A Cinderella moment

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2011 - 4:37 PM

With a star turn at the Ordway, Jessica Fredrickson leaves her receptionist's desk and plunges into the world of full-time acting.

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The first night of “Cinderella” dress rehearsals at the Ordway, with Jessica Fredrickson as the lead. In back were Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr as the king and queen.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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For Jessica Fredrickson, the glass slipper fit. Now, she is hoping for a fairy-tale ending.

The Eden Prairie native stars as the title character in Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella," the Ordway Center's ambitious holiday musical that begins previews Tuesday in St. Paul.

For the twenty-something actor, the role coincides with a leap of faith. She recently left a safe, steady job as a receptionist to devote herself full-time to the up-and-down acting life. She has moved in with her grandmother to save some dough for a future that she hopes to find in stage lights.

"There are some people that you meet who wither in the spotlight," said director Gary Gisselman, who cast Fredrickson as the female lead in "Oklahoma!" at Bloomington Civic Theatre in the summer. "Jessie gets in front of an audience and it feeds her. She really enjoys being onstage, and you can feel that love in her performance."

The perky, exuberant daughter of a salesman and a homemaker got her start early as an actor and singer in church pageants and plays in Eden Prairie. She performed throughout her school years, including at Bethel University, where she was a standout in such productions as "Kiss Me Kate" and "The Importance of Being Earnest."

"I feel like I have an open heart and spirit that allows me to connect to my characters," she said. "And those connections help me to find out about myself."

Good instincts

Those who have worked with her note Fredrickson's theatrical instincts and her willingness to try new things.

"She makes choices that are right for her character," said Gisselman. "You can't teach instinct."

"She has a really good sense of the structure of songs, and knows where to hit the hardest, to bring you up and let you down," added director Joe Chvala, who cast Fredrickson as the female lead in "The Light in the Piazza" in January 2010, also at Bloomington Civic. "Her voice is very expressive, and she uses it to sing and to act, as well."

Fredrickson's onstage roles sometimes reverberate in her offstage life. For example, in "Piazza" she played Clara, an American tourist who falls in love with an Italian heartthrob. Fredrickson fell hard for her co-star, Aleks Knezevich, a relationship that recently ended.

"I like to think of the theater as a place where I'm constantly learning, constantly in school," she said. "Every role I take leaves me with something, even if it's painful."

She was in Tokyo with the Ordway's tour of "Joseph" when the earthquake and tsunami struck this year.

"I felt pretty helpless but wanted to help," she said.

The role of Cinderella comes at a time when she has finally jumped into acting with both feet.

"I was working as a receptionist, front-desk person for this nice company in Chanhassen, and they were so nice about it," she said. "They gave me time off to go on tour to Japan, but this, they just saw, I needed to take the plunge."

In "Cinderella," Fredrickson steps into shoes that Julie Andrews filled in the 1957 premiere of the TV musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammstein II. This now classic version includes songs such as "The Prince Is Giving a Ball," "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful" and "A Lovely Night." Fredrickson headlines a cast of more than 30 that includes Wendy Lehr, Gary Briggle, Greta Grosch and Tonia Hughes, who plays the Fairy Godmother. They are accompanied by a live orchestra under Ray Berg's baton.

Self-doubt

While she hopes that "Cinderella" will open the way to a charmed acting career, she knows better. Fredrickson, who idolizes Kristin Chenoweth, to whom she has a passing resemblance, said that there also have been low points along the way.

"Throughout the years, I've struggled with doubt," she said. "Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? Do I look good enough? I've grown and changed a lot and come into my own, but it has been a constant process."

She thinks that the Cinderella story is sometimes misconstrued. It is not about the outward transformation of the put-upon girl who is changed, as if by magic. Cinderella has some power over her destiny.

"I grew up loving princesses," she said. "What I want to tell all the little girls coming to see the show is that the change we see in Cinderella's dress, in her circumstances, are manifestations of who she is on the inside. Cinderella gets the prince because she radiates something true from deep within."

That is what she hopes to show at the Ordway.

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  • Finding the fit in 'Cinderella'

    Thursday December 22, 2011

    REVIEW: The Ordway aims for storybook perfection with its lavish musical, 'Cinderella.'

  • CINDERELLA

    What: Composed by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Directed by Nick DeGruccio.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. next Sun. Ends Jan. 1.

    Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St Paul.

    Tickets: $27-$113. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.

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