Preview: Jenna Ushkowitz returns to stage for musical set in 1980s, and based on hit film
July 23, 2015 12:00 AM
Jenna Ushkowitz and J. Michael Zygo star in Pittsburgh CLO's "The Wedding Singer," at the Benedum Center through Aug. 2,
Pittsburgh CLO's "The Wedding Singer," the musical based on the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore movie, brings back the moves of the 1980s.
Jackie Burns, who appeared for Pittsburgh CLO in "Man of La Mancha," takes on a very different role in "The Wedding Singer."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All those deep dives into the 1980s pop songbook with "Glee" seem like prep work now for Jenna Ushkowitz, who was Tina in the Fox TV series' during its six musical seasons.
The 29-year-old who looks like she just graduated from the show's McKinley High is starring as Julia in Pittsburgh CLO's "The Wedding Singer," which includes the lyric "We're gonna party like it's 1986," which happens to be the year Ms. Ushkowitz was born.
“The Wedding Singer”
Where: Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: Friday through Aug. 2. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. (2 p.m. only Aug. 2).
Tickets: $20-$67.75; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.
The high-energy musical was created from the 1998 movie starring Adam Sandler as the title character, Robbie Hart, who falls hard for Drew Barrymore's Julia. She's a waitress engaged to Glen, who looks like security to her, but we know better. The film combined original songs with hits such as "White Wedding" and the "Glee" favorite "Don't Stop Believin'."
The stage version's Tony-nominated score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin references the decade, but is wholly original.
"Part of the reason I said yes was because I listened to this cast album a million times over," Ms. Ushkowitz gushed. "I saw it on Broadway, and I learned all of the Amy Spanger part [of Holly, Julia's cousin and best friend ] because that's usually who I would play, the sidekick. I have a plethora of Broadway albums in my brain, and that was one of them I listened to all the time.
"Oh, and the movie was, like, on repeat. It's such a good movie," she added.
"The Wedding Singer" is set in New Jersey, not all that far from where Ms. Ushkowitz grew up on Long Island, where she was familiar with the Robbie Hart type -- the popular act wanted by everyone for a bar mitzvah, a wedding or a big-ticket event.
"There was the one DJ I had for my Sweet 16 and everyone had for theirs," she recalled. "For Julia, meeting Robbie, she's meeting the famous wedding singer, the best one in town."
Barry Ivan, returning to PCLO as director-choreographer, also knew the type when he was growing up in New York. It's one of the many things he found in common with his leading lady when they had a lunch introduction in NYC before teaming up in Pittsburgh.
"We both speak the same language and have the same goals in terms of storytelling and practicality," Mr. Ivan said. "I often say we are doing camera blocking right now, so you can leave and feel that things are on their feet, and at the same time we're infusing Uta -- as in [famed drama teacher] Uta Hagen. Among other commonalities, we are both Type A's. So we are both, 'Let's get it in, let's get it done.' "
Working on a weekly TV series that included musical numbers "was absolutely insane," Ms Ushkowitz said. "This is different, but in the way Barry works, we are working in the realm of the way TV works."
Although she is best known for her years on "Glee," in which Tina started out as a Goth girl whose look and maturity evolved over the seasons, Ms. Ushkowitz is a product of the stage, including Broadway roles as a child in "The King and I," and as an understudy with the company of "Spring Awakening." Last summer, she appeared in an all-star staged concert of "Hair" at the Hollywood Bowl.
She said PCLO's reputation as "a well-oiled machine with great talent" was part of the lure that landed her in Pittsburgh for her first extended stay here, and she had heard of the Benedum Center's beauty -- and size. She had some idea of what she was facing, having just seen PCLO's "Gypsy" the previous night and after she had been given a look around by music director Tom Helm.
"It's humongous!" she said of the stage. "I did [a concert version of 'Hair'] at the Hollywood Bowl last summer and that's like 1,800 seats. What's the Benedum? 2,800! No pressure, no worries. And 'Hair' was sort of this chaotic, quick scheduling as well, so it prepped me for even crazier."
"The Wedding Singer" has a lot of moving parts aside from the central love story, including the show-within-a-show -- from the title character's event performances to the characters' private lives.
Ms. Ushkowitz was aboard as Julia early on, but it took a while before Mr. Ivan finally found his Robbie in quadruple-threat J. Michael Zygo of Broadway's "Once," another newcomer to PCLO. Mr. Ivan said that Robbie and his wedding band will be bolstered by Mr. Helm and the CLO Orchestra that was at its zenith during the run of "Gypsy."
As the director's research took him back to the show and the specific time period it represents, Mr. Ivan began to recognize how characters and relationships represented in "The Wedding Singer" resonate differently in the 2000s, particularly in light of the Supreme Court decision on legalized same-sex marriage.
"The people at CLO looked into a crystal ball when they scheduled this, because there is relevance and themes that were not so apparent when it first came out," Mr. Ivan noted. "In light of what's happening now, the hashtag #lovewins, suddenly there are themes in this that can resonate for more people than ever, whether it's interfaith, or intergenerational. ... Even if you take the storyline of the [cross-dressing] George character, who's always at these weddings, and he was fighting marginalization at that time. It's certainly looking at weddings differently than when it came out."
The director said that difference shows itself organically, so it is important that the characters not lean toward caricature, another area in which he found he was on common ground with his leading lady.
"Even for 'Glee,' everything is so heightened, my approach is always let that part of it play itself, and I play the humanity and the reality of the thing. It gives you so much more dimension in your work and for people to watch," she said.
During rehearsals here, Ms. Ushkowitz missed the New York and Hollywood premieres of "Twinsters," a documentary she produced about fellow Korean-born adoptees Anais and Samantha -- twins separated at birth and raised on different continents who reconnect as adults.
"It's been two years in the making. We went to SXSW, we won [a Jury Award], and this is my team. Kindred, the [adoption] foundation I co-founded, is ongoing, and this [filmmaking] family, it's not the last thing we are going to produce together," she said.
On the day of the screenings, she and her collaborators exchanged emails in which "we were all getting emotional because it's been such a journey. They are so supportive of me being here, and they said, 'You go kill it,' and I said, 'You represent there.' It's what the job is. There's always some sacrifice for something else."
To chat about "The Wedding Singer," Ms. Ushkowitz was sacrificing time from her lunch break between a rehearsal and a meeting with wardrobe. She recalled how the "Glee" styles and sets, sometimes a reflection of videos for songs such as "Take On Me," were liking stepping into a time machine.
Before she could see Julia's rockin' new look, created specifically for her take on the character, Ms. Ushkowitz grabbed her backpack, said her farewells and ran to walk with her adored companion, a French bulldog name Bear.
Spending time with Bear, or on a musical-theater stage, are among her life's passions.
"For a really long time, I felt I just wanted to be on TV, and then 'Glee' fell into my lap and it was wonderful," she said. "But there is nothing like live theater, and that's home for me. Any chance, every summer, at least once, it's almost a requirement for my soul. So this is just a joy."
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