Dressed in skinny jeans, flats, a white shirt and still wearing her stage makeup, the petite Ashley Blair Fitzgerald sits cross-legged in a small conference room after her matinee performance in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" at Arena Stage in Washington.
The show is the Ellicott City native's debut performance at the southwest D.C. theater and Fitzgerald said she's enjoying being a part of the production.
"I'm having a blast and the cast is amazing," Fitzgerald said. "I'm so blessed to be performing with these talented people in this great environment where I can grow as a performer."
The cast includes E. Faye Butler, who's performed in numerous productions at Arena Stage, Kennedy Center, regional theaters and on national tours such as "Mamma Mia" and "Ain't Misbehavin." She's also won two Helen Hayes Awards. Levi Kreis, who won a Tony Award in 2010 for his role of Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet," is also a member of the cast.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" takes the audience on a journey of the rock and rhythm-and-blues songs of Grammy-award-winning songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The duo's classics include "Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," "There Goes My Baby" and "Stand By Me."
"I saw 'Smokey Joe's Cafe' on Broadway and it was one of my favorite shows," Fitzgerald said. "My parents played the music in the show in our house when I was growing up, but I never thought I'd get to be in the show."
Fitzgerald shows she's not only a great dancer in "Smokey Joe's Cafe," but that she has the pipes as well as she belts out solos and duets in the show from "Falling" and "Trouble" to "Kansas City" and "I'm a Woman."
"I've done primarily dance shows for 10 years and the dancing overshadowed singing. I'm so happy somebody is letting me sing," Fitzgerald said.
A dancer at 5
The Howard County native and Centennial High School graduate started dancing when she was only 5 years old. She said she took lessons at Kinectics and the Ballet Royale Institute and during many summers at the Broadway Theatre Project in Tampa, Fla., when she was in her early teen years.
"The school in Tampa was run by Ann Rankin, from the movie 'Annie,' and we would have people come in like Ben Vereen and Gregory Hines," she said. "I was the youngest person at the time to be accepted. I went there for six years and I'd go to the American Ballet Theatre every summer to study too."
According to Fitzgerald, the Tampa dance studio always had casting agents from New York observing the dancers and, when she was 19 years old, Fitzgerald got one of her first professional jobs through the studio. At the time, she was also enrolled at the prestigious Boston Conservatory.
"I was a teacher assistant at the school when I got asked to do the (Bob) Fosse tour. My parents were on board and the dean of the Boston Conservatory saw me as ready to go out and they saw the show as a good opportunity for me," she said. "I left school and went on the Fosse world tour and I haven't stopped working since. I didn't think this would happen for me so soon."
In "Fosse," a three-act musical revue that showcases the choreography of Tony-award winning choreographer Bob Fosse, Fitzgerald was able to show off her dancing skills in several numbers, including the trumpet solo.
"As each band member in Fosse has a moment to shine in a solo, so did the dancers with them and I danced to the trumpet solo where I was the only person on stage," Fitzgerald said. "It was so much fun."
After traveling all around the world with "Fosse," Fitzgerald moved to New York City, where she was a dancer in the Radio City Music Christmas Show. Later, she did regional theater roles and signed on with other national touring productions, such as "Cats," "Dirty Dancing" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
"In New York, I worked with Neil Patrick Harris (in "Company") and he was so cool. I did three gigs back-to-back with him. He was still doing "How I Met Your Mother" in L.A. and he watched the rehearsals from there and when he got to New York, he was so on point," she said. "I also danced with three other dancers on a couple of the Tony Award shows with him. It was great."
Enter Twyla Tharp
Fitzgerald said one of the best professional experiences of her career was when she landed a role in "Come Fly Away" at the Kennedy Center. The musical followed four couples and their relationships during an evening of song and dance to Frank Sinatra's tunes. The choreographer was Twyla Tharp.
"That was one of the best experiences of my life. I had to dedicate my whole life to the show and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award," Fitzgerald said. "I worked so hard on that show for two months and when we opened, I got to really enjoy it. I had a great partner in Anthony Burrell, who was just amazing. I hope to dance with him again."
Back to her current gig, in "Smokey Joe's Cafe," Fitzgerald goes from sweetly singing and gliding across the stage as a fresh-faced girl-next-door to a more brazen character, wearing black garters, red stilettos and a bustier. She has a confident stage presence and appears very comfortable in her various roles as she nimbly executes complicated dance numbers. She said she works out when not on stage to keep in shape and so her dance career stays intact and has longevity.
"This year, I had my first injury when I tore my hamstring, which took me out for a while. I started running last year and I think that's what caused the injury," Fitzgerald said. "As a dancer, you need to take care of your body and make sure you get lots of rest and work out. I hope to dance for another 10 to 20 years. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't dance."
That's not to say that Fitzgerald does not have a full life outside of dance and the theater. She got married last year to Centennial High graduate Ryan Kelly. The two did not know each other in high school, but met through Fitzgerald's sister.
"He was a couple of years older than me and my sister had been trying to introduce us for a few years, but I was so busy on the road touring," she said. "When we finally met, we fell in love immediately. I found love right under my nose."
Fitzgerald said that, like her family, her husband keeps her grounded.
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"That's why he's such a great match for me, to keep me grounded from the fantasy life I live in," Fitzgerald said. "Plus, he's handsome."
The couple live in Jessup, with Billy Joel, a dog they rescued. Fitzgerald is not on the road as much as in the past, but is doing more local theater work, such as productions at the Kennedy Center and other local theaters.
"After I got married, I didn't book much work, but I did do 'Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' at the Shakespeare Theatre," she said. "For now, I want to explore what's happening in the local area."
Fitzgerald is also spending more time in Howard County and said living in Jessup makes it easy to get to New York when she needs to. She's also working on a project to videotape and archive the work of Bob Fosse, along with his daughter, Nicole Fosse.
As for her long-term plans for her career, Fitzgerald said she wants to continue working hard on her dancing and voice, talents that she said are "... like a car. You have to keep them tuned up. I do still take dance and voice lessons."
For those who want a career in dance, the music industry or on stage, Fitzgerald's said being committed to working hard is the message she wants to pass along to other aspiring entertainers.
"Sometimes, there's such a yearning for people to want to take a short cut and I've never taken that route," she said. "The path has to be followed with no short cuts. You have to go to school, learn and soak up everything you can. What happens will happen, but you can't fast track it."