Falling in Love With Nashville, Jessica Grové Stars in Studio Tenn's THE SOUND OF MUSIC

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For Jessica Grové, playing Maria Rainer in Studio Tenn's production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music is, quite simply, a part of the natural evolution of theater. After all, she's already played Marta, Brigitta and Liesl-so playing the young novitiate who comes into the Austrian home of the Von Trapps to become governess to the seven children of the imperious Georg Von Trapp just makes sense.

And, truth be told, Jessica Grové is so lovely and confident, so talented and self-assured--with charm overflowing-it is already clear that Nashville audiences will fall a little bit in love with her and it is a match made in theatrical heaven.

Earlier this year, Grové charmed local theater-goers lucky enough to be on hand for the one-night-only performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, the annual springtime musical that highlights the efforts of Show Hope, the charity founded by Mary Beth and Steven Curtis Chapman, which was directed and designed for the third year by Studio Tenn's Matt Logan. He takes on the same responsibilities for The Sound of Music, which culminates his theater company's first season in residence at the historic Franklin Theatre.

"I love it here," Grové says during a phone interview on her second day of rehearsals, to which she was en route as we talked. "I was here for Cinderella earlier this year and absolutely fell in love with Nashville!"

Her Cinderella experience resonated even more deeply for the actress-she and husband Dan Cooney are the proud parents of a friendly and rambunctious eight-month-old boy-because of Show Hope's dedication to helping adoptive parents and their children come together with grace.

"It was absolutely awe-inspiring," Grové remembers. "The wonderful thing about doing a benefit performance like that is that it's not about you. Show Hope is such an amazing cause and Steven and Mary Beth are such incredible, loving human beings who were so amazingly generous to us while we were here."

Working with Logan-whom she calls "such a visionary"-is making her return to Nashville even more satisfying. "We just started rehearsals yesterday [May 15]," she explains. "We worked on music and staged the first scene with the children. They are all so adorable and cute and lovely and talented. I'm really excited and Matt has a beautiful concept for the production."

She credits the birth of her son and motherhood with making her even more prepared to play Maria: "There's this whole new life experience that has matured me in a way that has made me ready for Maria."Making the transition to Maria comes just two years after Grové played Liesl for The MUNY Theatre of St. Louis. "I have not played Maria before; I've played Marta, Brigitta and Liesl, so now I'm Maria, which seems very natural, in a way. There's not really a huge age difference between Maria and Liesl, although Maria is often played older I think. In reality, I believe she was only 20 when she first came to the family."

Accompanied by her mother, who helps out with the baby ("Right now he's a screaming eight-month-old because we're driving and he just won't keep still," she laughs) while Grové is working, she has thrown herself into the process, ensuring that she's ready for the arrival of Ben Davis, her longtime friend who will be playing Georg Von Trapp.

"Ben and I go way back," she says, explaining that she met Davis when she was first cast in the Broadway production of Les Miserables-the first of five shows they've done together. "We're almost like family now."

According to Davis, it was Grové's husband (actor Dan Cooney, who's joining the Broadway company of Mamma Mia as Bill on June 4) who might have planted the seed with Logan to cast him as Captain Von Trapp. "As I understand it," Davis says, "Jessica's husband was talking to Matt about Von Trapp and he mentioned my name as someone Matt should think about."

Jessica-Grov-Stars-as-Maria-in-Studio-Tenns-THE-SOUND-OF-MUSIC-20010101

The popularity of The Sound of Music makes it an ideal choice for Studio Tenn's season-ending production, Grové suggests. "One thing I know is that it's a great show to do if you want to sell tickets," she says. "It's got children, singing nuns, a love story, very familiar music and there's something very timeless about The Sound of Music."

Taking on her second Rodgers and Hammerstein heroine on a local stage, Grové can now be claimed as "Nashville's own," so completely has she become a part of the local theaterati, charming audiences and castmates in the process.  During her time here, she has impressed the veteran members of the Sound of Music cast both with her work ethic and her talent.

"It's like she's been here with all of us all these years," says Shelean Newman, who plays one of the "singing nuns" to whom Grové refers. "It's seamless. We're all on the same page, and it's about doing the work and making it as great as possible."

And Newman is something of an expert on the role, after all she's not far removed from her own starring performance as Maria in a Tennessee Repertory Theatre production of The Sound of Music that audiences-and critics-still remember fondly and discuss in hushed, reverent tones.

Christopher Bosen (who plays Franz, the major domo of the Von Trapp household) says that although he's only known Grové a short time, he's been impressed with her ability to fit in with the Nashville actors in the cast.

"Although I've only known her a week, I think Jessica is one of those people who would fit in with any company and just about any group of people, frankly," he says. "She's a Broadway veteran who instantly dispels the negative New York attitude stereotype that gets thrown around too often by people living outside that city. Instead, Jessica combines her astounding talent-wait 'til you hear that voice-with a charm and friendly nature that are right at home in Music City."

That makes a whole lot of sense because Grové loves Music City, referring to her time spent rehearsing for The Sound of Music as more like "a working vacation" than a job: "I love Nashville, I've just really fallen in love with it," she says. "The people have such a wonderful sense of Southern hospitality and you begin to have a little bit of a Southern drawl after even a short time here. Everyone is nice and happy-New York City is faster-paced and there's less eye contact and less formality, people are more about getting through their day.

"In Nashville, people call me 'ma'am,' which I love. And we're staying in Liepers Fork, which is so beautiful. Yesterday, I was able to walk across the road where there were some horses and my son got to pet a horse. How wonderful is that?"

Studio Tenn's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music takes to the stage of the historic Franklin Theatre in Williamson County, running May 31-June 17, completing the company's 2011-12 season. For tickets, go to www.FranklinTheatre.com.

Jessica Grové as Maria in Studio Tenn's The Sound of Music/photograph by Anthony Matula

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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