DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tarzan's Jenn Gambatese Plus Karen Akers on Disc

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tarzan's Jenn Gambatese Plus Karen Akers on Disc News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Jenn Gambatese; Gambatese and Josh Strickland in Tarzan
Jenn Gambatese; Gambatese and Josh Strickland in Tarzan Photo by Joan Marcus

JENN GAMBATESE

Jenn Gambatese, who boasts a crystal-clear and rangy Broadway belt, has been a notable presence on The Great White Way ever since her debut as Urleen in film-turned-musical Footloose. Featured roles in the Tony-winning Hairspray and the short-lived kids' show A Year with Frog and Toad followed, and two seasons ago the spirited performer created the roles of Natalie and Ed opposite Cheyenne Jackson in the Elvis Presley-inspired production All Shook Up. These days, the singing actress is riding high — figuratively and literally. Not only is Gambatese co-starring in the new Disney musical Tarzan — she plays Jane in the Bob Crowley-directed production, which requires her to sing "Waiting for This Moment" while suspended in mid-air during this dazzling, botanically-themed number — but she is also in the midst of planning a June 2007 wedding to television actor Curtis Cregan. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming actress about her latest role and her hopes for the future; that brief interview follows.

 

Question: How did the role of Jane come about for you?
Jenn Gambatese: Well, I had actually first auditioned for [a Tarzan reading] back when I was in the ensemble in Hairspray. They wound up going with Laura Bell Bundy, who's so funny and so perfect and so different from me. I think she did some readings — I don't know if anybody else had. Then, for whatever reason, when I was in All Shook Up, they were going a different way, and I went back in. I remembered that audition back in 2002, so I was excited because I remembered at that first audition we had to do an obstacle course. I was like, "Okay, I was an athlete back in high school, so this should be a challenge — it should be fun." So, I went back in, and this time it worked out.

Q: What was the obstacle course like?
Gambatese: Well, years ago it was a different one — they just wanted to see how comfortable you were climbing things and singing. That was in 2002. For this time, when it was the actual production, there was a big scaffolding. We did it over at 37 Arts [Theatre]. I always joke [that] I'd never been to an audition where I had to put on a crash helmet! They had us warm up a little bit, and then we were in harnesses and were really, really going beyond our comfort zone. [Laughs.] Q: Tell me about the rehearsal process because I know it was quite different from most Broadway musicals.
Gambatese: It was. I have to say Disney has been so great in having a lot of foresight with this show. I think they really knew that this was unlike anything that had been done before. They couldn't just follow a mold — they had to make their own mold. We started rehearsals Dec. 27, and we were out at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, and we were rehearsing five days a week then — long days. . . . We would do yoga every morning for an hour or hour-and-a-half and . . . South American martial arts, all kinds of interesting things that none of us had ever done. [Laughs.] There was so much technical stuff to address, but what was lovely was Disney had the foresight to give us weekends off during our time out at Steiner, so our bodies had a chance to recover. On Broadway, when you only have that one day off, a lot of times you just don't feel like you recovered at all. [Laughs.]

Q: How did you approach the role of Jane? Did you go back to the original novel? Did you watch old "Tarzan" films?
Gambatese: I knew some of the old movies with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. But I didn't go overboard with anything. I knew that this was going to be its own thing. If anything, I watched the Disney animated movie twice. I figured — for our audience, which is going to be a lot of families and kids — that was who they had in their minds. And, Minnie Driver was so great in [the animated film] as the voice [of Jane]. Beyond just a little bit of preliminary stuff, I was just approaching it on my own to make it my own thing.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Jane?
Gambatese: I have so many. [Laughs.] When I first come on, I have this enormous song. . . [and] then Tarzan rescues me from a perilous situation, and we have our first scene together, and I really think that's such a great part in the show. I don't come on until toward the end of Act One, and Tarzan doesn't grow up until just before that. He's a kid first, then he grows up, and you can tell when he grows up, the [audience] is like, "Where's Jane? Where's Jane?" Then we have this scene where we're discovering each other, and it a really funny scene, and Josh and I have found all kinds of great moments, and the timing is good, so I enjoy that a lot.

Q: What do you think Jane finds so appealing about Tarzan?
Gambatese: Ultimately, I think it's his spirit — he's so connected to the world around him in a way that she's never experienced. But, initially, she's coming from Victorian England, and I think the most that Jane has ever seen on a male body is a neck and some hands. [Laughs.] She's seen art, but live and in person she's never seen the physique. But not just the look of the physique, but he does such amazing things with his body — he's flinging it around that stage. It really is amazing.

Q: What's it like performing the song with all the different creatures where you're suspended in air?
Gambatese: It's become fun. It was an ass-kicker [at first]! [Laughs.] It's so technical. What happens is when I come out in the big skirt, the spider web is in the skirt. That was challenging because that skirt weighs 26 pounds. . . . I come out, I've got on a harness — that was challenging throughout the developmental process to make it comfortable. Pichón Baldinu is our aerial coordinator—he did De La Guarda, which was an amazing show, but nobody was really singing in De La Guarda. The harness can really press on your diaphragm. So I have the harness, a corset, a 26-pound skirt. Initially I was in heels, but that didn't work. [Laughs.] And, then these plant people come out of the floor, and they're billowing that green silk. I'm walking on a moving target, and the things that come up from the floor — there are holes cut out in the floor, and the silk is covering the holes. So I have to be so aware of my spacing and my surroundings. That's an obstacle course! [Laughs.] . . . It's really something to finish my big note at the end, and then the spider web is deployed, and you hear people go, "Ohhhh!"

Q: Tell me about working with Bob Crowley since this was his Broadway directorial debut.
Gambatese: I adore Bob. I remember working with him at that first audition when I didn't get [the role] four years ago. He's the most lovely man. When he comes up and talks to you, you feel a real connectedness, and that helps so much for an actor. You feel like he cares about you. Then we started this process, [and] he had three different hats to wear, which were really big hats. He was doing so much with the show, but he still always had us feeling like he was taking care of us.

Q: How much did the show change during the preview period?
Gambatese: A lot and not a lot in a strange way. There was one new song for Chester, but that happened before previews started, so there was no huge musical changes. The book — things definitely changed and tightened, but the basic structure remained the same. But then those little changes . . . made a big impact. It was a slow and steady process, which was nice.

Q: The Tarzan CD is now available. Do you enjoy the recording process?
Gambatese: I have to say this was the first time I had fun recording. Partially, I think again, that was Disney's foresight. They were really generous, and we didn't have to do it completely in one day. We had two-and-a-half days, which made a big difference. Also, you have Phil Collins, and obviously he knows what he's doing. And, also, Paul Bogaev, our musical supervisor, and Chris Montan, he's the head of Disney Records, so I felt like they were so cool, calm and collected that it was easy for me to be as well. And, I'm really proud of it — I think it turned out quite nice.

Q: I know you have a small part in the film "The Good Shepherd."
Gambatese: A very small part!

Q: Would you like to do more film work? Where would you like to see your career go from here?
Gambatese: I would. That was my first film that I'd ever done, which was great because it was a small part, but it was a big film, so I got to see how it all works. I don't even know if my lines are actually audible. Matt Damon is reading my lips in the scene. [Laughs.] But there I was watching Matt Damon work and watching Robert De Niro direct. It was really, really enlightening, but it was also just a very different process from theatre. It's radically different, so I would like to do it more. I've been thinking about it, and I think I'd really like to get into television. I think that what I have learned and developed in musical theatre would lend itself really well to sitcoms. I know how to find the funny — I know how to pace things and time things, and I think I would enjoy the schedule of TV. I know they work very hard as well, but those film sets, those are really long days. TV — you have your weekends. TV seems really conducive to starting a family, which is my other goal.

Q: How long are you contracted with Tarzan?
Gambatese: I'm contracted through March (2007).

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Gambatese: No, right now I'm just really enjoying settling into this [show], and I'm engaged [to actor Curtis Cregan]. We have a place up in the Catskills, so I've just been enjoying my life. On Monday we reroofed our porch. [Laughs.] I've been hammering shingles into the porch roof, and I'm having fun. It's just nice to do normal things.

[Tarzan plays the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 224 West 46th Street. For tickets call (212) 307-4747 or visit www.tarzanonbroadway.com.] FOR THE RECORD: Karen Akers' "Like It Was"

For the bulk of her cabaret career, Karen Akers has wrapped her dark, rich, silky contralto — which throbs with an emotional intensity — around the songs of Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and Craig Carnelia as well as a mix of current and up-n-coming songwriters. In the past few years, however, Akers — whose Broadway outings include the original productions of Nine and Grand Hotel — has turned her attention to the Great American Songbook, probing songs by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter with equal intelligence and depth. And, Akers now preserves many of these standards on her newest solo recording, "Like It Was," on the DRG Records label.

Akers begins her program with Rodgers and Hart’s playful “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” followed by a pairing of the little-heard “Just a Memory” and the Gershwin classic “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The singer-actress has fun with an upbeat version of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ “You’ve Got Possibilities,” and then finds the right notes of anger and despair in a medley of “Falling in Love with Love” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” One of the disc’s highlights follows, a touching rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

Two Stephen Sondheim offerings also provide high points: “Like It Was,” the bittersweet ballad from Merrily We Roll Along, and Passion’s “Loving You,” which paired with Kern and Hammerstein’s “Why Was I Born?” underscores the sense of longing in each tune. Akers celebrates love in Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms” and delivers part of Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love” in her flawless French. She explores the blues of “Stormy Weather” to dramatic effect and concludes her 15-track disc with the torchy “As Long As He Needs Me” from Lionel Bart’s Oliver!

Visit www.drgrecords.com or www.karenakers.com for more information.

DIVA TIDBITS
Former Evita Florence Lacey, who was part of the Off-Broadway musical Under the Bridge, will star in The New York International Fringe Festival's production of Trouble in Shameland. Lacey will portray Virginia Carson in the musical, which will play the Festival Aug. 11-27 in a production directed by Bryan Putnam. The company will also feature Brad Standley, Garrett Eucker, Mary Mossberg, Carole J. Bufford, William Day, Sarah Kinlaw, Frederick Heringes, Ryan Andes, Katie Hale, Christopher Michael McLamb, Jana Ballard, Robyne Parrish, Liz O'Donnell, Matthew Hardy and Eric Zutty. Tickets, priced $15, are available by calling (212) 279-4488 or (888) FRINGENYC. For more information visit www.fringenyc.org or www.troubleinshameland.com.

"Summer Evenings of Cabaret" is the title of a new concert series that will be presented this summer at the Caminito Theatre, located on the campus of Los Angeles City College. The series will begin July 14 and 15 with Susan Egan of Beauty and the Beast and Thoroughly Modern Millie fame. Heather Mac Rae, seen on Broadway in Hair and Falsettos, will follow, playing July 21 and 22. The Caminito Theatre will welcome Three Men and a Baby . . . Grand! July 28 and 29. The trio, which will perform Broadway and movie favorites, comprises Brian Lane Green, Lee Lessack and John Boswell. Kevin Spirtas, who played Corny Collins in the Las Vegas mounting of Hairspray, will go it solo Aug. 3, and the series will conclude with Jason Graae (Aug. 4) and Linda Purl (Aug. 5.) All performances will begin at 7:30 PM at the Caminito Theatre, located at 855 N. Vermont Avenue in Hollywood, CA. Tickets, priced $25 (or $100 for all six concerts), are available by calling (323) 953-4000, ext. 2990. Visit www.lacitycollege.edu for more information.

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