On stage in Glenwood: Jennetta M. Howell is the wiz behind ‘The Wiz’
November 12, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Jennetta M. Howell is 29 years old, and has behind her just two experiences as a stage director, both of those coming in the last year. From that viewpoint, directing “The Wiz” – a large-scale musical, based on “The Wizard of Oz,” with 15 dance numbers, 50 performers onstage, and a 16-piece band – looks awfully large.”It seems very big,” said Howell, who racks up directing credit No. 3 on Friday, leading the Defiance Community Players’ production of “The Wiz” at Glenwood Springs High School. “I’ve got 50 cast members, 16 band members, plus all of our crew. That seems huge.”Howell may seem under-experienced for the task at hand. But Howell sees it differently: Her time and opportunities in the director’s chair may be scant, but lack of experience is not a concern. She has been performing since she was 8, and has had stretches in New York and in Los Angeles, done work in television, film and on stage. Most pertinent to her latest job, Howell has extensive experience with the Defiance Community Players, and she has played a role in a Southern California production of “The Wiz.”Howell, who moved to Glenwood when she was a year old, began working with the Defiance Community Players when she was 8, joining her parents, Jacquie and Carl Meitler, as well as an aunt and uncle, in the Glenwood Springs-based company. Year in and year out, Howell played minor roles until, at 13, she was given the part of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Finding a key mentor in Aspen actor-director Marisa Post, now the director of education for Theatre Aspen, she eyed a life in the theater.Straight out of high school, at the age of 17, Howell moved from Glenwood to New York City to attend the American Musical & Dramatic Academy. It was an adventure that may have provided her with valuable preparation for her current director’s gig: She was young, surrounded by something way bigger than she had ever witnessed before, and she jumped in with equal parts enthusiasm and naivet.”Luckily I was naive. Young, and really passionate about what I wanted,” said Howell, who moved back to Glenwood in 2006. “Yeah, I was lonely, but I was getting trained. I wish I could go back and do it all again, it was so much fun.”Perhaps the professional highlight of the New York stretch was landing a year-long job with Princess Cruise Lines, as an on-board singer-dancer. “I was 20, and this was a dream job,” Howell said. “I think everybody in the world should have an opportunity to tour, travel and get paid.”Disembarking from the cruise ship, Howell craved sunshine above everything, and moved to Los Angeles. Work there, she says, was easy to come by – with the caveat that it required a lot of work to grab it.”You can open the door and be involved in L.A. You just have to got out and get it, work really hard to get it,” said Howell, who appeared in film, television, commercials and theater during her time as a Californian. “You can be as busy as you want to be – and I was. I did everything I wanted to do there. Five years was a long time.”••••Dinner theater is not an especially appealing job for a Los Angeles actor, Howell explained, because most of the theaters are located far from the center of the city’s action. But in 2001, newly arrived in L.A., Howell wasn’t in a position to be picky. So she drove two hours northwest each day to Simi Valley, to serve as dance captain of the Actors Repertory Theatre – Simi’s production of “The Wiz.”Charles Smalls’ musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” has had a checkered history. Upon opening on Broadway, in 1975, it was a hit, earning seven Tony Awards, including one for best musical. It was particularly hailed as a breakthrough for African-American stories on Broadway; Smalls’ version featured an all-black cast, and a strong urban flavor to the music and choreography.A 1978 film version directed by Sidney Lumet, however, was a flop, despite being at the time the most expensive film musical ever made. Numerous critics laid the blame on Diana Ross, who, at 33, was considered too old for the role of Dorothy. A saving grace was the song “Ease on Down the Road,” which became a disco-era radio hit. That wasn’t enough to make a success of a 1984 Broadway revival, which closed after 13 performances. A 1985 engagement in London had a modest run; a Broadway production planned for 2004 never even got around to opening.None of which mattered to Howell. She hesitated briefly before agreeing to do the Simi Valley production not because of the quality of the show, but because of the commute. “That’s how much I loved the show,” said Howell, who was the only member of the featured cast who was white. “I love the story, the songs, the music.”Howell says her time in Los Angeles taught her the value of persistence, and the lesson paid off when she decided to return to Colorado. In 2006, she was interested in becoming a cast member at Aspen’s Crystal Palace, but was told there were no openings. Still, she insisted on leaving her photo and rsum with David Dyer, the dinner theater’s music director. Soon after, Howell got a call: a cast member had dropped out, and Howell had four days to get to Aspen and learn her numbers. “I packed my car and my cat. I left my husband at home,” said Howell, who was part of the cast for the final two years of the Crystal Palace.Back in the Roaring Fork Valley, Howell returned to her roots at Defiance Community Players, directing last year’s production of “High School Musical.” That show gave Howell some experience in how to handle directing a show in less than ideal circumstances; “High School Musical” opened while Howell was eight months pregnant with her daughter. She followed by directing “Wonderland: The Misadventures of Alice” for Glenwood Springs High School. Howell learned that directing was, at bottom, a fairly simple business.”As long as you stay true to the story,” said Howell, who since returning to Colorado has also taught and performed for Theatre Aspen, and performed this past summer in the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue. “It’s the trueness of the story, taking a story and making it believable. And I have a natural ability to bring a story to life.”Howell’s latest experience with “The Wiz” has been a bit more complicated than anticipated. Three weeks ago, the actor playing Glinda the Good Witch of the South was forced to drop out. Howell figured the easiest option was to step into the role herself.”I already knew the part, the songs. It was down to the wire and I thought, if I had to train someone, I might as well do it myself. Like I need more. I’m glad my part is small,” said Howell, whose fellow cast members include Jimmy Coates as The Wiz, Bill Chalis as the Lion, Jake Roehrs as the Scarecrow, Dave Gardner as the Tin Man. Howell enlisted her mother to play Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West, and her father to play Uncle Henry. Starring as Dorothy is Amy Moritz, who appeared as a slightly different sort of Dorothy in Aspen Community Theatre’s 2000 production of “The Wizard of Oz.”Howell chalks up the turn of events to another learning experience. “I have to tell you: Self-directing is hard,” she said. “You think directing 50 people is hard? Self-directing, you can’t see yourself. But you live and you learn.”Once again, Howell has found that what pulls her through is the material. “The Wiz,” she says, “is not traditional – it’s fun, it’s funky, it’s jazz and rock. It’s a unique window to look in, like the story is taking place more in the city. It’s the same characters, but they’re slightly colored.”Sticking with her belief of telling a story honestly, Howell isn’t pushing the African-American aspect in this version of “The Wiz.” And that approach, she says, is true to the script, which doesn’t go over the top in black references.”When you read the stage version, it’s just a story,” she said. “Other than the word ‘jive turkey,’ there’s not much of that influence. So we’re not playing at anything; we’re not trying to be a black cast from Glenwood Springs.”We’re giving it an attitude – more of a city, urban attitude. When you’re walking down the street in New York, it’s not the same as when you’re walking in Aspen. It’s more sassy.”Howell said she took it in stride when the actor playing Glinda dropped out, and was unfazed when she realized the best replacement was herself. And she is undaunted by the prospect of teasing an African-American vibe out of a cast of Roaring Fork Valley actors. Howell has witnessed the audition process in New York City, the highways of L.A., cruise ships and dinner theater, the twists and turns of stage productions.”Some people go, ‘Whoa!'” she said of directing a large-scale musical. “But this is where my heart and my home is, on the stage. It’s about being experienced and confident in what you know. I’ve been on stage since I’m 8 years old.”firstname.lastname@example.org
The Defiance Community Players’ production of “The Wiz” opens Nov. 13 and shows through Nov. 22 at Glenwood Springs High School.