The life of songstress Jennlee Shallow is truly one of rags to riches. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Shallow grew up in a one-room shack in the Caribbean with three siblings and a strong single mother. She was discovered at a young age for her natural singing talent and has been traveling the world ever since — musical theater style.
D.C. audiences will get a chance to see her in the upcoming North American tour of “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage,” to hit the National Theater this month.
“In the Caribbean, there were no such opportunities,” Shallow told The Washington Diplomat. “If you wanted to be a singer, people laughed at you. I always knew I wanted to be a singer because it was the only thing that made me feel alive. But I came from a poor family. We couldn’t afford piano, dance or singing lessons. I’ll never forget seeing my mom starve herself so we could eat.”
Loyal fans of the infamous 1980s movie starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey won’t be disappointed, and will also enjoy some new additions to the plot, Shallow said. The dance hit, made in 1987, tells the story of a privileged young girl who, while on vacation in New York in 1963, falls for the resort’s sexy dance instructor who opens her eyes to a whole new world.
Shallow will be featured as an ensemble member portraying the character of Elizabeth, who was added to the show and helps to tie the story together through music. She’s featured singing the show’s iconic anthem, “Time of my Life,” as well as “Yes,” “This Magic Moment” and “You Don’t Own Me.” “We Shall Overcome,” not included in the movie, will also be sung by Shallow.
Although “Dirty Dancing” takes place in an idyllic resort in the Catskill Mountains, the rest of the country was consumed by hot-button issues such as civil rights, and the show does touch on some of the turmoil of the 1960s (the film, for example, depicts an illegal abortion). “The characters also talk about the Freedom Riders. It adds another dimension to the show,” Shallow noted.
Shallow was born in Trinidad and grew up in St. Vincent, singing in her church choir. Her first big break came just out of college when her accounting teacher, who was teaching choir after school, suggested she audition for a local production of Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Little did she know that this audition — her first — would drastically change her life.
“I didn’t even know what musical theater was,” admitted Shallow, who had no formal vocal training. “I didn’t know what to sing and they suggested ‘Amazing Grace,’ which of course I knew because I sang in church. They said I looked and sounded like Heather Headley [a Trinidadian-American R&B and soul singer]. A week later I was understudying the role of Nala [the love interest of Simba].”
Shallow understudied Nala in Germany for eight months and then was offered the lead for a brand new company opening in Australia, where she performed for three and a half years.
Up until this time, she had learned the business by watching fellow performers on stage, but eventually decided she wanted to formally study musical theater. She left Australia for a scholarship to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles, where she broadened her horizons with tap, ballet, jazz and voice work lessons.
From there she moved to New York and was cast as Sarah in “Ragtime” at the Kennedy Center in D.C. She was offered the role on Broadway, but declined for the chance to perform as the lead singer in Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” in Las Vegas. After three years in Vegas, she was cast in Franco Dragone’s “Taboo” in Macau, China.
Although musical theater has been more than good to Shallow, allowing her to travel the world, she said her true passion is to be a recording artist.
“I wrote songs as a teenager, won a song writing competition in Trinidad and still write from time to time. I grew up listening to Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey — my three idols. I want to be like them some day; that passion is still burning. I have to get connected with a great producer who believes in me. I need to do my own kind of music. I’m a pop ballad singer with a big gospel voice.”
For now, though, she’ll be able to show off that voice on stage, in a sultry cult favorite. “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage” will star Samuel Pergande as Johnny Castle and Jillian Mueller as Frances “Baby” Houseman. Eleanor Bergstein is the screenwriter of original the film and book writer for the musical.
“The company that we have assembled for our North American tour is beautiful and truthful,” Bergstein said in a release. “I originally wrote the movie because I love to dance. And since the movie first appeared, the openhearted audience response has made me believe that everyone has a secret dancer inside them.… This remarkable cast brings those dreams to life through their extraordinary talent and exceptional skill.”
Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage
through Sept. 14
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Tickets start at $48.
For more information, please call (202) 628-6161 or visit http://thenationaldc.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.