a bit about the character you play.
Colella: Laura is Rob's girlfriend, and they've been together for about four years, and she's [been] working at Legal Aid. At the top of the show, she gets this new job with a big law firm, so she's going corporate, and she's making changes in her life. [She is] changing from late twenties into early thirties and making shifts in her life, and she takes a look at her relationship and realizes that Rob is not changing, and [although] he went from DJ to record store owner, he's not giving her what she needs as far as the relationship evolving. So she has to leave him, which causes him to take a look at his life and his past breakups and grow up a little. She spends the show trying to evolve herself and wanting him desperately to come around.

Q: How was the out-of-town tryout in Boston?
Colella: It was incredible. The Boston audiences were really smart. They, first of all, loved it. There were people crying because they were laughing so hard and crying because they were genuinely touched. That was a triumph in and of itself, and they also let us know what wasn't really clicking, which was great. For the past two weeks [we have been] making a lot of really smart changes on the show and getting it even better than before.

Q: How much has the show changed since you started in Boston?
Colella: A great deal. The first 20 minutes have changed a lot. It wasn't like wiping away and starting again. There's been a lot of reshifting and slight retooling that's super-smart. Our creative team — from the producers all the way through the writers and the director — work so well together and have such a cool respect for one another that they're all in on the writing, the lyrics, what the music should be. Everybody's in on it, and they're open to hearing our ideas as well, so the changes haven't been scary, they've been exciting and positive.

Q: How would you describe the score?
Colella: It's rock-and-roll, and it'll kick you right in the guts in the best possible way. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, and you can't help but tap your toes and bop your head.

Q: Tell me about working with Walter Bobbie as a director.
Colella: He's amazing. What's so evident every day is that he's in love with this piece. He genuinely likes it. We automatically respect him because he's at the helm, and to see how much he's enjoying it — every day laughing at the same jokes and still finding other things to really be genuinely amused by — just makes us trust him even more. [Because he was] an actor first, he will sit down with us and talk scenes through. He's been down with making sure the whole thing has heart, instead of just being funny . . . and that's been a really crucial element.

Q: Do you think it's helpful when a director has been an actor?
Colella: Absolutely. He's not talking at you, he's talking with us, and he's letting us be part of the creative [process]. We can say at any time, "What about this?" And he'll say, "Show me." He'll jump right up on stage and get up there with us, so he can give us his undivided attention, and it feels wonderful.

Q: Had you ever worked with Will Chase before?
Colella: No, Will and I only did the last reading [of High Fidelity] that they did here in New York for backers and investors. We did that reading together, and we just immediately had this great connection. People always ask us, "Have you been buddies for a long time or have you done shows together?" And we haven't, but we just kind of [clicked] pretty quickly.

Q: Going back a bit, where were you born and raised?
Colella: I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in Summerville.

Q: When did you start performing?
Colella: When I was pretty young. When I was 13, there was a woman who gave drama lessons from her house, and I didn't have the money to pay for the drama lessons. At 13, I was like 70 lbs. I said I would clean her house or paint her house. Tiny little me with this huge paint roller, painting her house so I could take drama lessons. [Laughs.]

Q: Were there any actors that you particularly admired or what led you to want to take these drama lessons?
Colella: I would always perform in class. I was always just naturally gregarious in class, and I would do a lot of standup and a lot of my material there. I knew when I cracked the teachers up that I had 'em — that I was good to go. I started performing in the actual classroom, and then there were teachers that were like, "We have clubs for this. You can do this outside of [the time when] you're supposed to be learning something." [Laughs.] It was of my own volition that I knew that I had something to share.

Q: Did you perform in musicals at that time as well?
Colella: My very first role with that drama teacher [was in a musical] — I was Gertie in Oklahoma!

Q: Did you continue performing in high school shows?
Colella: I continued on in high school shows. But, again, I didn't really get into musical theatre until later. Once I moved into college and got my master's degree, it was primarily acting in straight plays. And then during some of my graduate school, that's when I played Peter Pan and Victor/Victoria. That's when the musicals started happening to me. Acting was something I'd always done, but I was in a rock band in South Carolina, and that's where I learned to belt. Once they realized I could sing, I was kind of thrown into musicals.

Q: When do you think you realized that performing of some sort would be your career?
Colella: I knew it early, early on. When I was super young and performing for my family at dinner when they weren't asking me to. [Laughs.] Pretty, pretty early it's always been what I wanted to do.

Q: What was your first professional job in New York?
Colella: That was Urban Cowboy.

Q: That's a pretty big start . . .
Colella: It was a big jump from South Carolina to Irvine, California, to New York as the leading lady. Q: What are your memories of that show?
Colella: It was the time of my life. We all fell in love with one another. Matt Cavenaugh and I are still best friends. He and I are super close. I just went to his opening at Grey Gardens. Lonny Price and I became very, very close. We had the time of our lives. We knew that the show was just pure entertainment and nothing but fun, and we celebrated every single night.

Q: Are there plans to record High Fidelity?
Colella: They haven't officially announced it, but we're already talking about the bonus tracks of all the cut songs. [Laughs.] [There should be] an extra CD of the cut songs because they're so good — we don't want them to be lost.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Colella: I'm utterly focused on this because I'm convinced it's going to run and run and run.

[High Fidelity will play at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). Tickets can be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Broadway favorite Bernadette Peters, who will make a special guest appearance on "Law & Order: SVU" Nov. 28, has announced an initial list of concerts dates for 2007. Peters' legion of fans will now have the chance to catch the two-time Tony Award-winning actress perform at venues in Oregon, Utah, Florida, New York, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio and New Mexico. Tour dates currently announced follow:
Dec. 29, 2006 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, CO
Jan. 24, 2007 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Feb. 10 at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theatre in Medford, OR
March 24 at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts in Park City, UT
March 29 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, FL
March 31 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, FL
April 28 at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in Bronx, NY
May 5 at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, TX
May 12 at the Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC
May 17 at the Paramount Arts Center in Aurora, IL
Aug. 18 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati, OH
Sept. 1 at the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, NM

Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley's newest duets recording — taped live during their Oct. 21 concert at Town Hall — is scheduled to hit stores Dec. 19. The two-disc set — featuring a mix of solos and duets — will be released on the Kritzerland label. Pre-orders for the recording are currently available by visiting www.kritzerland.com. "Skinner/Ripley: Raw at Town Hall" has a list price of $22.98.

Sherie Rene Scott, most recently seen on Broadway in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, will launch a new concert series presented by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. The In Concert series will kick off Dec. 4 with Scott's 7 PM performance. The new series will continue Jan. 29, 2007, at 7 PM with a triple bill: Douglas Sills, Todd Murray and Sally Wilfert. Former March of the Falsettos co-stars, Michael Rupert and Alison Fraser, will take to the Center stage March 19, also at 7 PM. The Center is located in Manhattan at 208 West 13th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Tickets, priced $20, $35, $75 and $150, are available by calling (212) 620-7310 or by visiting www.gaycenter.org.

Two-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, who will be seen in the Reprise! mounting of Sunday in the Park With George, will perform in concert Dec. 9 at The Kaplan Penthouse. The 8 PM performance, entitled Beauty Bright . . . An Evening with Kelli O'Hara, is a benefit for New York Festival of Song. O'Hara will offer Broadway tunes as well as lesser-known material. The concert will be preceded by cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at 7 PM. The Kaplan Penthouse is located on the tenth floor of the Samuel B. and David Rose Building at 70 Lincoln Center Plaza. Tickets, priced at $375, are available by calling (646) 230-8380.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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