GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Denise Summerford of Primary Stages' 'In Transit'

With the high turnover at the judges’ table on American Idol, it’s probable the show will eventually be casting about for a replacement for new judge Jennifer Lopez. May we suggest...Denise Summerford, now appearing in the off-Broadway musical In Transit? Given that more Idol alums seem to end up on stage than the pop charts, “they should come to somebody from musical theater,” Summerford says. Plus, she already has experience taking over a job from Lopez. It happened in the early ’90s, when Summerford was cast in a European tour of a revue called Golden Musicals of Broadway. On an earlier leg of the tour, her track had been filled by a young dancer from the Bronx, Jennifer Lopez.

Here’s another link between Summerford and J. Lo: pop music. Summerford hasn’t had pop hits like Lopez, but almost all the musicals she’s done professionally—including her four on Broadway, Grease, Rocky Horror, Saturday Night Fever and Taboo—have a pop/rock score. Her last show in NYC prior to In Transit was Shout!, a jukebox musical of 1960s hits by British female singers like Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Lulu.

“I think the oldest musical I’ve done is Company,” says Summerford, who played Marta on a 1999 tour. “I love the old musicals, but I’m not drawn to them as an artist. My whole energy is more contemporary, more edgy. I don’t have a very typical musical-theater look. I can’t really play the blond ingenue, I’m not your typical character woman. I’m kind of in between, like a quirky ingenue, so my type doesn’t lend itself to the older musicals, and my voice lends itself better to pop music.”

In Transit, which opens tonight at Primary Stages on East 59th St., is an a cappella musical that was originally performed by its writers, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, in their a cappella singing group. It was featured in the 2003 New York Fringe Festival under the title Along the Way. Summerford has been involved with the show since the summer of 2008, when it was workshopped at both the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and off-Broadway’s York Theatre. This is her first full production since, well, a production of another kind: the birth of her daughter, Addianna. Summerford’s last show before she had a baby was Shout! The Mod Musical, which ran off-Broadway during the second half of 2006. Since becoming a mother, she’s worked mostly on short-term projects like readings and concerts.

In In Transit, the characters are connected by their encounters on the subway, and while it’s an ensemble piece, Summerford’s Jane could be considered the central character. She’s an aspiring actress who’s stuck temping at a Wall Street firm—which, coincidentally, Summerford really did for about a year and a half after she first moved to New York (though she has kind memories of her time at Goldman Sachs: “These head honcho guys were so interested in what I really did, always asking ‘How’d your audition go?’”).

Because In Transit is a cappella, all seven cast members sing—i.e., provide the accompaniment an orchestra would have—almost every number where they’re not singing lead. Of doing a musical without traditional music, Summerford says, “The vocal demands are crazy, because in a normal musical theater piece you have some downtime, you have the orchestra playing incidental music or the underscoring. But that’s us—we do that all. It takes stamina and incredible focus.

“I’ve sung backup for many different artists and was also a session singer, so I’ve had a lot of experience in harmony work and I have a very good ear,” she adds, “but a cappella is a whole other beast. It’s one thing to have a great voice, it’s another thing know how to blend, read music, tune yourself to other singers. It’s very, very difficult.”

Between the types of shows she’s done and her gigs outside musical theater, Summerford has distinguished herself more as a singer than dancer. But her performing began with dance, when she was a 3-year-old in Hamilton Township, N.J. (outside Princeton), and her mother put her in ballet and tap classes at a local studio that a friend of her mom’s had opened. “Where other kids were crying and screaming for their mom, I just went right in and took to it like a fish in water. I couldn’t wait every week to go,” Summerford recalls. She continued to train at that studio through high school. As a teen, she also studied with Princeton Ballet and went to NYC for classes with the likes of Finis Jhung and Phil Black.

“My dreams were to be on Broadway as a dancer,” Summerford says. “And then I had a high school teacher tell me, ‘I think you need to really start studying voice and acting, because there’s always a height requirement for dancers in the city, and if you’re under 5'5, it’s going to be difficult for you.’” Instead of resenting such a harsh assessment, the 5-foot-2 Summerford today says, “I’m glad he pushed me in that way, because it’s true.” She still loves dancing—“I’m obsessed with So You Think You Can Dance”—but hasn’t taken a dance class in years and admits, “I miss it.”

Summerford majored in acting at the College of New Jersey (then called Trenton State) and worked two summers during college at Surflight Theatre on the Jersey Shore, where she performed in such musicals as Chicago, A Chorus Line, Mame (she was Gooch), Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, 42nd Street and Meet Me in St. Louis—and where she met actor John Summerford, whom she married in 1995.

She got the part on the Golden Musicals tour, taking over for Jennifer Lopez, during her senior year and was able to complete her last semester’s credits as independent study. Early jobs following college included Promises, Promises at the Goodspeed Opera House and Chorus Line at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Fla., where she played Diana Morales (as she had at Surflight). In 1995 she was in the original Las Vegas company of Beehive—like Shout!, a tribute to 1960s female pop artists—and she later did that show at a couple of regional houses.

Her principal roles regionally have included Sonia in They’re Playing Our Song at Florida’s Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Sheila in a concert staging of Hair at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires (both in 2005) and Catherine in Pippin at Long Island’s Gateway Playhouse. She was also in Smokey Joe’s Cafe at American Musical Theater of San Jose, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in upstate New York and Amanda Dehnert’s 2003 revisionist Annie at Trinity Rep.

Summerford did several national tours—Chess, Leader of the Pack, The Who’s Tommy, Grease—before making her Broadway debut. After a year on the Grease tour playing an ensemble part and understudying Rizzo, she became a vacation swing in the first Grease revival in 1997. She was later in the original Broadway company of Saturday Night Fever, though she never appeared on stage: She was one of six performers who sang backup on many numbers from a studio backstage. The extra voices were needed because it was a dance-heavy show for the onstage ensemble, and Summerford remembers an intense audition process. “They were very picky about what voices they wanted,” she says. “There were all of these recording artists and session singers in there because the musical director and the composer really wanted that Bee Gees-type sound.” Over the course of the show’s 14-month run, the mezzo Summerford variously sang mezzo, alto and soprano tracks. “It was such a great job, because we could show up five minutes to ‘Places,’ in our pajamas if we wanted, since nobody could see us,” she says.

In 2001, she was a replacement swing in the Broadway cast of The Rocky Horror Show and covered the Janet and Columbia roles. Her most recent Broadway show was the Rosie O’Donnell-produced Taboo, which battled negative buzz even before it opened and lasted just a few months during the winter of 2003-04. “It was frustrating and amazing,” says Summerford, proceeding to describe the positive first: “It was my very first experience with an original musical, being in the original cast. But I think we were doomed from the beginning—just bad press for Rosie at the time.” Summerford reunited with Taboo star Euan Morton for Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic in the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. She also found one of her best friends in the cast of Taboo: Brooke Elliott, now the star of TV’s Drop Dead Diva.

Being in Taboo, Summerford got a reality check about the influence that money and marketability wield on Broadway. “It opened my eyes to a lot, like when the curtain is pulled back and Dorothy realizes there’s no Wizard,” she says. “To see what all goes into making a Broadway show, how many cooks are in the kitchen... We did a workshop reading before rehearsals started, and what we had in that room was amazing. Then we started getting into rehearsals and getting into previews and all of that started getting stripped away. People [are] telling Rosie to make it more commercial. We all kind of watched it go overboard. We were doing a show about Boy George and his life. His life was gritty and rough: He was a punk kid growing up in London, coming up through the music scene in the ’80s, his addiction to drugs and all of that. It’s not bubblegum.

“When I was working on Taboo, it became so obvious that it’s not necessarily about the art of it or the work of it, it’s what’s going to sell,” she continues. “Doing regional theater and working on new pieces out of town, like at the O’Neill or New York Stage and Film, is so refreshing because the pressure isn’t on. You can really get into the work.” Less starry-eyed about Broadway since the Taboo experience, Summerford nevertheless notes, “The shows that I’ve done, I would always pinch myself walking in the stage door and remind myself that it was a blessing I was given, because there are so many talented people who will never get to Broadway.”

One of her most memorable engagements took place not only away from Broadway but outside New York altogether. In March 2002, she and the rest of the cast of Hot Mikado, which was then playing at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., were invited to perform at a senators’ luncheon at the White House. “We met at the theater and got picked up by the Secret Service—the whole nine yards,” she says. “They told us to leave everything at the theater, because we can’t bring anything into the White House.” So she didn’t even take her purse, which became a bit of a problem when she had to go through security to enter the White House. Her name was on the guest list, but—this being just six months after 9/11—no one was going to let her in without identification. “The company manager had my headshot, so there I am with a guard at the White House going, ‘This is all I have, here’s my headshot…’” She was admitted (by security guards suppressing their laughter), and performed for an audience that included George W. Bush and the First Lady, Laura Bush.

Another place Summerford was surprised to find herself performing was in Boy George’s home. During Taboo, “he took a liking to me and my voice,” she says. “We would go to his huge apartment in Soho and I’d record backup vocals for his next album. It was just so surreal, because as a kid I loved him. I remember sitting there during one of our sessions, and there’s all these pictures of Culture Club all over, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘How did I even get here?!’”

She has sung backup in concerts for Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Deborah Gibson and Sheena Easton, whom she met when Easton played Rizzo in Grease. Since 2005, Summerford has performed regularly with 1960s chart-topper Lou Christie (“Lightnin’ Strikes”), including in his shows with fellow doowop-era stars Bobby Rydell and Dion. Summerford also is a lead singer in the New Deco Orchestra, which is just being formed under the direction of Manny Moreira (a pit musician for In the Heights) and will specialize in electronica-style versions of songs from all eras. 

Currently, she is working on her own album of children’s music—original songs and covers done in a fun rock beat that both kids and their parents can enjoy. “It’s amazing to me how we dumb down music for kids these days,” says Summerford, whose daughter just turned 3. “One day I thought, You know, I’m going to put in something Mommy likes and see how she reacts. So I put in the B-52’s, and she went bonkers. One day she had a playdate, a bunch of her friends came over and I put in the B-52’s, and they all loved this music. There’s a real need for music for kids that their parents also like to listen to, like in the car when you’re driving miles and miles and miles.”

Summerford got pregnant with Addianna two weeks after Shout! played its final performance in December 2006. Not long after the show closed, she had brunch with her castmates but wasn’t planning to share her news yet. Except Erica Schroeder told the group she was pregnant, so Summerford couldn’t resist. The two former costars now have daughters the same age.

Once they had a child, Summerford and her husband—who’s become a director—realized they’d outgrown their studio apartment in Manhattan, and they bought a house in New Paltz, about 70 miles north of the city. They’ve begun to get involved with the two Equity theaters in the area, Shadowland and Half Moon. Denise helped cast Shadowland’s latest season, and casting is emerging as a sideline for her. She first got into it when she was pregnant and unable to audition, and has done some work for Gayle Seay’s casting office.

Photos of Denise, from top: outside 59E59 Theaters while In Transit was in previews; as Jane of In Transit with (from left) Hannah Laird, Graham Stevens and Tommar Wilson; doing the time warp in Broadway’s Rocky Horror Show; center, in Shout! The Mod Musical with Julie Dingman-Evans (left) and Erica Schroeder; with Boy George backstage during the run of Taboo; on the steps of the White House, in costume as Hot Mikado’s Pitti-Sing; with oldies pop star Lou Christie. [In Transit photo by James Leynse]

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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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