Jenn Gambatese grew up in Richmond Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the east side of Cleveland. So small in fact that she "graduated with 75 kids in my class, most of whom I'd gone to school with since Kindergarten!" The youngest of four, her biggest influences (aside from her mother and father) were her sisters and brother. "We were all kind of "hammy" so performing does run in the family. Being the youngest though, they'd always make me do the dorky stuff! Also, my Mom is quite a lovely singer and Dad was a drummer in a band when he was younger (but my brother always used to say "Dad couldn't carry a tune if it was slung across his back"!)" The biggest influences in her life now are her closest friends who have become part of her family here in New York.
Her first experiences singing and acting were in the children's choir and holiday pageants at church when she was very little but said that she was really "bitten by the bug" after attending a summer performing arts day camp between 4th and 5th grades, and then two more summers after that. During that time, she performed in "Tom Sawyer", "Peter Pan", and "Robyn and the Band" (a female spin on Robin Hood).
It was in High School, playing Emily Webb in "Our Town" that Jenn first thought she could make a career as an actor. "Seeing how my performance moved people made me think, 'Maybe I can really make a living doing this!'"
The first show she ever saw was "Damn Yankees" at a community theater - but it was "City of Angels" that marked her first Broadway experience - one she says she'll never forget. On stage, however, the first one she performed in was the "Tom Sawyer" where her one line was "Hey Tom, I'll trade ya my marbles if ya let me whitewarsh yer fence!"
"Interestingly, the boy who played Tom wound up being my dance partner in my Broadway debut... 'Footloose'! And, one of the stars of that show was none other than Dee Hoty (also a Clevelander) who had wowed me when I saw her in... 'City of Angels'! How's that for a small world?
After high school, Jenn went to NYU's TischSchool of the Arts where she double majored in Drama and Sociology and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts. She continues her training today with her voice teacher, Steve Sweetland and her acting coach, Rob McCaskill.
Her first "big gig" was as Serena Katz in the European tour of "Fame". "It was an extraordinary experience. We played Zurich, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Milan, and living and working in those cities, not to mention traveling to neighboring cities on days off, was a time in my life I will always treasure. I then did the North American tour which was another awesome experience and enabled me to get my Equity card and record my first cast album. The friends I made on both those tours have enriched my life beyond measure. One in particular, Gavin Creel, has been a real source of inspiration, comfort, and spiritual growth. Plus I'm awfully proud of him -- he's going to be recording his first pop/rock album this summer and I know he's going to be a huge star!"
After "Fame," Jenn then made her Broadway debut in "Footloose." Taking over the role of Urleen. "It was a fantastic way to enter the Broadway community. I was working with super talented people that I was able to learn so much from, and I also learned a lot about myself - for example, how to belt that high 8 times a week!"
One might notice a trend in Jenn's career. "Yeah some might say I'm the reigning movie to musical queen. Little known fact: I almost added a jewel in the crown by coming close to getting 'Saturday Night Fever', but that rightfully went to a true diva... Orfeh. (She sang the other night at the Actor's Fund gala and tore it up!)"
Continuing the trend, next up for Gambatese was Hairspray. "That experience differed from the other projects for me because it was the first one I was involved with from the very beginning. I did the very first reading of it in the spring of 2000 when I was still in 'Footloose' and did every subsequent reading until we went out of town to Seattle in the Spring of 2002. What a gift to be able to contribute to the creative process and watch a show evolve from it's earliest roots! (Sorry I couldn't resist the pun.)"
When the show hit Broadway, Jenn stayed with it for 9 months before moving onto "A Year With Frog and Toad." Ironically, she portrayed the character of Brenda - one of the "nicest kids in town" who gets knocked up. During the 9 months, she also understudied the role of Penny Pingleton but never went on. "Kerry never missed that whole time! She's one of the most consistent performers I've had the privilege of working with."
"A Year With Frog And Toad" - based on the very popular children's books was a very different type of show for Jenn's career thus far. "It was truly one of my favorite theatrical experiences. Everything about that production... the cast, the creative team, the book, the music and orchestrations, the costumes, the sets, the lighting, just everything... was magical. I was so proud to be a part of that show!"
"I remember reading the script and saying to myself, "This is wonderful! It's sort of like a 'Waiting for Godot' for kids." At some point in my audition I expressed that thought and saw the folks behind the table sort of look at each other like, "She gets it". That was a good feeling. Then I remember being able to hit the high E they needed (or was it a D?... when you get that high I think they're more like animal sounds anyways... fitting for a bird though) and I think that was how I got the gig."
"The entire cast had such a blast performing it. I mean, come on, how often do you get to be a bird, a mouse, a squirrel, a little frog, and a mole in one show? I have so many joyful memories... making a mess with all those cookies, snickering as 'Toad' tried to fly his kite, defeating the 'Large and Terrible Frog', doing the snow ballet with Danielle Ferland...all of it so much fun."
It was also a learning experience - "Children are your most authentic audience. If you are not fully engaged in what you are doing onstage, you will lose their attention. But, if you are really present in the moment, they will completely go along on the ride with you and it is such a soul satisfying feeling!"
A Year With Frog And Toad ran a short 3 months, after which, Jenn returned to Hairspray - this time as Penny Pingelton. "I stepped into the role when Kerry left for 'Little Shop'. It was sooo much fun! I really wasn't about to reinvent the wheel with 'Penny' because Kerry had provided such a brilliant template, but the character became my own over time as I allowed myself to explore her physicality and enjoy her transformation into a 'checkerboard chick' every night. What I loved most about 'Penny' was the license to explore all her quirky mannerisms and traits. She's such an oddball and really lives in her own world much of the time!
During her run as Penny in Hairspray, Jenn was brought in to audition for "All Shook Up". "One of the great things about being a stage actor is getting to play the whole arc of your character's journey in the course of an evening. As 'Penny', I had a taste of what it's like to play a character that transforms herself, but in 'All Shook Up' as 'Natalie' and 'Ed', I really get to go there! This sort of work is tremendously exciting to me."
All Shook Up had an out of town tryout, after which, Jenn returned to Hairspray and the role of Penny. "I brought a newfound confidence within myself that translated nicely in the role. And I had a lot more fun the second time around as 'Penny' -- I was just much more comfortable in my own skin and not so hard on myself."
As with any show making its was to Broadway, changes were made to All Shook Up between the out of town tryout and Broadway. "In many ways, the journey of 'Natalie'/'Ed' was one of the few constants throughout the process of bringing 'All Shook Up' to Broadway. Of course, there were a million small changes, in scenes and songs, but the overall arc of her story remained the same. Any fans who've followed the show will remember things like the dancing male and female nuns in 'Devil in Disguise', the cute number 'Return to Sender', and the stage becoming a jukebox in the finale -- all cut in Chicago. And of course, there was Cheyenne in that blonde wig during the Macy's parade. Which, for the record, did not look as bad in person as it did on camera, but aren't we all glad the powers that be decided he should stay brunette?!
All Shook Up played it first Broadway preview on February 20th, 2005 with Jenn as the female lead, "Natalie" opposite Cheyenne Jackson as the Elvis type roustabout, "Chad." In the show, Jenn's character also assumes the identity of "Ed". "I would say that initially 'Ed' was harder for me to tap into--particularly 'his' low voice. Coming from the very high pitched 'Penny', it took me a while to dip down into that speaking register. Now I feel like I'm a bass! (I'm deluding myself, but nonetheless that's how I feel!) Our director, Chris Ashley, encouraged me to watch movies from the 50's focusing on the male actors -- particularly the ones that weren't 100% macho. So a little Sal Mineo, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis himself went into the mix. And although it wasn't from the period, Ralph Macchio in 'The Karate Kid' provided inspiration. (Especially after the first time I got into my 'Ed' drag and saw the resemblance!)"
"Playing a guy every night has given me the opportunity to experience going after a goal (in the plot, going after 'Chad') in a particularly masculine fashion with fierce determination, no apologies, and a certain obliviousness to everything else around me. I see the benefits of certain parts of the male psyche, and the shortcomings as well. It's certainly been enlightening."
So what's Jenn's favorite moment in the show? "I have too many to list! Most of my scenes involve Cheyenne, Leah, and Mark and I love working with them all so much. The chemistry and timing between us all is such a treat for me. And I definitely love the payoff of the big reveal scene at the end. Once Sherrif Earl (the brilliant John Jellison) speaks, the audience goes nuts as the loose ends get tied together. Sometimes the most difficult scenes are with my aforementioned partners in crime, when one or more of us gets the giggles! And sometimes the scene/song at the end ('Fools Fall in Love') with my Dad (Jonathan Hadary) chokes me up beyond normal which can make it difficult to sing. Jonathan just melts my heart!"
With "jukebox" musicals becoming a trend and Good Vibrations opening up just before All Shook Up, one wonders what effect the former had on the latter. "I think mostly we just felt badly for our colleagues and friends involved in 'Good Vibrations'. Anyone involved in theater knows how grueling it is to bring a new musical to Broadway, and your heart hurts when you know that people's hard work didn't necessarily result in the what they'd hoped for. In my own personal opinion, I think the reception to 'Good Vibrations' did hinder our show in the eyes of the media. The backlash against "jukebox" musicals was swift indeed, and for our show I think that is most unfortunate because I truly believe we've accomplished something wonderful. I also don't entirely understand why it's acceptable for a musical to be based on a movie, book, or even play... but not an expansive catalogue of songs. I'm learning that there are some things I will never understand about this business."
When asked what advice her character Ed would give Natalie, Jenn said "He would tell Natalie to make her life what she wants it to be. Not to be a passive bystander or victim of circumstances, but to create her dreams as reality. He would also tell her to own her body and all the power that is in it." In return, Natalie would tell Ed, "To shave. Just kidding. She would tell him to relax a little. Going after what you want is one thing, but doing it blindly and at the exclusion of noticing how your actions are affecting other people can be a recipe for disaster." And Natalie, Ed and Jenn would all be in agreement that "although scary as hell, opening oneself up to loving and being loved authentically is a magnificent thing. That 'authentic' part is key and largely indicative of how long a relationship will last. But no matter how long... there is so much to be learned."
When asked about her onstage chemistry with Cheyenne and having to fall in love with him on stage 8 times a week, Jenn replies, "I get asked this question at the stage door, I always say the same thing, "I can't believe I get paid to kiss him!"
Sometimes that chemistry on stage can lead to interesting stage door experiences. "Our stage door scene has been great. Truly nice people letting you know how much they enjoyed your work. I can't think of many other jobs where you get to experience that sort of instant gratification. There was one time though where a semi-drunk lady jokingly threatened to beat me up cuz 'Chad' was hers... when Cheyenne came out she said, "I've been waiting all night to get my hands on those meaty thighs". Needless to say Richie and Pecas, who manage the stage door line, kept a close eye on her. The question I'm most asked is, "That wasn't your real hair?!" People just love that 'Natalie' wig... myself included."
Having a blast every night on stage has been rewarding for Jenn, but what does she consider the most rewarding aspect of her life? "After much thought, I would say that the most rewarding aspect of my life and the most challenging is one and the same... learning. Whether it's been learning about myself, about my craft, or about life in general, the whole process can be simultaneously thrilling and terrifying." Learning is so integral in Jenn's life that she's created a unique word that has appeared in her bio for quite some time. The word is "Blesson" - a combination of "Blessing" and "Lessons". "That was a word I came up with back in 2002 when I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life. It was important for me at the time to find gratitude even during a dark period. I had always given thanks in my life for what I saw as blessings, but I decided I needed to also give thanks for the things which at first seemed more like tough lessons, but invariably turned into blessings themselves ... hence blessons. One of the most important blessons I've learned as an actress is that every part that you want is not necessarily meant for you at that time, but that's usually because an even better fit is right around the bend. Sometimes that fit is even the very same part, just a little later when you're in a better place to take it on."
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