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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Michelle Lookadoo of 'Little Mermaid'

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Say you're a young woman trying to establish yourself as a professional dancer. A ballet company that's employed you for a year tells you they're letting you go because you're "too big." You then audition for the Rockettes and are told you're too short—by a quarter of an inch.

These kinds of experiences early in a career could really dampen someone's enthusiasm, not to mention confidence. They actually happened to Michelle Lookadoo, and what does she have to say about the business? "I love auditions. It is the most fun that I have."

With relentless cheer like that, she should be working in Disney World. Matter of fact, she is. Well, she's working in Disney's world. Lookadoo currently portrays one of Ariel's sisters in The Little Mermaid. She left the ensemble of Mary Poppins to join the Mermaid cast. Before that, she made her Broadway debut in Beauty and the Beast.

She already had a Disney history prior to reaching Broadway. Her last two jobs before bowing on the Great White Way were regional productions of Beauty and the Beast. In 2004 she played a Silly Girl in Beauty at Massachusetts' North Shore Music Theatre and then Babette at Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City. So she was more than ready when a part opened up in the Broadway production for a Silly Girl, understudying Babette. She'd auditioned for Broadway's Beauty repeatedly in the past, but this time she won the job. Lookadoo was in the middle of a shift waitressing at Bobby Flay's restaurant Bolo on the East Side when she got the call. "I was at the hostess podium on the phone crying," she says, "and I announced to the whole restaurant, 'I'm going to be on Broadway!'"

Lookadoo performed in Beauty from April 2005 to August 2006. Now she's back at the same theater, the Lunt-Fontanne, for Mermaid—with the same six flights of stairs to climb to her dressing room. She says she counted once during her run in Beauty and the Beast: She went up and down more than 620 steps during every performance.

She has even more costume changes in Mermaid than she did in Beauty (where her roles included a "Be Our Guest" napkin). In addition to mersister Adella, Lookadoo plays one of the princesses vying to become Prince Eric's bride in Act 2. She's also a seagull in "Positoovity," a swan in "Kiss the Girl" and a fish downstage during "Under the Sea." And—secret revealed here!—she's the Ariel stunt double: That's Lookadoo the audience sees as Ariel while Sierra Boggess has to transform from mermaid to human.

Lookadoo broke into musical theater on a dare. Back in 2002, her best friend Ty was urging her to switch from ballet to theater, as he had done. He "triple dog dared" her to audition for a musical, promising to take her to dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House if she went through with it. So off she went to an open dancer call for My Fair Lady at Paper Mill Playhouse, still very much in ballet mode. "I showed up in a black leotard and pink tights," she recalls, "with a four-page résumé and my high school senior picture, wallet size. I had no idea what I was doing. I borrowed one of Ty's [music] books—the only one I knew stuff from, Phantom."

She was hired. And she found working in the theater luxurious compared to ballet. "It was one of [director] Robert Johanson's last shows at Paper Mill, so everything was lavish and wonderful," says Lookadoo. "We had costumes made for us—they don't do this in ballet! I had someone doing my wig—they don't do that in ballet! I had a dresser!"

Her future was sealed when My Fair Lady's choreographer, Michael Lichtefeld, asked her to be in Kiss Me, Kate, which he was choreographing for Westchester Broadway Theatre. After doing that show, she had her Equity card. "Then it was a whole new ball of wax," she says. "It wasn't like cute Michelle coming in in my leotard and tights: 'Hire me! Hire me!' It was: I am an Equity girl, and all of these other girls know what they're doing, and they have books this thick. So I started studying." She took Andy Blankenbuehler's class at Broadway Dance Center—"I had to learn how to dance in heels rather than pointe shoes"—and she resumed voice lessons, which she'd last taken during her early college years.

Lookadoo returned to Westchester Broadway Theatre in 2003 for Singin' in the Rain and later appeared in Brigadoon at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars. In New York, she's been seen in the 2003 Fringe Festival production Buddy Cianci: The Musical and in a dancing role in a nonmusical, Romola and Nijinksy, at Primary Stages. She's also had a featured movie role, with her own trailer during filming. As one of Evan Rachel Wood's school chums in last fall's Across the Universe (now out on DVD), Lookadoo is in the prom, bowling alley and math class scenes—all set to Beatles tunes.

During her own high school years, it was almost all about ballet. Lookadoo spent her summers in New York attending classes at the American Ballet Theatre. Shortly before graduating, she was accepted into the Richmond Ballet. She dropped plans to attend Butler University in Indiana on a voice scholarship and enrolled instead at Virginia Commonwealth University, so she could attend school while working at the ballet. It was a grueling schedule: performance classes all morning at VCU, two ballet company classes in the afternoon, followed by a three-hour rehearsal, then back to campus for her non-major evening classes.

After two years in Richmond, she was offered a soloist slot with Greensboro Ballet of North Carolina. She still wanted to get a college degree, so she continued studying at Virginia Commonwealth via the Internet. But she switched her major from a double in dance and vocal performance—obviously not an option for online coursework—to English. Lookadoo had wanted to leave Richmond Ballet "to go somewhere smaller where I could dance bigger parts," she says. At Greensboro she had such roles as the Canary Fairy in Sleeping Beauty and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, though the company turned out to be too small-scale. "I had to, like, wake up at 8 a.m. and do school shows," she says.

From Greensboro, she moved on to Lexington Ballet in Kentucky. "When I joined the company, that year they were doing a lot of contemporary, jazzy kind of works, and the next year they would be doing classical works," she explains. When it came to time for her contract to be renewed for the second year, the company director called her in—and fired her. "He said he thought I was too big to look good doing classical works." Though her tenure with Lexington ended rather unpleasantly, she had begun dating a fellow company member, Victor Bonnici ("the only straight single man in Lexington Ballet, so all the girls were fighting for him," she says). He stayed with Lexington after she went on to her next company, New Jersey Ballet, and they continued to date on and off. They broke up for about six months in 2001, but got back together after 9/11. Bonnici moved to New York the following year, and they were married in the summer of 2005, three months after Lookadoo made her Broadway debut. Bonnici has since given up dancing and recently graduated from the French Culinary Institute.

In her two years in the New Jersey Ballet corps, Lookadoo enjoyed the variety of works she got to perform—everything from For Ella, composed of dances set to Ella Fitzgerald songs, to La Bayadère, which is straight out of the canon. It was during the company's summer hiatus that she was in My Fair Lady. Once fall rolled around, she had to choose between staying in theater or returning to ballet. The ballet company director didn't discourage her from making the change, acknowledging that her strong stage presence might be better deployed in theater. "Ballet is like a battle of genetics for the most part," says Lookadoo, "and I was never going to be an amazing ballet dancer because I was born without great turnout and I was born with okay extension but not amazing extension. But I have a lot of oomph."

She had dipped her toes into musical theater waters during a previous summer break from ballet. When Lookadoo was in Richmond, she'd performed in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at that city's Barksdale Theatre. And she'd participated in school plays, including a starring role as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. But, she says, "this whole time I thought musical theater was just silly. I never thought of it as something I thought I'd be interested in doing."

She had a whole bunch of interests growing up, and she's extremely grateful to her parents for indulging them all. "I would never be able to do this if my parents hadn't taught me...like...everything," says Lookadoo (whose family name was anglicized from Loucadou when ancestors emigrated from France in the 1700s). "They were like, 'Do you want to do it? Here you go. Do it!' They've always been so supportive." Dancing started at age 3, and over the years she also gave piano, violin, flute, karate and modeling a try. She started private singing lessons in ninth grade, on the recommendation of her school's choir director.

An only child whose father was in the Air Force, Lookadoo was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and lived in Montgomery, Ala., and Hickory, N.C., before the family settled in Radford, Va., where she went to junior high and high school. Add in her later ballet gigs, and Lookadoo's life before coming to New York was a grand tour of the South. She now lives in New Jersey, in the same apartment building as Kara Klein, the March 2006 Gypsy of the Month, who was in Beauty and the Beast with Lookadoo at North Shore. They get together to play Scrabble—one of Lookadoo's hobbies—while their husbands play Guitar Hero.

Lookadoo also plays Scrabble frequently online at the British games website Pixie Pit, and she used to play against a dresser during every performance of Beauty and the Beast. "If I could have another job, it would be professional Scrabble player," she says (her best-ever score for a single word: 84 points). She's also into crossword puzzles and has started a book club. "I love words," says Lookadoo. "I've always loved writing and literature." That made it easy to pick a new major when she switched to distance learning to complete her college degree, though it did take her more than five years to graduate because she was working the whole time.

She has another hobby that's a bit more peculiar than word games. "This is going to make me sound like a dork: I'm a compulsive auditioner," Lookadoo says. "I love auditions." She suspects it may be because of the undivided attention you get, at least for 16 bars. "My parents have always said that I was a big old ham, and [at auditions] you're in a room with two, three, four, however many people and they have to listen to you. It's like your own performance." There have been times, Lookadoo says, when she's gone to three or four auditions a day. The list of Broadway productions she was called back for, but didn't get, before her Broadway debut include Phantom of the Opera, 42nd Street, Oklahoma, The Frogs, All Shook Up... "Auditioning is kind of like playing the lottery: You don't win unless you play," she says.

Her focus now is on nabbing principal roles. Toward that end, she takes acting classes with Allen Savage. "I really have this passion for doing a little more on stage than I'm doing now," Lookadoo says. Of course, she has plenty to do now—just without any speaking lines. "The cool thing about being in a Disney ensemble is you get so many things to play in a show," she says.

Lookadoo's original involvement with Little Mermaid was informally assisting choreographer Stephen Mear. During tech for Mary Poppins, for which Mears was co-choreographer, he asked her one day: "Have you ever been to an Equity chorus call?" He was about to conduct his first one, for Mermaid, and wasn't sure of the process. She says she replied to him: "Have I been to an Equity chorus call? I live there! What do you need to know?"

After attending the Mermaid auditions to teach the choreography, Lookadoo realized she wanted to be in the show herself. When she told Mear she'd like to be considered for a role, he told her she probably wasn't qualified in singing—which would be more demanding for the Mermaid ensemble than in Poppins. Unaware she had a classically trained coloratura, he thought of her mainly as a dancer. Since then, more and more people in the business have been getting to know her singing. In March, for instance, she performed in the Cabaret Cares concert series at West Bank Cafe.

Using her voice on stage is something Lookadoo wouldn't have been able to do if she'd stayed in ballet. Musical theater also has allowed her to feel more comfortable in her body. "One of the things I love about musical theater is that it accepts me the way I am," she says. With the pressure in ballet to be ultra-thin, "you don't really identify with being a woman for a very long time," she says. On the contrary, she says, Mear—whom she calls her "guardian choreographer angel"—tells her "I love your curves."

Another thing theater has allowed her to do that ballet never would is be creative with someone else's choreography. During rehearsals for Mary Poppins, Mear and choreographer Matthew Bourne instructed each pair of dancers playing statues in "Jolly Holiday" to improvise on the steps they were taught. It was also an opportunity she only could get as an original cast member. "The lift that I made up with Matt Loehr is going to be in that show forever," she says. "That's just so cool."

Top row of photos shows Michelle in Disney musicals on Broadway: (from left) as a mersister in The Little Mermaid; performing "Step in Time" in Mary Poppins; as a Silly Girl in Beauty and the Beast. Below them, other photos of Michelle: outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, her home for two shows; in the ballet studio at age 18; with husband Victor on their wedding day in 2005; performing in a piece created by choreographer Robert La Fosse for DanceBreak 2004, with Jason Lacayo; singing in a cabaret at West Bank Cafe last month.

The new musical play Paris Commune begins performances April 4 at the Public. Click here to read our interview with cast member Jeremy Shamos, who was seen earlier this season in the dramas 100 Saints You Should Know and Hunting and Gathering.


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Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels (read more...)

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