Offbeat And On Track

Natalie Joy Johnson took a twisty path to Broadway, but her destination was never in doubt

June 17, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

NEW YORK // AS A TEENAGER, NATALIE JOY Johnson suffered a double-whammy of rejection.

First, the Baltimore School for the Arts turned her down. Then, as a freshman at Mount Hebron High School, she didn't even make the cut for a production of Godspell.

At that point, many kids would have given up on acting. Not Natalie.

Perseverance -- and talent -- won out. Now the bubbly, driven actress is making her debut on Broadway, appearing in one of the season's hot new musicals, Legally Blonde, and "living the dream," as she puts it.

"It's funny," says Johnson, 29. "I guess things happen for a reason."

The Baltimore native's current role is the latest in a series of unconventional parts she has played on and off stage -- from award-winning temp worker to star of the New York cult musical bare: a pop opera.

Even in the mainstream hit Legally Blonde, Johnson is cast in one of the more offbeat roles. She plays Enid, the lesbian law school classmate of Elle, the lead character.

Elle is partial to pink; Enid prefers camouflage fatigues. Elle likes little black dresses; Enid sports pinstriped pantsuits. Elle, of course, is a blonde; Enid is a brunette.

Except that Johnson is, in fact, also a blonde. Not that many of her New York friends, including her boyfriend of two years, have ever seen her as a blonde. Her latest hair color of choice is ink black. When she starred in her first national tour, which turned out to be Godspell, her short tresses were pink. In between, her hair has been orange, red and, briefly, "platinum and black -- that was a little too Cruella De Vil," she admits.

But in her Mount Hebron yearbook (class of 1996), Johnson is as blond as Elle. The subsequent rainbow of hair colors isn't surprising for the daughter of a hairstylist. And if blondes have more fun, you couldn't tell it from this currently raven-haired actress.

Just watch her signing autographs on a recent Friday night outside the stage door at the Palace Theatre. Dressed in jeans with her high school L.L. Bean backpack strapped to her shoulders, the full-figured performer beams as she signs Legally Blonde Playbills and poses for photos with theatergoers.

The next morning, sitting on the sofa in her Harlem apartment with her legs curled under her, Johnson says, "I know it sounds cheesy, but it really is just such a wonderful time -- the fact that every night I get to go and do a show that I love with people that I love, having a great time on stage at the Palace. "

Johnson didn't get to Broadway the way most young actors do these days. Besides missing out on a performing arts high school, she chose not to attend an acting conservatory. Instead, she went to the former Mary Washington College in Virginia. She's the first person on either side of her family to graduate from college.

Nor do her parents' professions immediately suggest Broadway. But her folks, who divorced before Natalie entered grade school, have always been Natalie's biggest fans. Her father, Pete Johnson, a maintenance mechanic who sang in a rock band when he was younger, saw her in Godspell 24 times. "People get tired of hearing me talk about my daughter," he says. "I say, 'You're just going to have to deal with it.'"

Her mother, Dale Brown, organizes bus trips to New York to see Legally Blonde. The station next to Brown's at the Hair Studio in Arbutus is dedicated to the show, complete with bus-trip sign-up sheets.

No fear of hard work

Legally Blonde, based on the 2001 movie and Amanda Brown's novel, is about a seemingly vapid California sorority girl, Elle. When her boyfriend jilts her for not being serious-minded, she gets admitted to Harvard Law School in an effort to convince him otherwise and win him back. And Elle turns out to be more responsible and a harder worker than he'll ever be.

Hard work is something that Elle, Enid and Natalie have in common; it's a trait Johnson appears to have inherited from her parents. In high school, "Her work ethic was contagious, whether she was a lead or a supporting character," says Mount Hebron math teacher Tom Sankey, who directed her in a dozen shows at Mount Hebron and at the Howard County Summer Theatre.

Being a struggling actress in New York requires an even tougher work ethic. Initially, when Johnson couldn't land an acting gig there, she walked into a beauty parlor and offered her services washing hair. She's also done telemarketing and temp jobs (throwing herself into these with such fervor, she won an award for most referrals).

Her most demanding odd job was that of a singing waitress at Ellen's Stardust Diner. The servers at the theater-district eatery don't just sing, they sing while taking orders, making change and striding across the top of banquettes. At times, the diner broadcasts these performances on loud speakers outside the restaurant. When John Stamos was starring in Cabaret, he heard Johnson warbling away one night and wandered in to express his appreciation. (She immediately switched to a song from Cabaret.)

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