rehearsal photographs by Barry Wisdom /
In the 15 years that the Hilliard, Ohio, native has been working professionally on stage, Grové has appeared in Broadway and Off Broadway shows, in national tours, as well as in regional theater and one-night-only concert events in collaboration with such Playbill cover girls (and boys) as Stephen Sondheim, Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Mickey Rooney, Jim Dale, Glenn Close, Eartha Kitt, James Barbour and Robert Cuccioli.
But the name that most often comes to mind these days is no Tony-winning, Broadway vet who was drawn by Hirschfeld, but a diaper-wetting, Broadway baby who was delivered by Grové just a short nine months ago.
“Saying good-bye to Gavin is really rough,” said Grové about the separation anxiety she suffers with every exit of the New York apartment she and husband Dan Cooney share with their newborn son. “Of course I couldn’t let Gavin know this.”
Grové, who brings Gavin with her to as many out-of-town gigs as possible, has had her son with her in Sacramento during “Mermaid” rehearsals thanks to the help of her mother, Katie Grové.
Only recently did grandma take Gavin home to New York for a reunion with his dad – who joined the cast of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia” in June.
Grové said her mother is happily reprising her long-running role of stage mother (“Stage grandma?”) since Gavin’s debut, once again providing an invaluable support system to her daughter while she dazzles audiences and critics alike.
“The first show I did was when I was 3,” said Grové. “It was a production of ‘Music Man’ at an outdoor summer theater. Mom was in it, dad was in the barbershop quartet, and my 6-year-old brother was a boy in the pool hall scene. I was a baby girl in the chorus singing, ‘Trouble … trouble … trouble ….’”
Along with mosquitoes, Grové said it was during that show when the theater bug first bit her.
“I did a lot of community theater as a kid,” she said. “The entire family was musical. We all did it for fun, then it became something I couldn’t get enough of.”
Grové blames it on her genes. Her mother – a performer in an Up With People international education touring company – met her father, William, while on a trip to his native Africa.
“It takes adventurous parents like that to understand and support a child involved in theater,” said Grové, whose early study with Bill Goldsmith at Columbus Children’s Theatre led to her first featured roles, including Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz.”
A year later, at 15, Grové – who had been regularly auditioning in New York for some time – took a giant leap over the rainbow, winning the role of Dorothy in the Madison Square Garden production of “The Wizard of Oz” and its subsequent two-and-a-half year tour.
It was during her MSG tenure that Grové enjoyed the opportunity to play opposite such stage-and-screen legends as Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt.
“I grew up watching all those Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies,” said Grové. “Garland was a hero of mine. And I totally knew who Eartha Kitt was. She became a good friend of my family and I. I had a very special relationship with her. I saw her the week before she passed away.”
“I’ve pretty blessed with the people I’ve worked with.”
Following her high school graduation, Grové made the move to New York, where she planned to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts while dipping her toe into the audition pool.
“But then I got ‘Les Miz,’” said Grové, who vividly recalled the day she auditioned and got the job that put her on Broadway.
“I was doing a Coca-Cola industrial, and went to audition on my lunch break,” she said. “All I remember them saying was that ‘She’s a little young.’ I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m going for it again.’ Having had auditioned for the part several times, I think I was less desperate, which gave me an edge.
“Because I had auditioned for it before, it was less daunting – I knew what to expect, and I had been on the road for more than two years with ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I had grown up listening to the original cast recording of ‘Les Misérables,’ and, really, just auditioning for it was a dream come true.”
“When I found out I got the part of Eponine that afternoon, I quit the Coca-Cola job.”
In the decade or so since landing that dream role, there has been a steady succession of other Broadway appearances, including Miss Dorothy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Mrs. Anderssen in “A Little Night Music,” and Celeste in “Sunday in the Park with George."
On regional theater stages, she’s appeared as Laurie in “Oklahoma!” (helmed by “Mermaid” director Glenn Casale), Maria in “The Sound of Music,” Sarah in “Guys and Dolls,” Amalia in “She Loves Me,” and Luisa in “The Fantasticks!”
“I’ve been pretty fortunate,” said Grové. “I do think it’s been a combination of luck and hard work, plus ‘The Wizard of Oz’ opened a lot of doors for me. But at the same time, I was really young back then. Now that I am truly an adult, it’s hard for people to see me as an adult. But I’ve finally come into my own as a leading lady, I’m not the ingénue, not a 15-year-old. I’m not playing Liesl like I did just a few years ago, I’m playing Maria.”
“It’s fun to now be in roles that I can dig into a little deeper.”
Though a Disney project, the current Music Circus production of “The Little Mermaid” (playing July 10-22 at the Wells Fargo Pavilion) more than qualifies as providing one of those roles thanks to a rewrite-restaging that only debuted in Europe this year.
A darker, more-complicated storyline that emphasizes the complicated relationship between royal daughter Ariel (Grové) and her father, King Triton (Merwin Foard), as well as Prince Eric’s (Eric Kunze) own feelings of being an outsider, this new version of “The Little Mermaid” is giving Grové 20,000 leagues of emotional subtext under the sea.
Director Glenn Casale said Grové is handling the role swimmingly.
“Jessica is glorious as Ariel,” said Casale. “There are two things that Jessica brings to Ariel: There’s an innocence and a sense of magic in her eyes – a desire for, a wanting of something. You can see it on her face and in her eyes.”
Grové is equally devoted to Casale.
“I love Glenn – he is so great,” said Grové, who first worked with him in the 2007 Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of “Oklahoma!” (with Shirley Jones). “He’s so organized, so prepared. He knows every light, all the tech stuff.”
When asked where she sees herself in five years, Grové said she’d love to be starring in a new Broadway musical, originating a role, and that “a little bit of fame would be OK.”
“A Tony nomination would be nice, too – even a win. It’s good to have those ideas and plans. It’s so easy to become a victim of circumstance, so to say, ‘This is what I want, this is what I’m aiming for,’ gives you a little bit of control over what happens to you in life. It gives you the power.’
While she has forward-thinking goals and plans, Grové sums up her current roles as Ariel, a wife and a new mom in three little words:
“Life is good.”
The Music Circus production of "The Little Mermaid" plays July 10-22, 2012, at the Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento, Calif.
Directed by Glenn Casale, "The Little Mermaid" features Vicki Lewis (Ursula), Eric Kunze (Prince Eric), Jessica Grové (Ariel), Henry Hodges (Flounder), Merwin Foard (King Triton), Kevin Smith Kirkwood (Sebastian), Ron Wisniski (Grimsby), Jack Doyle (Scuttle), Scott Leindecker (Flotsam), Ben Roseberry (Jetsam).
With book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, and music by Alan Menken, "The Little Mermaid" features Disney storytelling at its best. Unsatisfied with her life at sea, young mermaid Ariel longs to experience the human world above, so she embarks on a fascinating journey to discover her true self. The classic love story and memorable songs have captivated audiences of all ages.
Tickets, priced at $30-70, are available online at www.tickets.com, by calling (916) 557-1999, or in person at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H St., Sacramento, Calif.
To view a collection of performance videos featuring Jessica Grové on YouTube, click here.