Becoming Lola: A Damn Yankees vamp.
When Gwen Verdon debuted as Lola in 1955’s Damn Yankees, a star was born. Her onstage charisma and sassy flair made her—and the role—iconic. Broadway audiences never forgot. Lola has been a challenge for everyone who has attempted the part since. But in the recent Arena Stage production of the show in Washington, D.C., Meg Gillentine proved that her own star is rising. For her it was a breakthrough; for the role it was a fresh look.
Playing Lola calls for a woman alluring enough to seduce a man into selling his soul to the devil. Gillentine succeeded not only in creating a vamp who prowls across the stage in numbers like “Whatever Lola Wants,” but in revealing a more tender side in songs like “Two Lost Souls.” Her poignancy and the conviction in her dancing made Gillentine’s debut a knock-out. Watching her perform, it becomes clear why Susan Stroman calls her “my favorite kind of dancer. She has a fearless quality, loves to learn, and has a very gracious personality. There’s something about Meg that radiates to the back row.”
Gillentine found the Arena Stage production to be one-of-a-kind. Set in theater-in-the-round, the show had an intimacy that she compares to working in film (she recently appeared in the movie The Producers). Although she admits she was nervous about the audience seeing every angle of her dancing, the challenge inspired her. “Because I wasn’t playing to a flat audience, it became more real to me,” she says. “Every turn of the head was visible. This made the whole show more believable.”
The performer who plays Lola must be equally strong in dancing, singing, and acting. Gillentine’s Lola was distinct because she added a sense of remorse to the character, bringing a more human dimension. She credits the show’s director, Molly Smith, with shaping her take on the role: “Molly spent three days with the cast sitting at a table, reading the script, having us ask each other questions,” Gillentine recalls. “I’ve never sat that long, picking apart a character!” But the work paid off. “The next week of rehearsal was completely different—people had developed their individual characters.” Gillentine was particularly attracted to Lola’s “broken soul and vulnerability. I really liked that about her and wanted to be able to convey it, but it was a challenge because it forced me to look at my own life and find those moments that compared to hers.”
As a dancer, Gillentine exudes confidence. She began training at age 9 in classical ballet in Georgia: “I went to a musical arts high school, and coming from ballet, where we didn’t open our mouths, it was great to learn that dancers can speak, act, and sing,” she says. “Then I went to NYU to study musical theater.” During her sophomore year she was cast in the Broadway production of Cats, and turned down an invitation to do the national tour because she wanted to finish college. After graduation, she joined the national tour of Fosse, in part because she hoped to pay off some of her school loans. Now 29, Gillentine’s in Los Angeles, auditioning for pilots and commercials, and making trips back east when a show appeals to her. She appeared in Stroman’s The Frogs at Lincoln Center in 2004.
The choreographer for the Arena Stage production of Damn Yankees, Baayork Lee, says, “Meg’s a dream to work with. She has incredible technique and her dancing comes with an acting point of view, which makes my job so much easier. In the audition—there were women from Contact, Fosse, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—Meg stood out. Not a move is made without a subtext. You really can’t teach that.”