Friday, March 25, 2005 Tony Brown
Plain Dealer Theater Critic
Jenn Gambatese talked on her mobile phone as she strolled down Ninth Avenue from her apartment in midtown Manhattan's now-trendy Hell's Kitchen neighborhood to a Pilates class.
"The actress, talking on her cell, walking to Pilates - it sounds like such a cliche, but that's what I'm doing," Gambatese said.
Or at least that's what it sounded like she said amid the honking of cab horns as traffic backed up on the approach to Lincoln Tunnel.
Gambatese, a Richmond Heights native, was only a few blocks from the Palace Theatre, where she made her Broadway starring debut Thursday night in "All Shook Up," New York's newest musical.
The singing-dancing-acting gamin, nicknamed "Gamby" by her friends, has been working at the pinnacle of the American theater for more than half a decade.
She has been off-Broadway (in "Reefer Madness"), on tour (in "Fame," which played Cleveland) and on Broadway (in "Footloose," "Hairspray" - twice - and "A Year With Frog and Toad").
And the second time she did "Hairspray," she even had a featured role.
But playing "All Shook Up's" Natalie Heller, an auto mechanic who dreams of escaping a small town with a guitar-playing guy on her motorcycle in 1955, is Gambatese's first leading role on Broadway.
As the title suggests, the songs are all Elvis Presley, but the story is pretty much about Gambatese's character.
"It's not about Elvis," Gambatese said. "It's about this kind of small, square town in a square state in a square decade. It's about me. No, don't say that. I'm pretty important to it.
"It's about a town that's asleep, but a stranger comes to town and wakes everybody up. He says, 'Follow your dream,' and he's a dream of mine. I dream of hitting the road with someone special on my bike."
In addition to using the Elvis songs to tell the story (in the same way "Mamma Mia!" uses ABBA tunes), "All Shook Up" borrows a plot device from Shakespeare. Natalie dresses up as a boy, a la Viola in "Twelfth Night," to get close to the man she loves.
"Music has magical power in the show. Music sets people on fire in a way," Gambatese said. "Kind of what Elvis did in real life. He came along, and everything changed."
The reviews of the New York production won't start hitting the streets until this morning. But in January, Chicago critics generally liked the show - and Gambatese - during its pre-Broadway tryout. Variety critic Chris Jones called her "delightful."
"I'm from a big family," Gambatese said. "Seventy members of it came to Chicago to see the show. It was fun, it was fun."
But carrying the weight of an $11 million musical can be a challenge.
"It's definitely different from everything I've done before, a little bit more a sense of responsibility," Gambatese said. "You want to do everything you can to make it as successful as possible, but this is my favorite role.
"Before, I had to fit into a well-oiled machine. Now I am helping to build the machine. It's really fun and sometimes terrifying. You kind of go through every emotion as you go through this process. There's maybe a little self-doubt, but I really believe in this show."
Gambatese got her performing start in church concerts and pageants in the Cleveland area. She began theater classes in fourth or fifth grade at Willoughby Fine Arts Center.
"It was there that I did 'Tom Sawyer,' and the kid who played Tom Sawyer, Bryant Carroll, he was in 'Footloose' when I made my Broadway debut," Gambatese said. "I couldn't believe it. I looked at him and said, 'Oh my God, you were Tom Sawyer!' "
Later, Gambatese appeared at the Beck Center and at Cleveland State University, where she took classes during her senior year of high school.
She made the leap to the Big Apple in 1993 to attend New York University. After graduating, she toured the country with Theatre for Young Audiences, a touring children's company, and once played Cleveland's Masonic Temple.
"That was hard work," Gambatese said. "As actors, you put up the set, you take down the set. It was definitely old-school."
After doing some summer stock, Gambatese toured Europe and then North America, singing the lights out of "Think of Meryl Streep" in "Fame."
She played Urlene in "Footloose" and Lady Liberty in "Reefer Madness." Brenda and ensemble roles in the original cast of "Hairspray" followed. She left "Hairspray" to enact various forest creatures in "A Year With Frog and Toad" and then returned to sing the larger role of Penny Pingleton in "Hairspray."
"I do feel like I'm living a dream," Gambatese said. "I came close to getting some other big roles in big shows, and you think, 'Why didn't I get it?'
"Everything happens in your life when it is supposed to happen. I still have moments of worry about this crazy life I've chosen, but I don't let that consume me. To not only make a living, but live out a dream . . . I've really got to pinch myself."
"All Shook Up" plays an open-ended run at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York City. Tickets range from $19.55 to $100. Call 1-800-755-4000.
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org, 216-999-4181
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