By Evan Henerson
How much talent does one have to possess to convincingly pull off a talentless performer? Why not ask a young lady who has been dancing since the age of 5 and who nabbed her first national tour mere weeks after her graduation from the University of Michigan, the ink barely dry on her BFA in musical theater.
As fate – and a little irony – would have it, that first role for Los Angeles native Alex Scolari is Lisa Houseman in the national tour of “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage.” The sister to “Dancing” heroine Frances “Baby” Houseman, Lisa is fashion conscious and very much thinking about husbands and children unlike her more rebellious and politically minded sister, Baby. Baby’s got moves while Lisa is no star-in-the-making as her talent show audition piece “Hula Hana” rather demonstrably proves.
So while she didn’t have to exactly un-learn her years of training, the Sherman Oaks native needed to expertly portray ineptness.
“People who weren’t trained as dancers when they were kids didn’t have ballet teachers telling them, ‘suck in your stomach, hold your abs,’ muses Scolari. “When I first got [to rehearsals], I had to work really hard with the associate choreographer. They kept telling me ‘You look like a good dancer who is dancing bad. You just have to naturally be this bad, kooky dancer because we won’t buy it unless it’s very genuine.’ I was dancing badly on the beat, and Lisa wouldn’t necessarily be on the beat. She’s slightly off with everything she does.”
“For everyone who has ever played Lisa…I think people underestimate that character because she is supposed to be bad,” she continues. “If you’re an audience member and you don’t know much about musical theater, you walk away thinking the performer is bad. I’ve sung everything from ‘Oklahoma!’ to ‘Next to Normal’ to a wide range of everything. It’s really challenging having to kind of throw all that to the side.”
Talking to Scolari, you get the sense the actress is ever-so-slightly defending a character that she has come to love, a character she has been living with for eight performances a week in theaters all over the country and in Canada since last summer. But whatever their opinions of Lisa Houseman – and to use a couple of “Dirty Dancing’s” most quotable catch phrases – nobody is putting Alex Scolari in a corner. She’s having…wait for it…the time of her life.
Scolari is especially jazzed at being back in her neighborhood during “Dirty Dancing’s” three week engagement at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre where friends, family and teachers aplenty will get to see her work.
“When I first booked the tour and I looked at the schedule, I saw the Pantages for three weeks and I screamed,” says Scolari. “I grew up going to the Pantages. I even saw the first tour of ‘Dirty Dancing’ at the Pantages when I was 14. For an L.A. girl to be able to perform on that stage in front of an audience is really going to be crazy for me.”
Scolari certainly knows the neighborhood. She trained in ballet, hip hop and modern dance at the Millennium Jr. Company in North Hollywood as well as with EDGE and Visions Dance Company. The dance training soon led to musical theater, and Scolari estimates that she has performed in easily 25 musicals in school and community theaters.
Her first professional gig was also the experience that cemented Scolari’s desire to pursue this profession. In 2007, Scolari was cast in the world premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s musical “13” at the Mark Taper Forum, joining a company of performers all of whom were 12 or in their very early teens.
An 8th grader at the time, Scolari temporarily left school to do the run of the play. She received tutoring and packets of homework and would work into the night rehearsing a brand new musical by the Tony Award-winning composer, Brown.
Scolari was cast as a swing, requiring her to learn and be able to cover the dancing, dialog, songs and harmonies of two ensemble members. She also understudied the lead role of Kendra meaning she had to learn that character’s role and songs. The experience was new, the work was demanding and Scolari, who was getting an education in the art of “swing-dom” was in paradise.
“I had never worked in my life. I was 12 at the time like the kids in the show were supposed to be,” Scolari recalls. “Every single day going to work, it wasn’t a chore. To this day, it was literally one of the best experiences of my life.”
“That was really when I realized, oh my god I actually want to do this,” she continues. “I started looking into this. I talked to my mom and I realized you could actually study this in school — go to school for musical theater. That experience is what made me realize I have to do this with my life, and I haven’t stopped since then.”
By the time “13” was gearing up for its 2008-09 Broadway run, Scolari – like all of her Taper cast mates – had aged out of eligibility to do the new production. In her junior year at the Buckley School, Scolari started investigating musical theater programs, a process that would involve submitting auditions as well as applications. Scolari applied to 25 programs with the school of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan topping the list as her dream School.
Scolari was accepted to Michigan, and headed off to Ann Arbor. During her time in the program under Musical Theater Chair Brent Wagner, Scolari had roles in productions ranging from “Crazy for You,” “Hairspray,” “Into the Woods”, to “Cabaret.” She also spent a portion of her junior year in London studying Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA).
At the end of their senior year, Scolari’s class took their solo showcases to New York for auditions. Scolari, who had been apartment hunting with the intention of moving to New York, booked “Dirty Dancing” and quickly packed a suitcase. After a brief sojourn back in Los Angeles, she joined the company in Dallas for rehearsals and opened as Lisa in Fort Worth in June of 2015. Then she went on to Las Vegas, and a month-long break before picking up the tour again in Chicago.
Road life agrees with Scolari who finds that even during one week sit downs, she is able to catch up with friends in places as varied as Omaha, Nebraska or Nashville, Tennessee. She has been all over Canada and visited Mt. Rushmore during the stay in South Dakota.
Everywhere she journeys, Scolari seeks out a hot yoga class and dining options to suit her vegetarian lifestyle. In addition to their suitcases, company members are given a trunk which stays in the theater in which they can carry special belongings. Scolari’s invariably contains her other “obsession”: candles.
“Sometimes I’m living out of my suitcase,” she says. “Unlike being in a Broadway show, we still have eight performances a week except Monday which is the day we’re traveling. It can definitely be exhausting and hard on the body, but in my opinion, it’s the best job in the world getting to do what you love and also seeing the country.”
For the next three weeks, Scolari can unpack her suitcase. She’ll be rooming once again with her mother Kim who helps broker private jet flights for celebrity clients. Having grown up as the only child in a single parent household, Scolari says she and her mother are “the L.A. version of ‘The Gilmore Girls.’”
Back in front of her hometown instructors and friends, Scolari – as Lisa – will be hiding her talent and demonstrate just how, er, clunky and kooky she can be. So if you find yourself cringing during the rendering of that goofy “Hula Hana,” that means Scolari is doing her job.
“Once I put the costume on and the wig and her heels which are already a little wobbly, it’s incredible how much that helps,” Scolari says. “I felt like I was transformed into Lisa, and stepping into her shoes literally because they’re these little clunky heels, it just did the trick for sure.”
For tickets to Dirty Dancing visit: www.hollywoodpantages.com/dirtydancing