Best Actress in a Musical nominee Jenny L Wright’s firecracker Adelaide was a highlight of The Shaw Festival’s delightful Guys & Dolls. With a voice like Edith Bunker and a highkick like a rockette, she paired with Shawn Wright’s Nathan Detroit to form the most indelible comedic duo of the summer.
In the midst of preparing for her 18th(!) season at The Shaw, Jenny joins the interview series to talk about Adelaide, her Shaw legacy, and tricking reporters into thinking her brother is playing her love interest.
Can you remember your first experience with musical theatre?
My first experience with musical theatre happened as an extension of piano lessons. My dear piano teacher thought I should do some singing as well as piano. I ended up doing many different styles of singing in the Swift Current Kiwanis music festival but the best songs were musical numbers! I must have been about 12.
What are some of your favourite musicals?
That’s a tough one as there are so many fantastic ones out there……I would have to say Les Miserables, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, and so many of the old movie musicals with Fred and Ginger as well as anything written by Gershwin!
Do you have any dream roles you haven’t gotten to play yet?
I have had the great fortune of playing so many great parts, small and large, in musicals and plays. There have been some that have passed me by, but there are a few juicy ones to look forward to…. I’d love to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd someday. I’m a big fan of character parts!
Where did you develop your triple threat skills?
I started dance at a very young age and was quite passionate about it all growing up, doing festivals, dance camps, exams, etc. Music was also a big part of my life and I went up to grade 8 piano and singing with the Royal Academy of Music. It never occurred to me to try theatre. When my mom mentioned I should try out for the high school play I haughtily declared “I’m a singer and a dancer. NOT an actress.” We laugh about that to this day! Right when I graduated high school there was an ad in the papers, looking for talent to host and perform in the Saskatchewan pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver. I auditioned with a Joni Mitchell song accompanied by my uncle on the banjo. I got the gig along with about 20 other actors, singers and dancers from Sask. We performed a brief custom written musical about our province for 6 months in the pavilion restaurant. I ended up doing some dinner theatre after that and a few years later while doing an inter-related arts degree at Concordia University I got into community theatre and LOVED it. My degree allowed me to study modern dance, classical music and theatre. I was exposed to some great acting coaches, and directors and actors during my time in Montreal. I have had the immense privledge to work with some of Canada’s finest theatre artists since coming to the Shaw Festival in 1996 and this is where I have really honed my skills as an actor.
You’ve been with the Shaw Festival for 17 seasons. What is it about the festival that keeps you coming back?
Crazy Luck!!! Getting offers! I adore working here. I can’t believe I am going into my 18th season. I came to Shaw as a relatively unexperienced apprentice. Over the years I have been given wonderful parts. The Festival has been very good to me. I’ve done 2 seasons pregnant for crying out loud! I have been able thus far to be a working actor at an incredible venue, and put down roots in this beautiful community while raising a family.
In Guys & Dolls, you played Adelaide opposite Shawn Wright’s Nathan Detroit (no relation). You two had such a strong on-stage connection. Had you worked together a lot before this?
It’s a funny thing. I had never worked with Shawn and I had never even seen his work!!! I had met him over the years through other people in the biz. His reputation as wonderful and hilarious preceded him. Well EVERYONE told me I would love working with him and they were right. I can’t say enough about that man. He had me in stitches most of the time (backstage) and he was so fun to act with and just to spend a season with. Not only is he extraordinary in his talent but he’s a very dear human being.
How many people did you meet this season who assumed you were really married?
One interviewer asked us but we just told him we were brother and sister. Haha . We may be related wayyyyyy back. My dad thought he resembled some of our great aunts and uncles.
Your Adelaide reminded me a bit of a young Edith Bunker if she’d taken up burlesque. What were some of the sources you drew on in constructing your version of the character?
Funny you should mention that. Edith Bunker! That was the first thing my husband said when he saw the show! A few people over the season said I reminded them of Edith Bunker! I loved that show when I was a kid. Maybe it was the New York accent, but yes, I think I must have been channelling Edith (thank you Jean Stapleton) and I was also thinking a little bit about Lucille Ball. And I was also thinking of the gal who played Adelaide in a community theatre production which I had actually choreographed years ago in Montreal
What did you bring to the role that was unique to this production?
Hmmm. It’s hard to say as I have only seen 2 productions of Guys and Dolls over the years. The perspective is so different when your in it. You just do your thing and find as much enjoyment in it as you can. I think every take on a character is unique to the artist portraying her.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yes. The dressing room scene right after “Bushel and a Peck” where we see Nathan and Adelaide together for the first time. I couldn’t wait to do that scene with Shawn every night! Such brilliant comedic writing. We felt like we were in Laugh-In.
What’s your favourite part you’ve ever played?
Adelaide is definitley in the top 3, then maybe Essie in You Can’t Take it With You and Rita in Educating Rita.
What have you been up to in the off-season?
Visiting family in Quebec and BC, doing a bit of teaching, cleaning my house, being a mom. My kids (12 and 7) are busy with hockey, ballet, choir, etc, so it’s great just to have the time to take them to all their stuff and hang out with them in the off season.
You’re slated to come back to the Shaw this season. Have you started preparing for your roles yet?
Yes, I am doing a bit of reading in prep for Cabaret. I’ve actually done the show twice before so a lot of my prep is just thinking about the show and the character (Kost) that I will be playing. Looking very much forward to working with the director Peter Hinton. I’m very pumped about the other show I will be in The Sea which will start rehearsing in rep a few weeks after Cabaret. Always a challenge to rehearse 2 shows at once whilst juggling home and family.