Imagine yourself in the theater, that private moment in the dark, the hush of the audience around you. The lights come up quickly on Denise Pelley in her one-woman musical, Jazzabel. In that first instant, when you realize that the staging has put you behind her as if you are invisibly onstage, you're slipping through the threshold of this woman's life. Her back is to you, and she's singing to another audience, one you can't see but you can sense, the cheering audience in the heyday of the Apollo Theater in New York City's Harlem of the 1930s and '40s. You're identifying with Grace the performer (she's the reckless Jazzabel's loyal friend, who's a singer, too), and you're in Grace's head—it feels as if you are right inside her voice. That's the transformative experience you have when you morph along with the woman onstage.

Pelley plays both the jaded Jazzabel and her innocent friend Grace, who leaves a small town to come to Harlem. Each character is an aspiring jazz singer who pursues her dreams—though they end up with very different ideas of success. As Pelley croons jazz tunes of the '30s and '40s like "Sugar" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," taking you deep into the music of the period, she connects with a complicated song in the heart of any ambitious woman: the melody that says, "Stay home and love your family," and the refrain that says, "Get out there and belt your heart out, no matter what."

In a way, the dreams of Grace and Jazzabel reflect Denise Pelley's own story: She's from a small city in southwestern Ontario, and coming to New York to perform is her own dream. She never thought it was possible until Jacquie Gauthier wrote Jazzabel for her and Jeff Christmas arranged and composed some of the music. Although Denise has been singing at sold-out performances in clubs and recording CDs, she knew the world of the theater would be more challenging. When you see her as Jazzabel in her dressing gown, slumped before her mirror, her embodiment of this majestic but worn-out character is so magically persuasive that you never think about the effort that's gone into her performance—the lines, the blocking, the wig and costume quick-changes, the sheer number of fresh skills Pelley has to conjure up to give you that stage-filling presence. That's a lot of pressure for one person. She could have stepped up to a microphone in a sound studio with her own clothes and her own hair and gone home to a calm midlife. But she took on the challenge. Why?

Because a one-woman show is about becoming—about how you become who you are. Whether it's Mercedes Ruehl as Peggy Guggenheim in Lanie Robertson's play Woman Before a Glass looking back on her choices, or Elaine Stritch in At Liberty seeking to understand her roles and regrets, or Claudia Shear in Blown Sideways Through Life figuring out why she got fired from her jobs, the exhilaration you feel as you empathize with the woman up there onstage lights you up as well. There you are, scrunched in your seat in a small theater among many spectators, but in fact you're having a solo experience—which can spark your own private fireworks of insight. When you consider all the pulls of the mundane world that conspired against your being showered, dressed, and finally in that seat, you may realize that lifting yourself out of your own routine to get to the theater has already given you what you've come for: a change of perspective.


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