August 20, 2018
Actress-singer-dancer Jessica Fontana has an unbeatable charisma on stage that draws the eye to her whenever she’s in a scene. She has mastered playing cute supporting comedic roles, as evidenced by her recent performance as Babette the feather duster in Pittsburgh CLO’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. As Babette, she shuffled across the stage in a stunning brown mermaid dress complete with feathers on the bottom. She flirted with every male in sight and danced a tango with Benjamin Howes, who played Babette’s boyfriend, Lumiere the candelabra. She played a perfect foil to Howes’ Lumiere, the two of them leaving the audience in stitches with their rapport. Perhaps the best moment was when Lumiere and Babette listed off the names of their former lovers to make the other jealous, and when she said the name, “Veronique,” Lumiere merely groaned and wriggled his hips.
This wasn’t Fontana’s first time performing in Beauty and the Beast, and it wasn’t her first time with Pittsburgh CLO either. In fact, she was in Pittsburgh with the CLO twelve years ago with the 2006 season. “I was here twelve years ago when I was in college after my sophomore year. I was here and did Beauty. I was here for all four shows: Beauty and the Beast, Grease, 42nd Street, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” She has a sweet voice that complements her soprano singing voice.
The musical version of Beauty and the Beast is based on the Disney 1991 movie of the same name. The Disney movie was based upon a multitude of similar myths from different regions, but perhaps most heavily on the French tale La Belle et Le Bête – literally “the beauty and the beast.” The Disney movie was animated and marked the first time that Disney used CGI to animate any of its films, most notably in the big “Beauty and the Beast” ballroom scene. The animated Babette is beautiful and bubbly with, in human form, a tall lean body. Fontana has all the same attributes and brings a charming charisma. In the show, she spoke with a cute, believable French accent, which she finds amusing because she says she did not do well in French class in high school.
In real life, Fontana is just as personable, vivacious, and outgoing. She’s easy to talk to and likes to laugh, one story often reminding her of another. She has a light voice and the charm to go with it.
Even though the stage musical of Beauty and the Beast is often thought to be the exact same as the Disney movie, it isn’t. There is new music added, including another song for Gaston, appropriately titled “Me,” a desperate ballad for Beast titled “If I Can’t Love Her,” and a song for Belle titled “Home.” In addition, Fontana sees a greater change in the theme of the show. She believes that the musical is more progressive in the film. Gaston, a misogynist, can’t be taken seriously because he’s a joke. He comes across as so ridiculous that no one could agree with his beliefs. It’s a message that Fontana appreciates and is happy to tell.
While Fontana didn’t get much of an opportunity to dance in Beauty and the Beast, she is a talented dancer. She began dancing at age five and loved it. It was her love of dance that sparked her performance career. “I grew up doing ballet and then did the musical in eighth grade, started singing, and later on in high school decided arbitrarily to do musicals. I got into musical theater, went to Michigan, was a musical theater major there, and did a lot of dancing. I dance when it’s required now, but I’m not going to dance calls or anything.”
Fontana grew up in Philadelphia, and while she doesn’t follow the Pittsburgh-Philly sports’ rivalries, her older brother does. Her brother started a sports clothing line called Philly Phaithful to support, you guessed it, Philadelphia sports’ teams. “He’s always been into sports. He had all of these t-shirts and things that are very insider-y. I know there’s a big rivalry there, a lot of anti-Pittsburgh sentiment. I don’t know if you still have that hockey player Crosby? I don’t know enough to know, but I know there’s a rivalry. I’m just happy to be here and leave the sports out of it,” she laughs.
Growing up, Fontana was always singing. She sang in the choir and chorus and even in an a capella group while she was in high school. Despite performing in her school musicals, however, going into musical theater professionally wasn’t really on her radar. While her high school put on musicals and had a drama department, it wasn’t of the magnitude of performing arts magnet schools. Things like the National High School Musical Theater Awards (the Jimmy Awards, co-founded by the CLO) were not something she was aware of. She attended Carnegie Mellon University’s Pre-College Musical Theater program, and after she graduated, she went to the prestigious University of Michigan and earned a degree in Musical Theater. During her time at Michigan she was performing with professional regional theaters like the CLO. The summer after her freshman year of college, Fontana performed in Beauty and the Beast at The Muny in St. Louis with Robbie Roby, who just choreographed the CLO’s 2018 production.
She performed on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, a show which her then boyfriend, now husband, Santino Fontana, starred in as Prince Topher. At the beginning, Fontana was not planning on joining her husband in the show. She watched the show progress from the sidelines and cheered, but never planned on being a part of the show herself. She felt like it would be strange to work with her husband, but then during his last few weeks the role of Cinderella’s alternate opened up. Fontana auditioned and got the job, so for a short time she was performing with her husband, though never as the Ella to his Topher.
“Doing Cinderella was amazing. It was all kind of meta because my husband, Santino, was in the show originally as Prince Charming. I’d gone to all the readings and just watched and thought, ‘This is a great show to be in. This would be a good fit for me,’ but it was his show. It felt nice to be there as a supporting partner for him. Then when the audition came up, he had three weeks left in his contract. When it all came together it was so exciting. To go from watching it and watching Victoria Clark, who I’ve always loved, to understudying it to end up going on twice a week and have Victoria Clark sing, “There’s Music in You. It all felt very real. There didn’t need to be a lot of acting going on. My idol is singing to me that I’m worthy and have a voice worth listening to. It was an awesome experience. Such a nice cast and group of people.”
She met her husband when they were singing a concert together at Birdland in 2011. If his name sounds familiar, it’s likely because he was the voice of the villainous Prince Hans in Disney’s hit 2013 movie Frozen. A power couple, the Fontanas perform concerts together, but she doesn’t expect them to be in a show together. “In retrospect, going on for the first time is so exciting but so scary. There are so many quick costume things and you’re on Broadway. There’s so much going on. Santino and I have never been in a show together, so that, plus playing opposite him – I think our heads might have exploded.” Fontana continues pensively, “I think it’d be weird. There’s something I guess for me where the person that you’re staring at on stage is the person you sit on the couch with in your pajamas. But who knows, maybe we’ll get the opportunity in the future!”
After Beauty and the Beast closed three weeks ago, Fontana focused all her energy on the CLO’s final show of the 2018 Summer Season, Thoroughly Modern Millie. During Beauty and the Beast’s run, Fontana was in rehearsal for Millie, sometimes performing Beauty in the afternoon and then running Millie at night. Fontana played Miss Dorothy, a young woman looking for a job and love in 1922 New York. Miss Dorothy is of a new generation – the “moderns.” As the moderns sing in the opening number of Thoroughly Modern Millie, moderns “raise their skirts and bob their hair.” Like Babette, Miss Dorothy is a boy magnet and wears an entire wardrobe of stunning, sparkling pink dresses in the show. Each dress is detailed and jeweled and fits Fontana perfectly. She says that in the costumes she was “living out my Barbie dream.”
Like Beauty, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a stage version of a movie. The original 1967 movie starred Broadway and film legend Julie Andrews as lead Millie Dilmount and Emmy and Academy Award-winning actress Mary Tyler Moore as Miss Dorothy. In 2001, the movie was turned into a stage musical starring Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster and Tony Award-nominee Gavin Creel as the two leads, Millie and Jimmy. Millie tells the story of Kansas farm girl Millie Dilmount who moves to New York to find a big life with a bigger-than-life man. She befriends Miss Dorothy and the poor but charming Jimmy and secures a job with the impressive Trevor Graydon – but only after singing and tap-dancing her way through a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song! However, when Millie finds herself falling in love with Jimmy despite her relationship with Trevor, she must decide whether true love or money is most important. In the background of the love affair is a white slavery ring, Chinese henchmen, and large ensemble tap-dancing numbers including “The Speed Test (My Eyes Are Fully Open)” and “Forget About the Boy.” The original Broadway production of the show won six Tony Awards.
While rehearsing the final scene of the show, Fontana had her castmates and the director laughing with the comedic timing and motions she delivered. She was so perfectly in character that she gave the impression that she was in full costume and makeup, even though she was just in a rehearsal outfit. Between moments of staging she joked with her castmates, and it was clear that they all got along well and enjoyed each other’s company. When Fontana talks about her castmates, there’s love and admiration in her voice. She is generous with compliments but genuine with her praise. Each of her fellow leads gets a compliment, from Leslie Uggams, “a living legend,” to Bobby Conte Thornton “who has a crazy voice,” to the “incredibly talented” ensemble.
On opening night, her song “How the Other Half Lives” had the audience laughing, and she danced across the stage impressively, performing multiple lifts and tricks with a partner. She glittered in every pink costume, and Fontana’s own sweetness and friendliness carried into Miss Dorothy.
Fontana is not only a gifted performer; she is also a writer. She is currently working on a cabaret concert with more of a story than most cabaret concerts. The story, Fontana says, is better experienced blindly so we’ll just have to wait to see it! She hopes to open the show sometime this year. Even though she’s a writer and performer, Fontana doesn’t see herself writing, directing, and starring in a piece. “I’m really interested in writing and pursuing other creative projects. It’s really nice especially with downtime between projects to have something else. I’m open to anything creatively.”
She also is the co-creator of a satirical improvised podcast called Support for this Podcast. She and her co-creator, Ryan Langer, were talking last year and decided to try to do a podcast. She says they both have satirical points of view and, having worked together in the past, knew they’d work together well. Her podcast has received a lot praise, being called “new and noteworthy.” Support for this Podcast is currently in its second season, and it’s available here.
Pittsburgh was lucky to have Fontana here for a while this summer, and we hope to have her back again soon. Follow Jessica on Instagram, and be sure to check out Support for this Podcast!