GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jenny-Lynn Suckling of 'All Shook Up'
It's an urban legend that someone named Titzling invented the brassiere and that a Mr. Crapper invented the toilet, but here's a true entry in the appropriately-named-for-one's-occupation annals: Jenny-Lynn Suckling has played a vampire in two different musicals, Dance of the Vampires and Dracula.
Her surname notwithstanding, it's not entirely coincidental Suckling has ended up in two goth showsshe seeks out roles contrary to those in which 5-foot-10-inch blondes are usually typecast. "I believe in being involved in dark pieces," says Suckling, "because I get stereotyped a lot in this business and I try so hard to fight that. I don't want to be your tall showgirl kind of thing. I'm a dark person anyway, so I love the grittiness of the shows... It's really important for me to follow that path."
Suckling has lightened up for the time being, as she's currently singing and dancing to Elvis tunes in All Shook Up. And posing: In the scene at the museum run by Miss Sandra, Suckling is one of the sculptures (the Three Graces) that come to life to "Let Yourself Go." But her main role in All Shook Up is one of the repressed, depressed townspeople whose joie de vivre is unleashed by the arrival of hottie rebel biker Chad.
Each of those townspeople has a backstory, though the audience may not realize it. "[Director] Chris Ashley was so wonderful about taking each and every one of us and creating characters, so we had some story that we were telling," explains Suckling, who wears a red wig in the show. "My character's name is Velma, and she's pretty much the trash whore: I hate my husband, and I cheat, and I go back to him, and then I go back to this other guy..."
Being "Velma" allows Suckling to act as well as danceand at this point in her career, she'd be glad to forsake the latter for the former. She's been auditioning for parts in television and nonmusical plays while accumulating acting credits as an understudy in musicals. For All Shook Up, she understudies both Leah Hocking (whom she also understudied in Dance of the Vampires) as Miss Sandra and Alix Korey as the harridan mayor, Matilda. Covering Korey gives her a challenge as an actress because the ensemble doesn't interact much with Matilda, so Suckling doesn't get to watch her do the role. "It's been a really great step in my career because I'm creating Matilda all on my own, only hearing her from the side of the stage. I never see her." Plus: "It's fabulous because it's a great comedy role."
Prior to All Shook Up, Suckling was in the ensemble of The Producers and understudied Ulla, going on "probably over a hundred times" as the Swedish bombshell opposite Matthew Broderick, among others, as Leo. (She appeared in the episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David performs in The Producers.) Her Broadway credits also include Annie Get Your Gun and Side Show. "I'm very proud," Suckling says about all her ensemble experience, "but on the other hand, I really want my own roles.
"I feel I've been very blessed," she continues, "to not cover a dancer who sings and acts. I've been covering actors who sing, except for Ulla." She also proved herself in a non-dancing role when she costarred in the 2003 off-Broadway revue Boobs! The Musical. "It was eight different characters and I created them all, and it was all comedy," says Suckling. "I went from a little child all the way to, basically, an 80-year-old. There was only three women and three men [in the cast]. It was a great start for me." The New York Times' enthusiastic review of Boobs! called her performance "impressive."
Revamping her professional goals is not new to Suckling; she did it, in fact, before she even had a profession. She was majoring in fashion merchandising when she left college to devote herself to dancing. Though she had been dancing since she was 3 (her mother was a ballerina), Suckling never thought about a future in musical theater while growing up in Mill City, Oregon, pop. 1,200. "I had no idea about Broadway. I mean, I knew about Chorus Line, that was it." She studied with Sally Mack, founder of a prestigious dance school in Portland; former Broadway hoofer Julane Stites; and the Oregon Ballet. In college she bounced from major to major, until a dean sensed why she was dissatisfied with all of them (her breaking down in tears in his office may have clued him in). "He said, 'I don't feel like you should be here at Oregon State. I think your true love is to be a dancer, and I don't know why you're here, trying to prove that you need to be in business, communications, broadcasting.' It wasn't my mother and father; I felt in order to be successful, that's what I had to do. He said, 'I want you to find an arts school'which I didn't know anything about because I came from such a small town, nobody talked about that. So I went up [to Portland] and I joined the Jefferson Dance Company and got really strong, and then came to New York... I came here specifically to be with the Alvin Ailey company. I auditioned and I didn't get it. I knew I had this really big voice, but I wasn't trained. I thought, I'm just going to continue to study, and one thing led to another, and I met Ann Reinking and she took me under her wing."
Reinking, whom Suckling met when she took her class at the old Broadway Dance Center, cast her in the ensemble of Applause when she choreographed it for New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 1996. The production, directed by Gene Saks, then hit the road for what was supposed to be a pre-Broadway tour, but it folded after just one city. Reinking also introduced Suckling to producers Fran and Barry Weissler, who gave her a part in Chicago on Broadway, and got her involved in the workshops that led to Fosse. Suckling was in the Fosse cast when it played in Canada before opening on Broadway, but "I noticed I wasn't being used as a singer, and I said, I can't do this. I have a voice, and I have to move on." (She later rejoined the show during its Broadway run.)
In pursuit of an acting career, Suckling decided to stay in Southern California after performing in the world premiere of Dracula, the Musical at La Jolla Playhouse in fall of 2001 (she wasn't in the Broadway production last year). Though she had a number of meetings and auditions for commercials and sitcoms, she left L.A. after eight months with just one screen role, as a dancer. But it was in one of the most talked-about movies of the year: Gigli, the box office fiasco starring then couple and tabloid fixation Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. When filming began for her scenein which Affleck and Lopez's abductee (played by Justin Bartha) wanders into a video shoot on the beachSuckling was lying low, as she had gotten into the movie because her husband knew the choreographer, Marguerite Derricks. "All of the girls are decked out every time they come down [onto the set], because [director Martin Brest is] trying to see who's going to be where in this number that we do. So Marguerite puts me way in the back. I didn't really care; I just wanted a job so I could pay my bills. She had her main dancers that she always works with in L.A., and I was just kind of a favor of a favor." Nonetheless, Sucklinga redhead at the timecaught Brest's eye and he moved her front and center. So that's her in the green and white bikini standing right behind Bartha and the young woman he flirts withand bouncing up and down with her arms raised when they start dancing.
Suckling returned to New York to do Dance of the Vampires (after flying back and forth eight times for callbacks; she was a final contender for the role that ultimately went to Hocking). That began an involuntary three-year separation from her husband, J. Robert Spencer, whom she met when they were in Side Show together and who's been costarring as Nick Massi, one of the Four Seasons, in Jersey Boys at La Jolla. He moved back to New York this spring to prep for Jersey Boys' planned Broadway debut.
As Suckling works on diversifying her performance portfolio, she's also considering options outside the theaterincluding fashion, the field she abandoned to dance full-time. "I started taking some classes at FIT, but mostly for the music industry, becoming an A&R [executive]," she says. "Oddly enough, I've been approached twice in L.A. and once here to be a manager for talent, and I think that's something I'm interested in down the road. I love fashion and I love to manage, so we'll see how that all correlates." In other words, as a certain pelvis-swiveling icon once sang, she'll continue to follow that dream wherever that dream may lead.
Photos of Jenny-Lynn, from top: with (a life-size picture of) All Shook Up star Cheyenne Jackson outside the Palace Theatre; with Brandon Savage in Boobs! The Musical; with Michelle Kittrell, left, and Cara Cooper, right, in All Shook Up [photo by Joan Marcus].