GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Ashley Amber of 'Promises, Promises'
Hey, Ramin Setoodeh, you think actors can't play characters whose personal lives differ from their own? Look at Promises, Promises (oh, yeah, you did). Ashley Amber is playing the disgruntled wife of an unfaithful husband and the mistress of a philandering businessman, but off stage she's happily married and a beaming, proud new mother. "I do feel like I have it all, as far as everything I ever wanted," says Amber, who has an 11-month-old son. "I've always wanted to be a mom, my dream was to be on Broadway, and I have a beautiful husband and a gorgeous house. It's all I could ask for."
She feels blessed in her onstage roles as well. "How lucky am I?" Amber asks about getting to play Tony Goldwyn's wife, albeit in a scene where his character, J.D. Sheldrake, is called at home on Christmas Day about his despondent girlfriend Fran (Kristin Chenoweth). Amber also portrays a Consolidated Life employee and Miss Kreplinski, the dental hygienist brought to Chuck Baxter's apartment by a Consolidated exec for an extramarital tryst, in Promises, Promises. The revival of the 1960s Burt Bacharach musical marks Amber's return to the stage following the birth of her first child, Mason, who turns 1 later this month.
Her last show, Cry-Baby, shuttered after just two months, and little Mason turned out to be the silver lining to that cloud. Amber had decided to take the summer off following Cry-Baby's closing in June 2008, but her break was extended when she got pregnant that September. She returned to work this February when Promises, Promises rehearsals commenced. "It worked out wonderfully timing-wise," she explains. "I think you reach a point when you're like, Oh, I'm a mom; this is who I am now. And you lose yourself. I've always identified myself as a dancer—that was who I was. So having that balance of being creative and also being a caregiver is the best of both worlds."
Amber resumed classes at Broadway Dance Center when Mason was four months old, though she didn't have to exert a lot of effort losing her pregnancy weight. "I lived in a three-floor walkup for the first six months of his life, and I have a 20-pound child," she says. "Carrying that baby up and down the three flights of stairs with the stroller and the car seat, I don't know how anybody could not get right back into shape."
Billed as Ashley Amber Haase earlier in her career, Amber dropped her surname professionally after she married in 2006 rather than change it or append her husband's last name, D'Ambrosio ("I didn't want to mislead anyone that I was Italian"). Her seven previous Broadway shows range from Tony winners (Curtains) to notorious flops (Dance of the Vampires). She was a replacement swing in Aida and All Shook Up and a member of the original cast of The Wedding Singer, playing the bride in its opening number, which was performed on the 2006 Tonys. She was also in The Boy From Oz during the last few months of its run. "I got to take Hugh Jackman's shirt off eight times a week," she boasts (it was part of the choreography).
Amber's last four shows were all choreographed by Rob Ashford, who also directed Promises. "He's the best storyteller that I have worked with," says Amber. "Because each show has a different story, he likes to play the truth of it, and I appreciate that so much, and understand where he's going with it. I'm so happy to be in his directorial debut." To that latter comment, Amber adds, "finally"—a reference to a planned revival of Brigadoon that Ashford was to have directed but that was canceled in mid '08 before its out-of-town tryout. Amber was in the Brigadoon cast. "Maybe some day that [production will] happen," she says, "because everyone should see his interpretation of that show. It's so beautiful."
Promises, Promises also reunites Amber with another Ashford regular, fellow ensemble member Mayumi Miguel, who's a new mom too. "We have a special mommy bond," Amber says of Miguel (the June 2008 Gypsy of the Month), mother of 1-year-old Zoe. "We share stories, though she's not much help because her daughter slept through the night the first day she came home from the hospital, and my son still hasn't slept through the night! So, she wins that one."
For a show full of unrequited infatuations, cheating husbands and bitter ex-lovers, this revival of Promises, Promises actually has quite a family-oriented cast. Peter Benson, Seán Martin Hingston and Nathan Balser are among the other company members with young children. "I love this grown-up aspect of the cast," says Amber.
Mason is already taking after mom in at least one respect. "He dances all the time," Amber reports. "Anytime music comes on, he's dancing." Amber herself was walking at 7 months and in dance class by age 2. She took lessons at a studio in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, and eventually went for additional training with Omaha Ballet, an hour away. "My father drove me back and forth twice a week for a few years," Amber recalls gratefully. She also performed in musicals at Lincoln Community Playhouse throughout her childhood, beginning with the role of Molly in Annie when she was 6. Later parts included Michael in Peter Pan and one of the Oliver urchins. "I had a bowl cut most of my childhood, so I could play the boys," she says.
As an adolescent, Amber participated in the Bolshoi Ballet's summer program in Vail, Colorado, and was one of the students invited to study with the renowned company in Moscow. But that was right around the time the Soviet Union was breaking up, and her parents were concerned about the instability in Russia, so she didn't go. At the time, Amber thought she would become a professional ballerina; a year or two later, puberty made her rethink her career goals. "I thought I was going to be a ballet dancer, until I got hips and boobs," she states. She did continue taking ballet lessons, though.
Every summer from age 9 to 17, Ashley—along with her older sister Gigi, who also began dancing as a preschooler—spent at least a few weeks in Los Angeles, taking classes on scholarships they'd won in dance competitions. "I really feel like that's where I got my training," says Ashley, who attended such studios as Dupree Dance and 3rd Street Dance in L.A. During her last summer in high school, Amber came to New York to train, studying with Sheila Barker at Broadway Dance Center. To this day, she still takes Barker's class at Broadway Dance—that's where Amber headed to dance for the first time after her son was born. "Sheila is definitely someone who was a New York mentor for me," says Amber. "She's someone I always go to when I have questions. She's like my mom-away-from-mom."
Amber's sister Gigi also made her career in dance, but not as a performer. She runs the Divas Dance studio in Lincoln and directs its competition team, Divas Dolls. "She is an incredible choreographer," Ashley remarks. "That is her passion, and her gift. Her girls are so talented, and she has worked so hard with them, most of them since they first started when they were little. She's a miracle worker with kids."
Amber isn't yet considering expanding into choreographing, as many dancers do. "Right now, on the stage is where I want to be," she says. It's where she knew she'd be from a very young age: "When I was 6 years old and doing Annie, my first musical theater, I told my mom that I wasn't going to college and I was moving to New York when I was 18—and that's exactly what I did."
She arrived in the city in 1996 with her best friend from high school, Tiffany, and their mothers. "We literally walked West End [Avenue], going into every building, seeing if there was any availability," she says. They found a place they liked at 63rd Street—"the two of us were going to split the rent, it was $1,550 or something a month"—but when they went to sign the lease, her friend had a change of heart. "She turned to me and said, 'I can't do it. I don't want to move here.'" Amber, however, was undeterred, and her mother told her to go ahead and take the apartment. (Tiffany went back to Nebraska, and they fell out of touch.)
During Amber's first week in New York, she auditioned for a Disney stage show that would be presented at Radio City Music Hall in conjunction with the premiere of the movie 101 Dalmatians. She got the job, and played Puppy #12 in the one-time performance, whose ensemble also included future Broadway performers Jennifer Cody and Max Von Essen. Amber had her second job within a month, a part on the European tour of Fame. She performed in the show for about nine months, mostly in Germany, Austria and France. At one point while on that tour, Amber had second thoughts about a Broadway career—the only time she's ever reconsidered sticking to her lifelong plan. "I was sitting in a hotel room in Paris, telling my roommate, 'I'm going to go to L.A.' I had come back to New York on a break and had some auditions, but didn't hear anything. So I decided to try L.A. That night, I got the call that I got the national tour of Smokey Joe's Cafe."
She played the Shimmy Girl in Smokey Joe's, and later went back into Fame for its national tour, which earned her her Equity card. Amber hasn't worked outside New York since, except for five months on the Producers tour in 2005 and the pre-Broadway premieres of Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby on the West Coast. In 2001, the blonde Midwesterner made her Broadway debut in the Egypt-set Aida. "I'd auditioned, and [casting director] Bernie Telsey called me and asked me if I had pictures of me with dark hair, because [choreographer] Wayne Cilento said he couldn't see me as a Nubian. So my friend and I went to Ricky's, bought a wig and took pictures and ran them down to Telsey's office," she says. "I got a call within an hour that I'd booked the gig." Aida was playing at the Palace—the theater where Amber had seen her first Broadway show, The Will Rogers Follies, on a family trip to New York when she was in middle school.
In Aida, Amber was a vacation swing but went on frequently in various tracks. She left the show after a year to do a buzzed-about new musical, Dance of the Vampires, starring Michael Crawford. "Everybody thought it was going to be the next thing that was huge, and it was what everyone was dying to get into," she says. When she said goodbye to Aida stage manager Paul Smith, he jokingly said to her, "Oh, you'll be back." Yet his facetious prediction came true when Vampires failed to live up to its hype and closed after just six weeks. She rejoined Aida for another year.
Looking back at Dance of the Vampires, she concludes: "There were a lot of hiccups with that show. I think it really could have been great—the set pieces, the costumes were so grand and so over-the-top—but the puzzle pieces just didn't fit." Nonetheless, she adds, "I wouldn't go back and not take it. I have a lot of friends from that show." Among them: her best female friend, Sara Schmidt, who's currently in Jersey Boys. Amber's best male friend is Spencer Liff, her dance partner in Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby. When Liff was profiled as the October 2008 Gypsy of the Month, he told BWW, "Rob knows we come as a package deal now." But he was out in L.A. choreographing for the new season of So You Think You Can Dance when Promises, Promises was cast.
There's another reason Amber wouldn't change what happened with Dance of the Vampires: Because of its early closing, she got to take a vacation—to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 2003. There, in a bar, she met Blake D'Ambrosio, a stagehand who was in town on a job. Both in show business, both residents of NYC...it must have been fate. Ashley and Blake married in July 2006, in a ceremony on the beach on the north shore of Long Island. "My parents are both only children, so it's just my five family members, and he's Italian, from Long Island, he has about 500 [relatives]," Amber says. "It would be silly to ask all those people to travel back to my hometown—and I have no beach to get married on."
Amber and her husband were living on Manhattan's Upper West Side until last December, when they purchased a house on Long Island. She loves her new home in Massapequa but is still getting used to the commute: She dashes down to Penn Station after the show, but doesn't get home until nearly 1 a.m., then has to wake up with the baby at 5:45. D'Ambrosio, who now works at Good Morning America, works from 3 a.m. till early afternoon. "Sometimes it's a literal tag team with the baby," Amber says. "As he walks in the door, I hand him the baby as I walk out the door."
Mason hasn't watched Promises, Promises yet, but he has been to the theater. "I would like him to see some of it—at least the dance numbers, he would love," says his mother. "But I don't know he'd been quiet enough to sit through the whole show. It would take a patient babysitter, or a patient daddy, in and out."
Despite tepid reviews, Promises has become one of the season's new hits, regularly grossing more than $1 million a week. It's up for Tonys for Leading Actor in a Musical (Sean Hayes), Featured Actress (Katie Finneran), choreography and orchestrations. "It was a little disheartening not getting nominated for Best Revival, seeing how two shows that have already closed got nominated and the third got their notice," says Amber. "I've been saying from the beginning, 'This cast, this show, it all works.' Anybody who saw the show and didn't like it, I can't imagine what they saw. Because when we're on stage, it works."
The week Promises, Promises opened, it received some unwelcome publicity thanks to a controversial Newsweek column in which entertainment reporter Ramin Setoodeh insisted that gay actors are not convincing in straight roles, citing Sean Hayes as his top example. "I think that man has no idea what he's talking about," Amber says. "Sean Hayes is an amazing actor. He's so convincingly in love on that stage...and he's such a good guy. So if they're going to bash someone and it's him, it rolls right off him, I'm sure. Why you would want to pick on such a good person is beyond me."
Amber also speaks highly of the first screen star with whom she worked on Broadway, Hugh Jackman. "He's the guy who, apparently, went back to the theater a year later and called every single crewman by his name," she relates. "He's one of the nicest men you'll ever meet...so humble. Nobody in that show ever wanted to miss work, because you had no idea what he was going to do on stage, and God forbid you miss something amazing or something funny or something that people are talking about. It was different every night. He kept it so fresh. I could have done that show forever."
These days, Amber has found that something else continually renews her attitude. "I love being a mom and I love being a wife," she says, "but I'm a better mom and a better wife if I can express myself artistically on a stage."
Photos of Ashley, from top: with her son, Mason, in January; backstage with Boy From Oz headliner Hugh Jackman; center, as a Cry-Baby bad girl with Mayumi Miguel (left) and Courtney Mazza; with Rob Ashford, her choreographer on The Wedding Singer, Curtains, Cry-Baby and Promises, Promises; second from right, in Promises, Promises, with (from left) Kristin Chenoweth, Mayumi Miguel, Chelsea Krombach and Sarah Jane Everman; with her best friend and favorite dance partner, Spencer Liff; in the opening number of Promises, Promises, at far right, with (from left) Sean Hayes, Ryan Watkinson and Helen Anker. [Promises, Promises photos by Joan Marcus]