Charlotte D'Amboise: Star Quality

July 22, 2007
Charlotte d’Amboise has long been known on Broadway as a true triple threat: the winning choice in roles that call for dancing, singing, and acting. Her verve, charm, deft comic timing—and great shoulder-and-hip action—have buoyed many a dance-heavy musical in the past two decades. From her Tony-nominated appearance in Jerome Robbins’
to Susan Stroman’s Contact to witty interpretations of Gwen Verdon’s roles in Damn Yankees and Chicago, she has carried the torch for powerful, personable dancing that shoots across the footlights.
She brings a sullied innocence and slightly ditzy deliciousness to Roxie Hart in the revival of
o—a role she’s been playing on and off since she opened the national tour in 1997. Certainly the strongest dancer to take on the role since Ann Reinking, the revival’s choreographer, she runs away with big numbers like “Me and My Baby” and “Roxie,” and displays more grace and agility while high up on a ladder than most people do standing on the ground.
Last April d’Amboise, 39, was briefly glimpsed in the title role of
Sweet Charity
, the Broadway revival of the 1966 Cy Coleman-Neil Simon-Bob Fosse collaboration that opened in May with new choreography by Wayne Cilento. In a roller-coaster series of events, she was whisked out of Chicago to take over as Charity Hope Valentine—the vulnerable, ever-optimistic dance hall hostess searching for love—for the show’s trial run in Boston. As standby for TV star Christina Applegate, d’Amboise got the call when Applegate injured her foot during the Chicago tryout, less than a month before Broadway previews were to begin.
Charity, originally portrayed by Verdon, is a part d’Amboise had longed to play since she was 18. “I know exactly who Charity is,” she said in an interview. “The part is a natural for me.” But in Boston, smack in the middle of her much publicized star turn, the cast was told the show would close before it ever got to New York. The Boston reviews, while full of praise for d’Amboise (“a sheer delight in the role…a performer with oodles of talent and charisma”), had not been the kind that send stampedes to the box office.
But then another turnaround, just as sudden, saved the show.
did come to Broadway, and d’Amboise did play Charity—but only for a week of previews until Applegate recovered in time for opening night. For those few performances, the audience greeted her with prolonged applause and gave her a standing ovation at the end. The consensus was that she was simply smashing in the role. The following week, she traded in Charity’s little red dress for Roxie’s even slinkier black one, returning to Chicago.
Not long after, sitting in a trendy restaurant near her Harlem home, d’Amboise said, “It’s definitely frustrating, because I was just starting to make the role my own and getting the chemistry with everybody.”
Her father, Jacques d’Amboise, the former New York City Ballet star who founded the National Dance Institute, rushed to Boston to catch her final two shows, and attended all but one of her Broadway performances. He noticed a breakthrough at one point: “I could see that she now felt comfortable enough in the role to play with it. She had to carry everything—dancing, sing-ing, drama. There’s one scene near the end where she went through three mind-boggling emotional transitions. It’s the first role where I’ve seen her display that kind of emotional range. I realized my daughter is a fabulous actress!”
D’Amboise remains Applegate’s standby—on call whenever the star can’t go on. She is savvy enough about Broadway’s current economic realities to have realized that a major revival needed someone with name recognition. “I did a great audition, but I knew they wouldn’t hire me because they needed something to grab onto publicity-wise.” Then the producers came to her with the idea of being a standby for Charity while continuing as Roxie. “If I had said no, I never would have gotten the chance to play Charity.” For shuttling between Roxie and Charity, she won a special TDF/Astaire Award in May. And she may yet step back into
this fall.
You’d think her family pedigree would have destined d’Amboise for a ballet career. Her mother was also in NYCB (and earlier danced on Broadway), and her brother Christopher, a choreographer, has danced with the company. But although she studied at the School of American Ballet, Charlotte set her sights on Broadway. Her father remembers her going out on the terrace to belt out Barbra Streisand songs at the age of 5.
“I started at SAB, along with my twin sister, when I was 8, and I stayed till I was 14,” she recalled. “Every year I’d say, ‘Mom, that’s it—I’m quitting.’ And by the end of summer I’d always want to go back. All I wanted to do was
—in The Nutcracker, Coppélia, all the kiddie ballets. As soon as I outgrew them I was out of there.” At 16 she turned to jazz classes, studying with Luigi. “His classes were the best transition from ballet. I was a little ballerina; I didn’t know how to move my hips.”
There was never any family pressure, she says, to stick with ballet. “Broadway was always my passion. When I was about 16 and saw
, I thought, that’s what I want to do. The women are so strong and sexy up there.”
As it happened, she auditioned for Bob Fosse early in her career when he was restaging
Sweet Charity
in 1986—the year before he died. “I remember I was so sassy! I dressed in this little thing and auditioned for the role of Nikki (one of Charity’s friends)—I’m so wrong for the part. Afterwards Fosse said, ‘Just improvise.’ I was really good at that, because I used to go to clubs, so I was all over the place. We started talking, and I said, I really want to do your show. I was so cocky! He was so nice. He didn’t say, ‘Are you kidding?’ He told me I should do Song and Dance, since I had already been cast and was featured in that.”
That 1985 show, choreographed by Peter Martins (ballet master in chief of NYCB), marked her first time as part of a Broadway opening and served as a launching pad for a number of Broadway “gypsies.” In 1988 she was cast in
, which closed three days after it opened. But her next show was the now legendary Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. She made the most of her two big roles: Peter Pan in “I’m Flying” and Anita in the West Side Story sequence.
“For the six months he rehearsed,” she said about Robbins, “he was constantly switching people around. It was a grueling experience, because nothing was set. But everybody knew that it was brilliant, and I learned so much from him. As much as it’s challenging, you want somebody to lead you that way. A performer is dying for that, aching for that.”
The Robbins show brought her personal as well as professional satisfaction. When Terrence Mann took over as the show’s narrator, they rekindled a relationship that had started when both were in
—and have been together ever since. Married in 1996, they are the parents of two small daughters, Shelby and Jo-Jo. (Mann is currently in Lennon, the new musical based on John Lennon’s songs.)
D’Amboise handled her turbulent adventures with
Sweet Charity
calmly, focusing on her work and family. “I didn’t get as depressed as I thought. Everybody was so worried about me and I got so many calls. It’s hard, because you get passionate about a part and then suddenly you drop it. I hope I get a real run in it at some point. We’ll see.”
Meanwhile, she is still Roxie on Broadway, where she gets to strut and slink brilliantly in vintage Fosse style. She feels lucky to be in one of the few shows these days where dancers shine. “Times have changed in Broadway theater. I think a lot of choreographers don’t get a chance to experiment. The choreography sometimes feels like it’s a rehashing of old stuff.”
An exception, she feels, is the choreographer Rob Marshall, who won an Oscar nomination for directing the film
. “Working with him in Damn Yankees and Company, I felt the way I did with Robbins. Robbie molds the part to you and makes you feel wonderful about who you are.” She hopes that Marshall, despite his film success, will return to Broadway, where he would be one of the few who can infuse a musical with true dance momentum.
And we can hope that, for all her success with revivals, d’Amboise will find more opportunities in new shows—tailored to her prodigious talents and her larger-than-life onstage glow.

Susan Reiter writes about dance and other performing arts for
Newsday, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.