By: Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane
Produced by: West Valley Light Opera
Directed by: Bill Starr
Choreographed by: Jillian Cummings
Music direction by: Ron Bowman
Featuring: Nique Eagen, Jessica Rosa Maxey
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: Through March 31, 2018
Where: Saratoga Civic Theater, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, California
Tickets: $20-$37. Visit https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=wvlo or call 408-268-3777.
at night: tap-dancing on stage
finds a way to live a very full and challenging life
I first saw Jessica Maxey when she was in the ensemble for "Funny Girl" at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City. Even in the ensemble, she really stood out. There is something about her intensity, about her commitment to her role.
Dan Demers, who directed that production, told how he found Maxey, who has frequently been seen at Hillbarn ever since:
"I went to Palo Alto Players to see 'Young Frankenstein.' I had a dear friend, Jennifer Butler, in that show. We were doing 'Funny Girl,' and I needed to find a gal who danced well and does tap. She called Jessica."
Demers is glad she did.
"She's the greatest, she's great, I love her energy so much! It's so amazing that she works at Stanford during the day, then comes and does these shows."
Well, Maxey is amazing, and has become a regular at Hillbarn, which she said in a recent interview that she considers her home theater — although she does plenty of other shows all over the Bay Area. At the moment, she is playing Sister Mary Robert in "Sister Act" at West Valley Light Opera in Saratoga. She completely rocked that role in May 2017 at Hillbarn.
"It's such a fun show," said Maxey during a recent phone interview. "It's so much fun being in this show because of the music and the story. I am legitimately joyful when doing my (big number in Act II). I don't have to think about anything. I'm just happy. It's one of those shows I could do over and over again."
To give Hillbarn its due for spotting her talent and putting it to good use, at Hillbarn she's been in "Funny Girl," "Curtains," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Sweet Charity," "Legally Blonde," "Sister Act," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and was a complete knock-out as Frenchie in "Cabaret."
Here's a link to a video at Hillbarn of Maxey talking about playing Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof."
She was a principal only in "Sister Act," but there is something intense about her in every performance which captures the eye. Sure, she's beautiful, with dark hair and eyes, but what really stands out is how she commits to every role, small or large.
For instance, as Frenchie in "Cabaret," which is the finest production I've seen of that great show, and certainly the best show I've seen at Hillbarn.
Get used to seeing Maxey with her bright and friendly smile, and it was a major shock to see her as this underwear-clad, chain-smoking French tootsie, who was as threatening as she was sexy. (Sexy and threatening was the case for most of the Kit Kat girls in that show, minus the stage cigarettes, including the great Jessica Whittemore, who led a man around on a leash, using a whip.)
"'Cabaret' was one of my favorite theater experiences," Maxey said. "I had so much fun with that. I'd learned all the choreography, but then I thought, well, she's called 'Frenchie,' she must be French, so she ought to have a cigarette. I had to learn all the choreography again, while holding a (stage) cigarette. It was fun.'
Demers mentioned that Maxey works at Stanford during the day. That she does: She is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, working for the Schnitzer Group.
The project Maxey is working on puts tiny microscopes in the brains of mice, and watches their neurons firing as they perform specific tasks.
"We're studying associative memory," Maxey said, "how the brain makes associations between objects presented in different contexts. A major analogy we like to use is, if you're in a zoo and you see a lion, your brain will react differently than if you see a lion in the street.
"The microscopes, implanted in the brains of mice, capture videos of the neurons firing. My job is taking that data from the brain and trying to make sense of it. ... It's engineering applied to studying biology."
She's always been interested in neuroscience and biology, said Maxey, so she is happy to be at Stanford, where interdisciplinary programs are encouraged.
"I get to keep using skills I have in engineering," Maxey said.
According to the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, the left brain is for scientists, and mathematicians, people who revere accuracy, think linearly, who are practical, always in control, and have fun with equations and playing with numbers.
The right brain, according to that institute, is all about creativity, free spirits, yearning, sensuality, filling the blank canvas with paint, and possessing boundless imagination.
Maxey's neurons, obviously, are firing quite actively on both sides of her brain.
Which may be why she can work in her doctoral program at Stanford during the day, then go to a voice or a dance lesson, then go to a rehearsal for a show.
And, she said, even with all that, she is more relaxed now than she was when she was in high school. Thanks to a ballet class she took when she was a teen.
She attended Loyola Prep, a Catholic school in Shreveport, Louisiana, because it was one of the only private schools in the area, although she is Jewish. Her father, Pat Maxey, teaches science and coaches football at the school. Her parents, Pat and Ann, and grandmother Marsha Katzenstein come out from Shreveport for all her shows, and sometimes her brother Benjamin Maxey also comes.
She worked very hard at Loyola, doing well enough to get scholarships at Southern Methodist University for her bachelor's and master's degrees. And all the time she was studying, she also was taking dance and voice lessons and appearing in plays.
"I didn't sleep much in high school," she said. "I loved it so much that it didn't matter to me. You find a way to make it work. It was great! My lunches were doing homework. You maximize your time whenever you can."
She said, "Fundamentally, a part of me is always a perfectionist. I'm not happy unless I've done my best. I want to keep advancing in fields I care about."
What helped her learn to chill out a little bit was when she started taking ballet lessons when she was 15.
"There was no way I could be the best in that class," she said. "There were girls in that class who'd been taking lessons for 10 or 12 years. I watched people who were very good, and that helped me learn it's OK to make mistakes and learn from them."
Maxey started in a children's theater group in Shreveport when she was 4 years old, and has been performing ever since then, in two or three shows a year. She started doing community theater shows when she was 8.
She started tap-dancing when she was 7, and it has remained her favorite form of dance, although she's also taken lessons in — besides ballet — jazz and modern dance.
The tapping is why she was delighted to perform in "42nd Street" at Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre in November 2017.
"It's been on my bucket list for 20 years," said Maxey, who is only 27 years old. "Absolutely my favorite thing to do on stage is tap-dance. It's just the best."
In addition to doing her graduate work in electric engineering at Stanford, she takes dance lessons at that great school when she has time, and vocal lessons off campus.
Maxey takes vocal lessons from Mindy Lym.
"She's incredible," said Maxey.
Maxey lives on campus with her fiancé, Kirby Smithe, who is also in the electrical engineering Ph.D. program at Stanford. "His research is in semiconductor physics. Not my area," said Maxey.
Their home is a 10-minute bicycle ride across campus, or a 30-minute walk, to her job.
Maxey said that after she gets her doctorate, she is likely to look for work doing research in industry.
"Pharma research, maybe," she said. "That's kind of the idea I have at the moment. I'd like to stay in a biotech-related field."
After "Sister Act" closes, she plans to take a little break from performing.
But, she can be expected to be found in theaters when the audition season begins again.
Email John Orr at email@example.com