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Josefina Gabrielle

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

She has an eight-year ballet career and 15 years in musical theatre behind her, but Josefina Gabrielle still feels the thrill of a new role – particularly if it is something completely different. The actress best known for the musicals Oklahoma! and Chicago tells Caroline Bishop why she is so pleased to have joined the cast of comedy The 39 Steps.

There is something about Josefina Gabrielle that reminds me of the nation’s most decadent cook, Nigella Lawson. In appearance – though distinctly more svelte than the domestic goddess, Gabrielle has the same pale skin, thick, wavy black hair and pronounced cheekbones – and in manner. In a similarly refined voice, Gabrielle speaks about her new role with the same enthusiasm Lawson would have for a chocolate gateau. Everything is “a joy”, “absolutely wonderful” or “terrific fun”. Gabrielle is gorging herself on her role like Lawson in a late-night fridge raid.

As one quarter of the new cast of hit comedy The 39 Steps, the actress has not one, but three roles to feast on – the mysterious Arabella, prim Pamela and farmer’s wife Margaret. Gabrielle has – in a show of indulgence worthy of Nigella herself – splashed out on three perfumes, one for each character and each appropriate to the 1930s setting of the play (Chanel No. 5 for Pamela), which lend her dressing room in the windowless bowels of the Criterion a touch of glamour. She has, after all, come straight from Chicago, one of the West End’s most glamorous shows.

In fact, the transition was so swift that Gabrielle was still wearing Roxie’s fishnets every evening while rehearsing for The 39 Steps during the day. “I expected to be exhausted, and I’d come in to do [Chicago] in the evening and people would say ‘how are you, are you tired?’ And I said ‘I’ve just laughed all day, I feel fine!’”

A frenetically fast-paced comedy pastiche of Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps involves the four actors portraying a bevy of roles as they tell the firmly tongue-in-cheek tale of Richard Hannay’s flight from the police after a woman is murdered in his apartment. “It’s like four actors jump down four water shoots and land at the end,” laughs Gabrielle. “You have no time to stand in the wings and appreciate each others’ performance.”

In this third cast change since the show opened at the Criterion in September 2006, Gabrielle comes into the quartet along with Simon Paisley Day as Hannay and Martyn Ellis as one of the two multi-character clowns, joining original cast member Simon Gregor as the other clown. Gabrielle is full of praise for them all. “It’s so much fun working with the three of them. I’m on a stupid high!” What’s more, if the show and her co-stars weren’t enough to be excited about, Gabrielle seems inordinately happy about the fact The 39 Steps finishes nightly at the relatively early time of 21:45, when her former co-stars in Chicago are still flexing their jazz hands down the road. “Last night we came down at a quarter to ten – I can’t stop saying that – and I walked up to Chicago and listened to their show finish. They will probably make me go and line up the drinks!” she laughs.

"It’s like four actors jump down four water shoots and land
at the end"

It is not surprising that Gabrielle is so enthusiastic about The 39 Steps, which is a breath of fresh air for an actress who has spent most of her acting career in musical theatre. Her CV includes major roles in Fame, Oklahoma!, The Witches Of Eastwick and Chicago, and few non-musical parts, even though, as she says, “We all want to do everything.”

Fortunately, a run at Chichester Festival Theatre earlier this year playing six different characters in Noël Coward’s series of one-act plays, Tonight At 8.30, put Gabrielle in the frame for The 39 Steps. The important thing for her is “whatever has a good journey. If the journey happens to have singing and dancing I’ll do it, but it’s the journey that’s important. I love musicals but it is wonderful to do no singing or dancing for a while.”

Gabrielle’s own journey has been an interesting one. It started conventionally enough for an actress – with ballet lessons and a flair for performing (her first professional gig was as a stick insect in Jack And The Beanstalk) which led to attending Arts Educational from the age of 10. But, once there, she specialised in classical ballet, and on leaving the school got a job with the National Ballet of Portugal. It was, she says, a case of right time, right place and right name – Josefina was enough of a Portuguese-sounding name that, coupled with her Latin looks (her father is Spanish) made her the right fit to fill in when one of the regular dancers fell pregnant. Gabrielle went out to Portugal on an initial three-and-a-half month contract – and ended up staying for years. “[It was] far too nice a lifestyle for a school leaver,” she says. “We did some fantastic tours; we toured China and Brazil and France. Lisbon is so beautiful and the theatres are stunning so it was a really lovely lifestyle.” But she soon found she wanted to do more than just dance. “I like the athletic, dramatic stuff. My forte wasn’t the delicate tutu girl, I like to run and leap and jump. There comes a point where you want to open your mouth and make noise!”

When, eight years later, she left the ballet world, Gabrielle set about combining her dance training with a desire to make noise by working in musical theatre, starting with Carousel at the National in 1992. Her dance background is beneficial for non-musical roles, too, like her trio of characters in The 39 Steps. “I think dance does help with body language. How that person walks, how they hold their shoulders, where the confidence is. So I do find that helpful, as long as you can get rid of the dancer’s walk!”

It certainly helped her when she got her big break, as Laurey in Oklahoma! at the National in 1999, in which she danced the character’s famous dream ballet sequence, rechoreographed by Susan Stroman, which in other productions is usually performed by a professional dancer – in Gabrielle, the show had its own. The Trevor Nunn-directed production, in which she starred opposite Hugh Jackman “before he was Hugh Jackman”, was a huge success, earning Gabrielle a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical (the production won Outstanding Musical Production), transferring into the West End and then to Broadway. For Gabrielle, the show was life changing. “My feet didn’t touch the ground for over a year,” she says. “It put me on the map I suppose, as a leading lady. We loved the show with such a passion and when we put it out there for the audience the love that came back matched ours, so it was just such a wonderful unity. And things did change for me – a lot of doors opened for me, a lot of opportunities. I went on to do lots of wonderful roles that I didn’t get the chance to have a go at before.”

"There comes a point where you want to open your mouth and make noise"

Her experience of Broadway was “extraordinary”. “I think it all happened so quickly. I think it took six months to sort of go, ‘Oh, I’m here now’. She continues: “There is a definite family feeling and a community. It’s so hard to get to Broadway, it’s such a Holy Grail that the love and appreciation from every single person… you really felt the reverence. It feels like there’s an honour to be a dancer, a singer, a principal on Broadway, and you just sort of wear it with pride.”

Would she go back, given the chance? “I’ve got my catapult ready,” she laughs, slightly wistfully, and her wistfulness lingers when I ask her about her co-star (in Britain only), Jackman, whose film career skyrocketed after Oklahoma! “Like every actor, you would love to do films. It certainly didn’t alter my journey, but absolutely I’d love that to happen too,” she says. “We were so excited for him [Jackman], because we were working with him when he was being seen for X-Men. So we felt we were part of the buzz, before it happened. He’s a phenomenal all-rounder, he can do it all.”

Gabrielle may not have gone on to Hollywood superstardom like Jackman, but as a musical theatre actress the work flow since Oklahoma! has been steady and credible. She was one of the three leads in The Witches Of Eastwick at the Prince of Wales in 2001, starred opposite Adam Cooper in Singin’ In The Rain at Sadler’s Wells in 2004 and has been in and out of the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago no less than six times since 2000.

“Roxie and Velma, you couldn’t ask for better female roles,” she says. “It’s like wearing couture. It fits like a glove and you make it your own. It’s just gold in your hands to honour and cherish every night. I can only say that every time I’ve gone back I’ve enjoyed it more and more and you bring different things. Seven years ago I had other elements that were more at the foreground, and now I don’t have to work so hard at those, and there are other things that need to be focused on more with seven years more life. It just doesn’t work to just follow a formula because it’s got to be alive.”

Consequently, she feels the frequent cast changes are beneficial to the show. “Every new cast change brings a new energy and a period of adjustment, which is also very good. Because eight shows a week of exactly the same thing, exactly the same time every night, is so rigorous that you can get very set, so it’s a good challenge to be knocked off your comfort zone, and let certain things go and see what comes up in their place.”

And if it is frustrating, as a seasoned musical theatre actress, to see inexperienced celebrities take on the roles of Roxie, Billy Flynn and Mama Morton (recent names have included Duncan James, Tony Hadley and Kelly Osbourne), then she doesn’t admit to it. “Like anything, if it’s cast well then people come and see the show,” she answers tactfully. “It was ever thus that names bring people, so you do need names, especially with a 10-year-old show. So as long as the shoe fits then it’s fantastic.”

Gabrielle could be stepping in and out of Roxie’s high heels for some time to come, given past incumbents of the role – Chita Rivera played Roxie in London at the age of 66. But you would have to take a guess as to how far away that is for Gabrielle, who makes a rule of not telling interviewers her age (my guesstimate is late 30s). “Ambiguity is a very, very good thing in performing, because you have a lot more flexibility if you’re ambiguous, I think. When I give up acting I will happily tell you!”

"My feet didn’t touch the ground for over a year"

When that will be, even Gabrielle doesn’t know. “I never see myself doing this for the foreseeable future because the climate changes all the time. I love doing it, the older I get the more I love doing it I suppose, because you know what it’s like to do it and not to do it, so you really appreciate it when it comes along.”

“Sometimes,” she adds, “the wind blows your way and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m in a nice little role at the moment and I’m loving it.” As for where the wind will blow her next: “I want to do everything and work with everyone. So that’s good, because it means some of it might come true!” em>CB

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