Chris Jamison has an actress’ composure, a dancer’s posture and a singer’s belt.
This triple threat grew up a theater kid on the stage at Westlake High School. When she was 16, she and her mom, Justine Mueller, helped to found Mount Pleasant Community Theater, a group that ends its 43rd summer with the final weekend of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
(Performances are tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Get tickets here.)
For all but 16 of Mount Pleasant Community Theater’s 43 summers, Rose Cremonese-Norton’s troupe of players has included Jamison, playing roles from Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” to Golde, the mother of Tevye’s five daughters, the role she plays this weekend.
While MPCT has been a touchstone for the actress, so has “Fiddler.”
“This is my 19th production of ‘Fiddler,’ including four national tours and Broadway,” says Jamison, who now lives in Yorktown Heights.
On Broadway in 1990, she encountered the legendary Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original production and who had a well-earned reputation for being a stern taskmaster who didn’t suffer fools.
“He wasn’t too tough at that point,” Jamison says, sitting in the lobby at Westlake, the home of her latest “Fiddler.”
“He was much older. We toured for a year and a half before coming to Broadway. All over the U.S., Canada, and Japan for a month. Then we had one week before we opened on Broadway and that’s when Robbins came in.”
Jamison was the swing in that production, the cast member who had to know every move the ensemble made to step in at a moment’s notice. If an understudy went on for a leading character or fell ill, Jamison would take their place in the ensemble.
“We were already in the Gershwin Theater and, because I was the swing and was sitting on the side watching, he made me his note-taker. I stood next to him for a week, taking notes. I was Jerome Robbins secretary!”
Sometimes a note wasn’t enough.
“I remember he wasn’t 100 percent happy with something in the bottle dance at the wedding and he got up on that stage, with the hat and the bottle, at age 72, and did it for them. And he was flawless. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it.”
That week had an impact on Jamison.
“The most minute details were in his brain. ‘The foot is this way, not this way,’” she recalls. “I had already done 15 productions of ‘Fiddler’ at that point, but what he did that was so unique for me was that he told us what every movement, every gesture meant in the song ‘Tradition.’ I just absorbed that.”
How did a girl from the Westlake High School’s Class of ’72 end up standing next to one of the giants of American musical theater?
“In high school, I knew I wanted to go into theater professionally. My mother told me ‘Learn how to type. You don’t want to be a waitress.’ And I did. I went to WCC for two years and decided that was enough and went to study theater in New York.”
She was 16 when she helped found Mount Pleasant Community Theater. Forty-three years later, credits Cremonese-Norton for teaching her “everything I know about musical theater.”
Among the “Rose-isms” she has collected through the years: “Always stand three-quarter in third position so the audience can see your face.”
And: “You become the character in the wings, not when you step onto the stage. You get the life of the character before you step out.”
“Fiddler” still gets to her after all these years.
“It’s organic to me now. I don’t have to try to cry in Act 2. I have to try to stop myself from crying. That last scene where Chava is dead to us just kills me.”
Jamison—who dreams of one day playing Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”—recently revisited a favorite role: Domina in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Curtain Call in Stamford, not far from where she works.
She’ll be back at Curtain Call at month’s end to audition for another show: Her 20th production of “Fiddler.”
Here are 10 Things You Should Know about Chris Jamison.
1. For 30 years, she was a professional actress. She is now an executive assistant at GE Capital in Stamford, Conn.
2. She earned her Actors Equity card – the calling card of a professional actor – in a 1976 production of “Bells Are Ringing” at Westchester Broadway Theater, in a minor comic role.
“I was a kid. I was in the business three months and I had my card,” she says, a bit of wonder in her voice.
3. She was in two Broadway productions: The original “Annie” in 1977 and the 25th anniversary production of “Fiddler” in 1990.
4. Her Broadway Tevye was Topol, who played the role in the 1971 movie.
5. She is a three-year survivor of Stage 1 breast cancer and wears a pink plastic bracelet to mark the milestone.
“I thought I was very cute bald,” she says, erupting in a loud laugh. “I didn’t cry over losing my hair at all. I thought it was a unique adventure.”
6. During treatment, in the summer of 2010, she played Miss Hannigan in Mount Pleasant’s “Annie.”
7. In 1977, Jamison was number 764 out of more than 900 actresses auditioning as replacement players for “Annie.” She made the 50-actress cut, but they didn’t call her back for a year.
“Then Laurie Beechman, who played five great roles – Sophie the Kettle, Cecille the maid, A Star to Be, Bonnie Boylan and Frances Perkins the Secretary of Labor – was leaving the show. And I was exactly the same height and weight as she was. I’m sure I got cast because they didn’t have to build new clothes. My goal in high school was to be on Broadway and I did it in six years. Laurie and I were the only people to play all of those roles at once. Now, they divide them up between a couple of actresses.”
8. She played Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” in 1975, before turning pro. She then played her professionally at WBT in 1998.
“There were two Fannies,” she says with a giggle. “I was the matinee Fanny.”
She was a different person when she played Fanny that second time.
“I had been married, divorced, lost two babies through miscarriage,” she says. “I had been through life. At 20, I hadn’t been through anything, life experience-wise. I think the work I did at the dinner theater in that show was the best work I’ve ever done.”
9. In 1984, she was in a Mount Pleasant “winter stock” production of “Fiddler” that played in theaters in Philadelphia and Florida.
“I played Golde and my mother played Yente and my sister was Tzeitl,” she says. “It was a whole family affair.”
10. She uses a body mike, because everyone uses one nowadays, but the sound technician has it set at the lowest level.
“I’m old school,” she says. “I project. I use my diaphragm. They have me on a mike because otherwise it would sound unbalanced. But they barely have it on.”
“Fiddler on the Roof”—8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $20; $15 students and seniors. All seats reserved. 825 Westlake Drive, Thornwood. 914-949-8382. www.mpctshows.com.
Photos by Joe Larese/The Journal News: Chris Jamison on the set of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a Mount Pleasant Community Theater production at Westlake High School.