Sara Gettelfinger(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Sara Gettelfinger
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
So there I was, some years back, sitting in the Corbett Auditorium at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and watching a production of Oklahoma!. I was very much in awe of the performers playing Curly, Laurey, Ado Annie, Will Parker, Aunt Eller, and Ali Hakim, yet I also noticed a tall, high-cheekboned young woman in the chorus with a demure, blue hair ribbon atop her head. She was stunning, but what also impressed me was that she captured both the femininity of a young lady and the gawkiness of a pioneer woman.

After the show, I talked to the kids about their performances. I commended the young actors who had played the leads and then I asked, "And who was the tall, high-cheekboned woman in the chorus with a demure blue hair ribbon atop her head?" Many seconds passed before a young lady realized that I just might be talking about her. She raised her hand hesitantly. "You!" I exclaimed. "You really were sensational. I really felt I was watching a woman of that era and I was so impressed with your tremendous stage presence, even star-quality. What's your name?" And I had to blink after she said, "Sara Gettelfinger."

Okay, it's not the smoothest of names and it doesn't quite sing -- unless Leslie Bricusse decides to rewrite that lyric he penned in 1964 with his partner Anthony Newley for that James Bond movie. I can hear, "Gettelfinger, she's the lass, the lass with the magic touch" -- for an effective argument can be made that Gettelfinger does have a magic touch in the way she's been performing as Carla in Nine, a role that she understudied all through Jane Krakowski's Tony-winning stint and is now playing after the announced Jenna Elfman was found wanting. It's a role in which she has ample opportunity to display her equally ample bosom and astonishingly long legs, but those assets were not what dazzled me in Cincinnati. After all, who could see them in the gingham-wrapped Oklahoma! chorus?

Over the past few years, I've savored Gettelfinger's performances in minor Broadway roles in Seussical and The Boys from Syracuse; I also appreciated her Fastrada in the Paper Mill Pippin. But oh, was I thrilled when I heard that she was succeeding Krakowski. "I couldn't believe it, either," she says when I ask her about it. "While everything was going on after Jane left, I needed to stay grounded and focused and just go out there and do the show. The worst thing I could have done was believe that it would lead to something."

But it did -- albeit not for long. Gettelfinger is certainly learning about the vagaries of show business now that Nine has announced its closing on December 14, only a couple of months after she got the part that put her name over the title on a 47th Street billboard and in television commercials. "One thing in my life has always been consistent," she says with a laugh: "Everything always happens to me in extremes. There was the joy of getting the part and everything else that went with it, and now the sadness of seeing the show close much sooner than I'd expected."

Gettelfinger has had setbacks before. While attending Performing Arts High School in Louisville -- where she played leads as disparate as Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and, believe it or not, Medea -- she decided that she wanted to go to the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "No other school would do," she says. "On career day, I asked the counselors what the best and hardest schools were to get into and which had senior showcases that would get agents to see me. I heard 'Cincinnati' every time. My parents kept after me to apply to other places, but I wanted Cincinnati because it was also pretty close to home," which was Jeffersonville, Indiana.

So when the school was auditioning prospective students in nearby Louisville, Gettelfinger traveled up there and did a monologue and a song -- and was rejected. She was devastated but quite impressed that her parents, Tom and Judy, didn't start in with a rash of I-told-you-so's; instead, they quietly suggested that she try other schools. But this was a girl who wouldn't take no for an answer. She chose other pieces of material with which to audition and traveled up to Cincinnati to be seen during the school's tryout session in its own hometown. Two weeks later, she learned that she'd been accepted on the basis of her monologue from The Lady and the Clarinet and her rendition of "Gentleman Jimmy" from Fiorello!

After I saw her as a sophomore in Oklahoma!, Gettelfinger was cast as Sweet Charity in her junior year. There's an irony here: At the failed audition noted above, the monologue that she performed was Charity's "Fickle Finger of Fate" speech from the scene in the Italian movie star's apartment. And what was the song she sang at that time? "'Unusual Way,'" she says with glee, savoring the irony that it's a song from Nine -- the show that has now put her on the map.

Sara Gettelfinger in Nine(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Sara Gettelfinger in Nine
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
In Cincinnati, she had leads in Babes in Arms and Cyrano (yes, the Dutch one) but, in between, did Rosie in Birdie for a summer stock troupe -- even though she was only 21. "It's my height," she says, referring to her nearly six-foot frame. "It's always made me look older, so I've gotten a lot of good parts because of it." Within three weeks of graduation, Gettelfinger landed April in Company in Nyack, New York. "When I came in for that first day of rehearsal and saw Norm Lewis and Donna McKechnie there, I couldn't believe I was really in such company," she says, unaware of the pun she's making.

She's since rubbed some equally rarefied elbows, such as those of Rosie O'Donnell and fellow Cincinnati grad Michele Pawk (whom she understudied) in Seussical. She was also thrilled to work with Antonio Banderas and with Chita Rivera -- "My Rosie role model in Birdie," she says with pride. (I attended the first performance of the show with its new cast and I was seated behind Rivera, who made a point of waving enthusiastically to Gettelfinger on stage when the kid came out to take her bow.) "What's great about Chita," says Gettelfinger, "is not just that she's one of our greatest actresses, singers, and dancers but that she's such a great human being. I'm so impressed at how she's such a pro and is so disciplined but has a sense of humor that says you can't take yourself too seriously, you have to keep it light while keeping it real. I understand why everyone always wants to hire her."

She got through the opening without a hitch -- unless you count her being hitched to that sling that descends from the ceiling with her in it. For a while there, Gettelfinger was a little wary of being lowered from the rafters -- "because I'm terribly afraid of heights," she says. "Everyone knew this and there was some talk about my entering a different way, but I decided that I just had to suck it up and try. I knew that if I could make this happen, it'd be so breathtaking. And now I'm surprised how safe I feel up there. That sling cradles you in such a tight, compact way, I don't think there's any way that I could fall out."

The 26-year-old is still not sorry that she didn't change her name. "It's my father's name," she says staunchly, "and I draw on his strength and discipline to be a positive human being. People said that they could never see 'Sara Gettelfinger' on a billboard -- but they can now if they want to," she says with a bit of astonishment.

She knows that the billboard she's referring to will be gone in early 2004, and she doesn't know what her next adventure will be. She's hoping that it'll be Roxie in Chicago, and so do I. The Weisslers saw only a bit of what she could do in Seussical, but now it's time for them to see Nine and realize that the name on everybody's lips is gonna be "Gettelfinger."

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]