Show: "Damn Yankees
By: Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop; music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Produced by: Foothill Music Theatre
Featuring: Jeff Clarke as Mr. Applegate, Jen Wheatonfox as Lola, Dan Mitchell as Joe Hardy. Also features Richard Lewis (Van Buren), Caitlyn Lawrence-Papp (Gloria), Ryan Henry (Lynch, the Commissioner), Matt Tipton (Joe Boyd), and Mary Melnick (Meg Boyd). The Washington Senators include Marc Celani (Lowe), Elijah Diamond (Mark), Remi Ferguson (Bryant), Brandon Gong (Linville), Mark Helton (Smokey), Aaron Hurley (Sohovic), Nathan Kastle (Bouley), Bobby Lopez (Mickey), Sean Okenewicz (Del), Jerris Ramirez (Rocky), Billy Schmidt (Vernon), and Jacob Weissman-Sharer (Henry). Also in the cast are Chloe Aknin, Alexandra Allen, Angela Cesena, Jamie Chew, Steve Completo, Ivette Deltoro, Beverly Hansberry, Haley Henson, Dana Johnson, Kayvon Kordestani, Elizabeth Lawrence, Sarah Lodick, Courtney Petro, Brittany Pirucki, Caite Prather, Holly Smolik, Forrest Tang, and Charnee Young.
Directed by: Tom Gough
Musical direction by: Catherine Snider
Choreography by: Katie O'Bryon
When: July 26 through August 18, 2013. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills, California. Parking in Student Parking Lots 5, 7, or 8 (use Lot 5 for no-stairs access). Visitors must purchase the required parking permit for $3. Foothill College is located off I-280 on El Monte Road in Los Altos Hills.
Tickets: $10-$28. Visit www.foothillmusicals.com or call 650-949-7360.
Read John Orr's review of this production of "Damn Yankees."
Read Paul Freeman's interview with Dan Mitchell in The Daily News.
Talking on the phone with Jen Wheatonfox is like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Completely bouncy and fun, with lots of fast turns to who-knows-where, and lots of laughter.
She is intelligent and widely literate, and full of ideas, which come spilling out in her in seemingly unedited torrents. It often seems likely that she is moving in a specific direction during a comment, but she might leave the path for some interesting side thought, doesn't always exactly get to where she was headed in the first place, and sometimes just stops talking, leaving the complete thought unfinished, just dangling off some locutory cliff.
Lots of fun.
"Tangents, right?" she said when we spoke on July 18. "When I did 'South Pacific' at A.M.T., a woman in the cast, Heidi Blickenstaff, she's pretty famous, played herself in '[title of show],' went to Broadway, nicknamed me 'Tangie,' short for tangent. Everybody called me that."
That was some years ago American Musical Theatre of San Jose, born in 1934, died in 2008 and its production of "South Pacific," starring Emily Loesser, who is also famous, was in 1999.
"I remember having a conversation with Emily one day during the run," Wheatonfox said in a follow-up email on Friday, "and she told me she hadn't really seen her husband for two months because she had been touring with "Titanic" (I think), and now she was out in California. She really missed him, and I felt really sad for her, and the reality of what you have to give up to do this as a career really woke me up in that moment. ... That's actually the pivotal moment I always remind myself about if I ever have any regrets about not staying in N.Y.C. or L.A. to pursue acting/theater/whatnot as a career.
"It's all a mixed bag; life. Sacrifices/compromises/wins/losses ... Right? :)"
These days, Tangie is starring in another classic musical, "Damn Yankees," at Foothill Music Theatre, as Lola. Foothill Music Theatre, an excellent operation, is in Los Altos Hills, not that far from Wheatonfox' home in Sunnyvale.
Back to our phone conversation. Keep your safety belt snug, your arms and legs inside the car at all times, and enjoy the ride:
"Lola is like a dream role for me ... one of those auditions where I actually remember, I saw someone I did 'Annie' with, and she said, 'What role do you want? I was assuming you want Lola.' But there was no way I'll get it, I'd heard it was hard to break into the Foothill environment. But I got a good call-back ... it's just that .. I didn't realize ... I had been auditioning for several things, was kind of thinking, 'Should I do this?' OK, maybe I'll get a role in the ensemble ... then ... I was watching the movies, parts of it, I probably ought to get the whole thing, but it's more about reading the script, realizing that in the musical she does ... It's just a great role for me, so fun, because I'm not going to be ... really, anything like Gwen Verdon ..."
Gwen Verdon originated the role on Broadway in 1955, and then also starred in the 1958 movie, as did most of the Broadway cast.
That movie, seen on my family's black-and-white TV, decades ago, was probably what began my own personal interest in both musicals and red-headed women. I'm not sure how I, as a youngster, knew Verdon had red hair, despite the B&W TV. I knew, and that's enough. Verdon was probably a factor in my eventual "Spring Awakening," so to speak.
Verdon was the essence of sex appeal, back all those decades ago, and Wheatonfox, aka Tangie, certainly has plenty of sex appeal, evident in her witty conversation and in the light gleaming from her eyes in the publicity photos for the show.
"A thing I love about the movie," Wheatonfox said, "Is that scene I never knew I'd never actually seen that scene in the locker room until a few months ago my mouth dropped! It's so different, so funny. That's what I get ... how much that scene tells about how much our society has changed, in terms of what we find sexy or interesting. 'This isn't sexy at all,' my fiancé said.
"But her dancing is so really incredible, it makes her so funny, this Gumby character, with her Gumby body. It's cartoonish. But clearly she was marketed as ... was supposed to be, I guess, a sexy character. There are so many different ways you could play it. I don't think a lot of men today would think it sexy.
"I find it sexy how funny it is! She [Verdon] did it in a way that was really great, really courageous. Those choices in the movement it's not a stereotypical sexy thing, but it makes sense for the character. She's somebody who never liked herself. She made this deal with the devil, she's always trying to please somebody else, never found out who she really is ... that's the core of her personality. Then, when she sees this person (Joe Hardy) who is devoted to his wife, he's a good person, she sees, 'Yes, there is some good in this world,' she ... becomes aware of what you could call a really big mistake ... It is a sort of metaphor, from somebody who made a really big, fundamental mistake ... selling her soul to the devil not a good idea, it's about how making one mistake, for instance, marrying the wrong person, committing a crime or whatever, can affect every moment of the rest of your life."
The original Broadway show was choreographed for Verdon by the great Bob Fosse, who later became her husband. (They were to separate, because of his extramarital affairs, but never divorced. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that he died in Verdon's arms on a Broadway sidewalk just before the opening of the revival of one of his shows in 1987. Other sources say he died in a hospital, in her company. She died in 2000.)
Katie O'Bryon, who is choreographing the Foothill production, "has kept a lot of some of the original choreography," said Wheatonfox, "but make it a kind of amalgam, of her own things and some of the original Fosse stuff.
"I'm really having fun doing it."
And yes, it is sexy.
"I've thought about this a lot," Wheatonfox said. "It think it's sexy and funny. To me, 'funny' is very closely related to and totally overlapping with 'sexy.'"
Wheatonfox was actually raised in the Los Altos Hills, home of Foothill Music Theatre. "Dance is the first thing I started to do, performance-wise," she said. "I was a gymnast as a kid until I got to the back handspring. Dance team, cheerleader in high school, theater. I always loved dancing. Not a ballerina, though.
She went away for a few years of college and to pursue a performance career. She went to New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where she double-majored, with bachelor's degrees in drama and psychology.
"I was at NYU, New York, for six years, came back here for nine months, then went to L.A. for three years. After college. ... I moved out of New York because I was going psychotic," she said. "I thought L.A. would be a more livable environment [big laugh] it wasn't. ... It literally vacuums the soul. I was totally unhappy there."
She bounced around the Bay Area for a while.
"When I moved back, I was in Marin which I loved moved in with a man, who became a husband, lived in Livermore, did some shows in the East Bay. Did 'South Pacific' for AMT ... stopped doing shows when I got pregnant with Zoë. Marriage went to hell in a hand basket, was a single parent for three years, dealt with reality stuff. I'm engaged now, to Jack's father, Steve Fox."
Jack is her four-year-old son. And that's how Jen Wheaton became Jen Wheatonfox: hooking up with Steve Fox.
She got back into the theater because her daughter, nine-year-old Zoë, wanted to audition for "Annie" at Palo Alto Players.
"That's how I got back to it, after taking off ten years. She auditioned at Palo Alto Players, but wanted me to audition as well ... I was trying to get over being really sick ... the day of the audition, there was no way I could go ... But Zoë got a call back for Molly ... I auditioned. "I had no idea that they wanted me to read Grace ... she is more a soprano, I am more an alto .. till five seconds before. All these other women there were total Grace types [she laughs a lot] I thought, 'I'm not going to get this role. I may as well make them laugh. I remember Peter Bliznick [executive director of Palo Alto Players] sitting in the first row, laughing.
"They offered the role of Grace a really challenging role for me."
She took the gig, and Zoë got the gig, and mother and daughter had fun doing a show together.
She was most recently in "Avenue Q," at Los Altos Stage Company.
And now, the sexiest role in "Damn Yankees."
"The show is different," she said. "I really, really like it. It has a kind of a magical drive about it. The concept of the supernatural, people casting spells ... it's fun."