Just finishing as "Bonnie Jean" MacLaren in Brigadoon at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre and about to open as Rumpleteaser in Cats, Jessica Humphrey may be familiar to some previous-season patrons as the younger-than-usually-seen Annie Oakley in Dutch Apple's Annie Get Your Gun. Last year she also appeared at Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. She's been coached by legendary voice coach Joan Lader (the voice coach who trained Madonna for the film version of Evita, and who's worked withPatti LuPone and Tonya Pinkins), yet though she's sung opera, she's a former member of the company of the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet. That's quite a track record for someone who's only recently graduated from college.
We caught up with Jessica between a matinee of Brigadoon and a rehearsal for Cats at Dutch Apple to discuss her progression from child ballet student to Annie Oakley and Rumpleteaser.
BWW: So how does a ballerina from Dallas wind up out East in musical theatre?
J: It IS kind of a long story! My grandparents live in North Carolina and they asked me if I wanted to do the summer intensive at Western Carolina University [author note: the Triple Arts Broadway intensives run by Tony nomineeTerrence Mann and his wife, Tony nominee Charlotte d'Amboise]. I didn't know who the people behind it were. I didn't know who Terrence Mann was - I came out of the ballet world; I knew who Christopher d'Amboise, the choreographer, was, and he was working with it. I changed my mind at the last minute - I'd been planning to go to Oklahoma City University - and came out here.
And then there was PIRATES - I was working with Terrence Mann on a gala for Western Carolina, and while we were talking, he asked me if I wanted to come up to Connecticut, where he was going to be directing PIRATES.
I've been lucky that a lot of people have helped me - and that two people broke their feet and I knew their roles. I got a call from my dance teacher at 3 p.m. on a Friday and got asked to come in on DAMES AT SEA (at Highlands Playhouse). She was choreographing it - she knew how I move, and I knew how she arranges. So thirty hours later on a Saturday night I was on stage.
BWW: You've sung in everything from opera to theme park shows. Let's start with the opera.
JH: My voice teacher in college was operatically based and from there we went into musical theatre, so I did THE MAGIC FLUTE [as one of the three spirits] with the Asheville Opera. Opera's not like doing musical theatre at all. They come in knowing their parts; they're always practicing. And I didn't know German. Opera singers take language lessons. It was fun to do, but it's not what I wanted to pursue.
BWW: On to the theme parks. West End and BBC star John Barrowman started out at Opryland, USA. What was your experience with them?
JH: You learn EVERYTHING working theme parks. I was at Wild Adventure. The show goes on, three times a day. Doesn't matter if you're hot, or tired, or have food poisoning. Theme parks are a great training ground. You get paid more than summer stock, and you work, constantly. And you learn how to handle a bad audience. Sometimes when the weather's beautiful you're playing to three people. When it rains you get a full house, but it's full of people who want to be outside on the rides.
BWW: You're a singer, but you also had twelve years of ballet lessons and time in the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet. Is your heart in one discipline more than the other?
JH: I consider myself more of a singer than a dancer. I was an apprentice at the ballet, and that was great. I'm happy I'm getting to do CATS. It's turning out to be challenging - all the dancing - but it's a lot of fun. The choreographer, Amy, I've worked with her before. She knows how I dance, and I've worked with my dance partner before, too.
BWW: You've sung everything from THE MAGIC FLUTE to DAMES AT SEA, with a stop for Gilbert and Sullivan along the way. Do you have any favorite roles to date?
JH: I loved Annie Oakley. I loved playing that role. I surprised a lot of people. Portraying Annie Oakley as her actual age rather than at Ethel Merman's or Bernadette Peters' age when they played her is so rewarding.
Then there was A CHORUS LINE [at Western Carolina University]. Our Cassie broke her foot on opening night. I was playing Maggie in the show - I really liked Maggie - and I was her understudy. She broke her foot before the finale. That was an unbelievable experience. Playing Cassie, and being directed by Charlotte d'Amboise, who got a Tony nomination for playing Cassie in the Broadway revival, was amazing.
I so rarely get serious parts because I'm the cute girl - but I like the meaty, women-empowering parts.
BWW: Does A CHORUS LINE speak to you any differently than the other shows you've done?
JH: Yes. And I worked longer on that show than I have on any other show in my life. But I didn't realize, at first, what the whole "what would you do if you couldn't dance?" question meant. Then I hurt my foot several months back. While I was getting cortisone shots and re-learning techniques, I got it.
And I'm a ballet girl. Maggie's a ballet girl, and her song is wonderful. When I went in to audition, I told Charlotte d'Amboise I wanted to audition for Maggie, and she said, "Fine, you've got it." I identify with Maggie in a lot of ways, and I guess that shows.
BWW: You've had a string of major shows under your belt already and you have CATS coming up. What shows that you haven't done would you most like to do? What roles?
JH: CHICAGO. I want to be Roxie! I love that role. She's so fun and crazy, and I don't get to do sexy very often.
BWW: So what's next for you?
JH: I have July, August, and most of September off, and then I do CATS at Broadway Palm [Dutch Apple's sister Prather Entertainment theatre in Florida] and then A SWINGING CHRISTMAS there. Next year I'm thinking of going to grad school for my MFA. I've been looking at San Diego State or possibly NYU. I really want to go and head up a musical theatre department someday, and San Diego State turns out great teachers.
BWW: What are your thoughts on theatre education?
JH: I just have a really different idea of teaching the arts than most do. So many teachers don't go up to New York, don't see what's going on, don't know the changes in techniques and technology. It's important to have young teachers, and ones who keep up to date, teaching arts. Textbooks are always behind.
Arts education is so important. I was raised knowing that the arts were important. It's a shame to me to see schools that don't have arts programs. I've taught dance to three-year olds, though I prefer older students. I love teaching people who enjoy themselves and who want to be there... but they've got to get a foundation. I understand that money is tight, but it's important to find ways not to sacrifice children's experience with the arts.