Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1998
1997 was the year of Julie Jacobs. The lithe, supple, sexy, often bald chameleon of an actress made a dramatic comeback. First, she was cast in the Not the Fritz re-mounting of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago”. Then, she knocked the socks off audiences and critics alike in three sequential productions at Sledgehammer: as the curvaceous Miss Scoons in “Angel City”, as a wide-eyed cult-leader in “South of Heaven” and a sensuous, breast-feeding office-worker/trouble-maker in “Demonology”. She followed that up with a bracing chaser of cross-dressing roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Fritz. Now, she’s completing back-to-back runs at the San Diego Repertory Theatre: “The Imaginary Invalid” and “Avenue X” (March 7-April 5). Quite the breathless theatrical return.
Seems like it was her destiny. At age 3, she would dance with her Hawaiian-dancer grandma at the weddings of her older brothers and sisters. Her fourth birthday present was “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall.” “She became my mentor,” says the intense, green-eyed actress. “I would listen for hours on end. I knew I would be an actress. I saw “Annie” at about that time, and that was my big dream. When I grew up, beyond what I heard was the 4’8” Broadway height cutoff for the role, I cried and cried.”
She didn’t grow too far beyond the cutoff; the diminutive actor/singer/dancer is just about 5’2”, but she’s a huge presence onstage. At age 12, she began a five-year leading-lady stint in El Cajon Youth Summer Stock productions, starting with “Oklahoma”. “I was awful,” she confesses, “the whiniest Laurey.” But she went on to play many featured musical roles. Then, after graduating from Patrick Henry High School, she decided to become a police officer. Once at Grossmont College, she switched to psychology, then English, then philosophy. “I changed my major every semester.”
One drama class later, and she was touring for three years with the National Theatre for Children, playing Cinderella, Pinocchio and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, among others. But again, she became restless. “As rewarding as performing for thousands of children every day, and getting their cheers and hugs, it seemed empty to me. I lost the drive; all that attention-seeking lost its flavor for me after awhile. I wanted to do something more helpful to people. So I went back to school to become an acupuncturist/ herbalist.
“Then I began to re-evaluate my life, and ask myself questions: ‘If I had only a year to live, what would I do? Where is my passion?’ It all came back to acting.” This was in 1996. A week later, she auditioned for “Sexual Perversity”, and the rest has become local theater history.
“I had shaved my head; I thought I wasn’t going to act any more. I was very idealistic; it was an attack on vanity. So I wore a wig to the call-back, but Duane [Daniels, the Fritz director] wanted to exploit it.” So did subsequent directors. Now she has a close-cropped cut, but she’s still bald in her publicity head-shot, which reads “Hair available on request.”
At 27, she’s at peace with acting. “Before, I came from a self-centered place. I had learned tricks about how to dazzle an audience, how to get and hold their attention and win their approval. I hadn’t really done a major search into the psyche of another human being. Now I can look into another person and still be myself. As Whitman put it, ‘I am vast; I contain multitudes.’… I’d like every role I do to be different from the last one… I want to do plays that are hitting people at their core, making them look closely at their lives and change their behavior and how they treat other people.”
“Avenue X” would seem to fit the bill. The 1994 a capella do-wop musical is what Jacobs calls “racially tense.” Set in Brooklyn, 1963, the ensemble piece of 26 songs for eight actor/singers (book & music by John Jiler; music by Ray Leslee), won two Richard Rodgers musical awards.
The story concerns a group of kids on a street that divides the black housing projects from the Italian neighborhoods. All they want to do is sing together, but their communities won’t allow it. In the midst of all the music — which spans a wide array of genres, from early rock ‘n’ roll to Sicilian chanting, from gospel and African music to R&B and jazz — there’s a love story that involves Jacobs’ character. The younger sister of the lead singer in the group, she’s a budding, feisty, angry, sexy escapist. Her only route out of her troubled life is getting high on Romilar cough syrup. She wants more than the loving butcher’s son can offer. The ending of the piece wasn’t set at press-time; apparently, each regional production has changed the show’s resolution. Director Sam Woodhouse has been working with the writers to re-configure the conclusion.
No matter how this show ends, the Jacobs story is going along just fine. “After vacillating back and forth between all these careers, and thinking I had to do something practical, it’s nice to abandon those notions. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m living my dream, doing exactly what I want to be doing.”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.