BWW Interview: Associate Director/Choreographer Jenny Barlow of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at Hale Centre Theatre Sandy
When Jenny Barlow's name is on a playbill, theatergoers anticipate an exceptional theater experience.
After a 15-year performing career -- with the Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet West, Guangzhou Ballet in China, Utah Ballet, Tuacahn and the Radio City Rockettes -- Barlow turned to directing and choreographing. Her credits also include Owner/Artistic Director of the Barlow Arts Conservatory, which was named Outstanding School three times over by the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix Ballet Competition. And she is a five-time recipient of the Best of State Choreography medal.
But there's more: Barlow is a member of the Tony-Award winning 42nd.club, which is producing Hadestown and Be More Chill on Broadway, and Waitress in London.
Following spectacular recent productions of Anything Goes and Daddy Long Legs at Hale Center Theater Orem, she continues her 10th season with Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy, and her current project there is associate director/choreographer for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.
For the staid Hale Centre Sandy, with its focus on highly popular family musicals (The Wizard of Oz is the current mainstage production), AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a departure. But thankfully, the Tony-winning musical is in Barlow's hands. And she was able to cast an exceptionally talented New York City dancer-actress for the lead role of Lise.
BroadwayWorld interviewed Barlow on her work with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and the performance of Juliet Doherty.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is unarguably a very dance-heavy musical, certainly more so in recent Broadway history. Explain your challenges and how they were overcome for this staging.
This is my 10th season with the Hale Centre Theatre, and it's no secret that the heaviest dance musicals generally come my way. It takes me 30-50 hours, not including prep. time, cleaning, run-throughs and tech to set the choreography on a musical. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS has required over 100 hours of rehearsal to create just the choreography. That's a huge job for both the choreographer and the cast.
This cast is well-trained, very fast and hardworking. I'm so grateful for cast members' professionalism and discipline. This feat would not have been possible without their dedication to this challenging process and production.
The demands of this show have definitely required us to put in a lot of extra time. A lot of daytime rehearsals and early start times for evening rehearsals. It has been an all consuming process, and I have loved every second. This show is a dream come true for me as a choreographer/director. It's the blend of two worlds: I love very much classical ballet and musical theater. I'm sad my involvement will end soon with the show's opening, but I will be back frequently to watch the show. I want to soak up every moment I can.
You were able to cast Juliet Doherty, bringing her in from New York City. How was this possible, and what delights you most about her in the role?
The producers, Mark and Sally Dietlein, knew casting both the role of Lise and Jerry would be challenging. I'm very close friends with both Krista King-Doherty (Juliet's mother) and Juliet herself. We have old Radio City ties from when Juliet performed Clara as a teen at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. We have also been in the same ballet competition circuit for years, and I frequently have Juliet's mom choreograph and coach my students at the Barlow Arts Conservatory.
I had mentioned to Krista months ago about the possibility of Juliet auditioning for Lise. Juliet has been very involved in film the past few years, so when auditions rolled around, I felt like it would be a long shot to get her here and for her to have the availability for the run. Krista asked her if she would like to audition. She didn't even let her mom finish the sentence, and said, "Yes!" She has loved this role and movie since she was a little girl and says it a dream come true for her to perform Lise.
The Dietleins have taken great care to make sure she is well-situated while she is here. They care very much about the well-being of their actors, and I'm so grateful they were willing to offer her the contract they did. We could not do this production at this high of a level without her.
Juliet has been living with me and my family which had been very valuable for the creative process. We spend hours dissecting rehearsal footage and make changes and edits together. It's been very a collaborative and fulfilling process.
Juliet is a world-class ballerina and quite famous in the ballet world. She won the Gold Medal at the Youth American Grand Prix Ballet Competition finals, twice. The Youth American Grand Prix is the largest ballet competition in the world. The finals are held at Lincoln Center each Spring. The New York Times has likened it to the Olympics of the ballet world. So obviously, when I thought who would be the absolute best person for this role I thought of Juliet. To say I'm thrilled we were able to get her is an understatement.
She is a very humble, fun, mature and radiant person to work with. She brings an honesty and beauty to the role that is really special. Her level of technical training in classical ballet is top tier, and she can also tap, act and sing.
Why do you recommend AN AMERICAN IN PARIS -- and specifically this production?
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a beautiful combination of Gershwins' music, modernistic art, ballet, musical theater, tap and a post-World War II Parisian romance between a gregarious American soldier (Jerry) and Jewish ballet dancer who was kept in hiding during the war (Lise). Truly, "Who could ask for anything more?"
I think off of the heels of The Wizard of Oz, this is something completely new for the Hale patron palette, and I applaud the theater for this unique choice. It's a story with much depth and a production with high art.
I'm also very excited to present classical ballet in the round. Dancers are such beautiful creatures. To view them from a 3D perspective is going to be a very unique and special experience for the audience.
I'm sure it's a delight working with the genius of Gershwin, with strong influence from Christopher Wheeldon. How does that factor in to your approach to the show's choreography?
I have a very specific process when choreographing. I always start with the score, a technique that my mentor Willam F. Christensen taught me as a teenager. He taught me the story is always in the music, and he is right. I listen to the score as much as possible, and dissect it on paper. I look to the math in the music and convert musical counts into counts the dancers can understand. I then go in and "shade and color" the score. Meaning, I find the emotional highs and lows of the music, the humor, the quirkiness, the romance and the story. I write down very specific objectives for each character to journey through.
My main job always in musical theater is to pick up the story where the script left off and carry it to the next text. I try and layer story and movement as much as humanly possible. It's always very important to me to not take the easy way out of a number. I get a sense of the style, time period and vocabulary I want for a particular piece, and I create a movement bank that I can draw from. I like the movement to feel like my own personal voice. I think that is an important part of the uniqueness of having me choreograph verses another choreographer. I then start to "paint": That's how I describe my creative process. I like to stay opened-minded, collaborative and free-flowing in the studio. For in-the-round staging, I'm often thinking of three things: aerial perspective, intimate perspective and story. If actors/dancers get stuck or if I feel we are getting off track with objectives, I go back to my outline of original ideas. I would say my process is 70 percent preparation, 30 percent in the moment. It works well for me.
The Gershwins' music is so emotional and progressive, even today. The difficulty of the jazz can be challenging to choreograph to because of its complexity. This process has reminded me of challenges I had as a professional ballet dancer learning choreography to a Stravinsky score. The time signatures can become rather random and difficult.
The romance in the music makes for a very emotional pas de deux with Jerry and Lise in the final ballet sequence. I hold back tears every time I watch it. I think it's a moment that will stay with the audience for a long time after it leaves.
Anything else you want to add?
By offering ballet and musical theater together, I feel this production can diversify what the Hale audiences have an appreciation for. You definitely do not have to be a balletomane to enjoy this production. It's very accessible and easy to digest. I also hope that some of Utah's ballet patrons will come see a show at the Hale for the first time. It's sure to be a magnificent blending of two beautiful worlds.