Jamie Ann Romero Exits Denver for the Bright Lights of New York City
Jamie Ann Romero.
Every now and then, you realize you're watching a genuine star. Not just a very good, emotionally generous actor who makes intellectually interesting choices, but someone possessed of a quality that goes beyond that, a performer you'd happily watch in the dumbest and most boring show imaginable. This happened to me a couple of summers ago when I saw Jamie Ann Romero play the lead in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Romeo and Juliet. I'm pretty sure I used the word "radiant" in my review: Remembering her performance now, I seem to see her edged in flickering light.
For the last eight years, Denver audiences have watched Romero evolve from a talented ingenue into a full-fledged star. It's hard to describe her many gifts. She's a charmer, but not a shallow one. She can be adorably cute, but also dignified and serene. Her Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream last year managed to be both funny — sometimes ridiculously so — and also elegant and regal. We've seen her as Sylvia, the dog, in the play of the same name, humping a haughty woman's leg, barking furiously at a cat, flirting with a handsome hound and snuggling sweetly up to her master. She can do comedy, tragedy and anything in between, and she handles iambic pentameter with the same ease as she does contemporary speech. It doesn't hurt that her voice is warm and rich and that she's lovely to look at.
"The thing that makes Jamie so wonderful is that she can swing so easily between farce and tragedy," says Geoffrey Kent, who has both directed Romero and worked with her as an actor. "It's rare for an actor to be able to do both of those things so well. Her ability in a repertory company like the CSF to do Juliet and Michael Frayn's farcical Noises Off in the same season and knock them both out of the park — there's not a lot of people who can do that. I've always cast her because I know she can deliver the comedy of the moment and the pathos of the moment in the same scene — get a laugh and a moment later break your heart."
Now, having worked on most of the area's major stages, from the Denver Center Theatre Company to the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, the Lone Tree Arts Center to the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, Romero is about to try her luck on the starriest and most ambitious stages in the country: the ones in New York City.
Romero grew up in Denver and was "always a little ham around the family," she says. The first role she remembers taking on was in a play written by herself and fellow kindergartners in which she played a piece of bread and "fell in love with a polar bear." When she was around six, her mother took her to an audition in Boulder for Forrest Gump, which she remembers as a terrifying experience — but it got her imagination going. "My family is incredibly supportive of my career," she says. "They've come to see every play I've ever been in. My grandmother has a list of all of them on her fridge."
At Chatfield High, she encountered drama teacher Scott Ogle. "He's one of the primary reasons I continued doing theater," Romero says. "He empowered us to make our own choices and take ownership of a play. And he taught us that it was fun."
Ogle has high praise for his former student: "Jamie was always dedicated to her craft," he says. "She would always be so focused and disciplined, even in high school...She would master skill after skill, including difficult British accent work as Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest and stage combat technique in Robin Hood. Then, just when I thought she couldn't do anything else to surprise me, she got a musical lead and stunned all of us with her singing as Lola in Damn Yankees.
"I could not possibly be more proud of her," he concludes. "She is humble, hard-working and everything I want every one of my students to strive to achieve.... I was blessed to have her as a student, and I know she made me a better teacher every bit as much as I helped her."
In her teens, Romero worked at a summer camp run by actor-director Robert Kramer. She went on to study theater at the highly respected program of the University of Northern Colorado. Philip Sneed, now executive director of the Arvada Center and then artistic director for the CSF, noticed her when he taught a weeklong class there, and she later received an internship with CSF, appearing during her first year in Around the World in Eighty Days and filling a small role in All's Well That Ends Well. Since then she has managed to work almost continually year-round, with the occasional coffee-shop stint to see her through. "I've been very fortunate; the Denver community is so welcoming," she says. "You enter an audition room and it's full of friendly, familiar faces. I was able to be part of CSF every summer — Phil created a core company and offered me a spot."
In her very first Romeo and Juliet, she played a page to Paris. Finally moving into the lead almost a decade later was a revelation, she says, "being so connected to the character and having loved the play so much and having the opportunity to find some honesty. And I loved working with director Lynn Collins."
Romero also works well with directors whose vision differs from hers. "I always find that it's easier to just say yes. You may discover that something you didn't think was a good idea turns out to be a good idea after all. And the more often you say yes, the more likely they'll say yes to you. But in the end, it's their vision, and you have to make the performance yours within their vision," she says, and sighs. "I'm so fortunate I get to play for a living and to work with wonderful actors and directors. Denver's like a real-life graduate school."
"I've been in more plays with Jamie than I can count," says Kent. "At least twenty. She and I went to Russia and did Noises Off with a company there through the CSF. In the performance everyone in the cast was speaking in Russian and we were speaking in English. No translation. It was like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But it was a great experience, to prove you can do it and to get the same laughs we got here with an audience that didn't understand us and a cast we hadn't rehearsed with. Everybody talks about her Juliet, but my favorite thing I did with Jamie was The Taming of the Shrew when I was Grumio and she played Curtis. That's when we figured out we had a shared comic sensibility."
Kent and Romero's last collaboration was in the Shakespeare Festival's Henry IV, part I, where Kent played the rough-and-ready warrior Harry Percy or Hotspur and Romero his wife, Kate. Their two brief scenes together were one of the highlights of the evening. Most Kates are gently yielding, but Romero's was as tough-minded and strong-willed as her hotheaded husband. "One of the joys of working with actors you've worked with before isn't just that you trust each other," Kent says. "It's beyond that. You know that actor will make you better and then you're fearless. I was struggling with understanding that first scene, and then Jamie enters and the Lady Percy she's playing lets me know exactly what kind of husband Harry Percy is.
"She'll be hard to replace," says Kent. "She leaves a hole in classical theater. Will I miss her? Yes. Words cannot describe how much."
"I'm not leaving Denver because there's anything lacking here," Romero explains. "It's just I've lived here my whole life, and you'll never know unless you try. You'll regret it if you don't at least go." She dreams of working on Broadway, doing film and television. In March, she visited both New York and Los Angeles and decided "the culture and thriving of New York was the draw," she says. She has contacts there with agents and several theater artists who worked or studied in Denver. Her plan is to "hit the ground running and work hard. Just moving out there is a success. Regardless of what happens, I'll be proud of myself," she concludes. "All I know is that it brings me joy, creating a piece of art with other people."
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