BWW Interview: Actress Jennafer Newberry Talks FREAKY FRIDAY at the Alley
The Alley Theatre will open a new musical comedy, FREAKY FRIDAY, on June 2 that will play through July 2. A co-production by La Jolla Playhouse, Cleveland Playhouse, and Alley Theatre, directed by Christopher Ashley, this wild classic has been translated into a contemporary musical comedy based on Mary Rodger's novel of the same name, with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey of NEXT TO NORMAL and IF/THEN. I spoke with Jennifer Newberry, Houston native and avid performer, about her past growing up in Houston and the striking similarity she has to her character in FREAKY FRIDAY, Gretchen.
I want to start out by asking about how growing up in Houston, in such a rich arts and culture environment, influenced your interest in performing?
I grew up and was very lucky to have a mom who wanted me to be involved in a bunch of different arts, so from a very young age I was singing, and I went to Houston Ballet Academy, and I sang in choirs, and then I went to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts, so I was always involved in performing. I think it was something that I grew up with, going to see the Theatre Under the Stars and Broadway Across America shows, and it was just something that was always accessible, which was great. When I did my first musical in middle school, I kind of fell in love and knew that's what I wanted to do. I grew up thinking I wanted to be a doctor actually, and then I remember seeing a touring production of The Lion King and I just started crying in the opening number and knew that was what I wanted to do.
I'm so glad Theatre Under the Stars is there, it's such a great resource to have around because you get to see so many different shows, as well as the local theaters like Alley Theatre.
Yes, we always went! We had season subscriptions since I was young and I looked forward to it every year, we were so excited to go see shows.
Do you think going to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts prepared you well for going into the New York scene of auditioning?
It's so funny because I wasn't a theatre major, I was a vocal major, so when I was there I was lucky enough to train with Houston Grand Opera. It was so funny because they wanted me to focus on opera, but I was kind of that student that had her mind made up that I was doing musical theatre. I think that what trained me well at HSPVA in the vocal department was the technique and being able to sight read, being able to learn music quickly, all of those technical aspects of being a performer that people don't think about were instilled and were trained into me which was so beneficial. College was very great for me because I went to NYU, so that helped as well, but I felt like I had a little bit of a leg up because it wasn't like I was taking music theory for the first time in college, I got all of that in high school and I felt a bit ahead of the curve. I had such great teachers and I loved that I wasn't just vocal, I had friends in every department so it was very inspiring to be surrounded by every different type of art.
Speaking of New York, I saw you lived there for a while, what is it like coming back and being back in the arts scene in Houston?
I'm so excited! It's crazy. I was thinking about it the other day and I haven't been there [Houston] since I was eighteen for longer than a week, so the fact that I get to be there for five weeks is just thrilling. I've always wanted to work at the Alley Theatre, and it's so cool that I'm coming with a show that I got cast in out of New York to come back home to Houston. I'm excited to experience home again in a different way and to actually be able to perform in one of these theatres that I grew up watching in, especially in this show because I play a teenager, and that's the last time I was in Houston-I was a teenager. It's going to be interesting watching all the audience-goers and being like "Oh my gosh, last time I sat in this theatre I was your age".
I saw that you worked on Disney's Cruise Line and I thought that was so cool, how do you think that strengthened your performance experience as well?
It was so great! I auditioned for Disney Cruise Line in 2007, I originally auditioned for FINDING NEMO. They liked me and they asked if I would be interested in doing cruise line, and I didn't know there was a cruise line at the time! I was a junior in college when I was offered the job and it was right before my 21st birthday, and I remember I had already been accepted to a study abroad program to study Shakespeare in London but I thought "I think I need to do this". So I took that instead and took a leave of absence from college for a year, under the pretense that I would come back and finish school. I worked on the Wonder and I got to be in the closing cast of Hercules: The Muse-ical which was incredible. We did three shows on board, and it was just incredible because it was my first time learning how to maintain a show long-term. We would do two shows-if not three-a day, every day of the week, because we were on three or four day cruises.
I felt like it taught me professionalism, it taught me how to maintain a show, and I think it really instilled in me a really good mentality that every audience is different and so every audience deserves your best performance. With Nemo, for example, I did about 2,300 shows in my time, and so I felt so grateful to leave knowing I had been trained by the people around me and observed other professionals around me that always brought out the best in performance and always challenged you to make each performance new no matter how many times you've done it.
I also saw that you've played Gretchen before, how are you playing off of that having done it previously?
So I played it in La Jolla and in Cleveland Playhouse, so it's been two cities. I got to come in and kind of make the character my own, obviously with the help of our brilliant Director, Christopher Ashley, and the Associate Director Amy Corcoran. Chris was very helpful in bringing out different aspects of what makes each character tick, what makes us weird, and what makes the scene move forward. Amy has been coming to each city and helping us check in with the show and make sure all of the stories we're telling and plot points are still getting across with the choices we're making. I think in each city it changes a little bit because we as a cast have gotten closer. I'm lucky because the girl that plays Hannah, we're really good friends offstage, so that changes our performance. In La Jolla we were just getting to know each other and now we know each other really well, so that works with the entire cast.
How would you describe Gretchen? Do you have any similarities to her?
It's so funny, I do have similarities to her! Obviously Bridget Carpenter wrote an amazing show, so she gave us our characters, and Tom and Brian with music and lyrics-they wrote an incredible show for us to insert ourselves into. It was so interesting finding who Gretchen was, for a little while we went through this stage of "Oh, maybe she's going to be a kind of punky Avril Lavigne" and then it turned back around once I met with Emily, our costume designer. It ended up being "Oh, actually she's kind of that girl who is finding herself", which was totally me my freshman year of high school! In my freshman year of high school, I didn't know who I was fashion-wise! I was wearing patent leather Doc Martins and corduroy pants and WAY too much fringe and colored mascara; I was just that girl that would try any trend. I think that's what is so cool about Gretchen, she can be kind of quiet and doesn't want to stand up to the mean girls, she just kind of wants to be with her friends, but she lets her personality come through in her sense of fashion. They listened to me when I said that about my freshman year, which was really cool, so I get to wear purple mascara and have rainbow colored hair. She's just very colorful and youthful, and everything I tried to be my freshman year and wish I could have continued to be. I feel like Gretchen knows herself pretty well.
That's awesome. It's like freshman Jennafer is reincarnated into this character!
Yes it's so funny! I would say so. But Gretchen is so much cooler than freshman Jennafer. Gretchen wears these clothes because that's who she is, she's not trying to be cool, she's just being herself, but I look back and think, "Why did I ever do this? Why did I think that was cool?"
So lastly I want to ask you, what would you do if you could swap places with one of your parents for a day?
Oh my goodness. I would love to swap with either one of them, honestly. I am so much like my father, but I'm so much like my mother as well. They've both made so many sacrifices for me to do what I love and they've been so supportive, they are incredible in and of themselves. Obviously they came from a different generation, so I know that even sometimes when I try to put myself in their shoes, I can't comprehend that. But if I could switch places with my mom, it would be really cool because she's such a great caretaker of her family and makes sure everything is in place, and I think it would be interesting to see things from her perspective. And then my dad is a business guy and he's a fisherman, and it would be interesting to switch with him, because he's a man and it would be completely different to see things through a man's eyes! But also just to see how similar we are and how he juggles everything. I'm in awe of both of my parents, it'd be a hard choice to make. It would be cool to switch spots just to see the things they do on a daily basis.
FREAKY FRIDAY opens June 2 and continues through July 2 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays - Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets start at $26. For information, please call 713-220-57100 or visit alleytheatre.org.