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Nina Gabianelli grows up (or not) on stage

Steve Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” In the late ’90s, Nina Gabianelli decided it was time to take her final bow from the theater. Pushing into her late 30s, parts had become tougher to land. She still loved the time onstage, but a piece of her was wearying of the unsteady paychecks and the uncertain future. The life of a theater person was starting to seem crazy even to her.

“I decided I was going to be a normal person for a while. Stop performing, get a 401(k),” said Gabianelli. The St. Louis native moved from New York City, her home for the previous 13 years, to Sausalito. On the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, Gabianelli resumed her other longtime career, in restaurants, and took a management job at the Sausalito branch of the Chart House chain of steak restaurants.

Gabianelli found herself out of step with the pace of northern California. “I kept running up behind people, wanting them to move a little bit faster,” she recalls. And if she found herself grasping for the West Coast way of life, she felt utterly lost without the rhythms of the theater.

“I thought it was what would make me happy, knowing I’d have a paycheck week after week,” she said. “It didn’t work out for me. I’m not that kind of person. I was shellshocked. That was my midlife crisis.”

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Gabianelli is now facing another sort of crisis. For the past five years, she has been a cast member at Aspen’s Crystal Palace dinner theater. Her day job, too, has been at the Crystal Palace, where she serves as the general manager. With the announcement last year that Palace owner and founder Mead Metcalf was selling the building that has housed the distinctive theater for nearly 50 years, and the firm resolve of the new owner that the show would not be going on, Gabianelli is once again pondering her future.

This time, however, she is handling the abrupt turn with equanimity. Gabianelli, who claims to live by the Peter Pan credo of refusing to grow up, has struck a notably mature stance regarding the exit of the Crystal Palace. The 46-year-old is resolved to stay in Aspen, which, after eight years, she regards as home. And if there is no permanent stage on which to perform, she and her cohorts have sufficient skills at improvisation ” and certainly the desire ” to create temporary ones.

“Everyone has ideas. We invent things here,” she said. “If we don’t have this venue, create your own venue. I am not opposed to that. I have a strong belief that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

Certainly a big part of Gabianelli’s optimism is that she knows she isn’t giving up theater. When she made that ill-fated relocation to Sausalito, the purpose was to give up the performing life; in a year and a half in California, she didn’t appear onstage at all. Here, even if she doesn’t have the Crystal Palace and has no idea what new opportunities she and her Palace cast mates might come up with, she has chances to appear with Aspen Community Theatre, Theatre Aspen, and the other seasonal productions that are part of the fabric of Aspen.

The theater camp in suburban St. Louis that Gabianelli’s parents enrolled her in as a preteen must have been a good one. Among her fellow young actors were John McDaniel, who became the longtime music director for Rosie O’Donnell, and another actor who put in years on Broadway before becoming a doctor. Many more are involved in community theater in their towns. Gabianelli and her mates acted in shows, directed them and behaved like professionals.

“We were pretty serious about it at 12,” she said. “As serious as you could be at that age. We were pretty dedicated.”

Extracurricular theater was a big part of her high school years. She then went to the Boston Conservatory of Music, part of a class of eight in the musical theater department who took tap, ballet and even composition together. It was a performance-oriented program, for which Gabianelli is grateful. A contemporary in the theater program at Dartmouth spent most of her time studying classical drama and reading about directing, while Gabianelli took roles in “Evita” and “Anything Goes.”

After college, she made a beeline to New York. For several years, she used the city as a launching and crashing pad, as she traveled to regional productions or joined touring companies. After tiring of the road, she created a niche for herself in the subgenera of one-woman cabaret. Gabianelli would work in restaurants for six months, while she saved money to put together a show. She would spend the next six months performing the show in small clubs downtown and in the theater district. The monetary awards were minimal; eventually, she had to return to the restaurants. But the creative incentive was huge. She’d select the material ” a mix of jazz standards, show tunes and new songs, often with a humorous angle, that she’d commission from young writers ” hire a pianist, work out the arrangements. She also got a taste of the business end of show business, booking the venues and publicizing the shows.

“You’ve got to pick music that speaks to you,” said Gabianelli, who took a cabaret symposium at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. “You’re sharing something about you, rather than performing at people.” One particular aspect of her personality that she liked to flash was her bawdiness, evident in the song “Pour Me a Man,” which she brought with her to the Crystal Palace.

After the Sausalito debacle, Gabianelli asked the Chart House management for a transfer to Aspen, where she and her parents vacationed during the first week in March for years. The Palace, which she had attended as an audience member, was an afterthought; foremost on her mind was finding a place she wanted to live, and simply getting on a stage. Her first year in Aspen, Gabianelli played a crow in Aspen Community Theatre’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Over time, her roles with ACT grew; she starred in the title role in “Mame” ” a career highlight: “18 costume changes, one better than the next, and I got to fly to the moon,” she gushes ” and had parts in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “A Little Night Music” and “My Fair Lady.”

Mead Metcalf got to know Gabianelli both as a businesswoman, when he’d dine at the Chart House, and as a performer, with ACT. When he offered her the job at the Palace, she jumped. She has warmed to such roles as Mrs. Ken Lay and as one of the middle-age women facing menopause in the Palace’s satirical musical shows. And she loves how the Palace has reconnected her to cabaret-style entertainment, where the act and audience are not so far removed from one another.

“It’s almost interactive,” said Gabianelli, who gets more than her share of big, brassy roles at the Palace. “You’ve waited on them and gotten to know them. So they know who you are when you’re up there.” She also cherishes the uniqueness of the Palace experience. “It’s the two most difficult businesses ” theater and a restaurant ” put together. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, to Mead’s credit. You can’t go to Jackson Hole and get something like this, or Vail. Not in any ski town anywhere. It speaks to what kind of town Aspen is.”

Gabianelli confesses that part of the reason for her current optimism, despite the uncertain future, is the veil of denial the cast has drawn over their faces. But with less than a month left for the Palace ” the theater closes after two shows, already sold out, on April 12 ” reality is becoming harder to ignore.

“It’s definitely starting to get a little weird,” said Gabianelli, who will continue to work for a while for Metcalf, who is moving to Crested Butte. “We’re saying goodbye to guests who we might not be seeing again, guests who have been coming here 10 times as long as I have.

“I’m trying to enjoy what we have right now. But after 30 days of not doing the show, when we realize we’re not going back to rehearsals in June, we’re going to start jonesing a bit.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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