She was still on a break from performing.
Back in 2012, Jennifer Gillis had clinched seventh spot in a CBC-TV reality contest that pitted her against other young actors hoping to win the dream role of Dorothy in the Andrew Lloyd Webber touring production of the Wizard of Oz.
The national attention — plus the behind-the-scenes drama — was enough for the Coquitlam teen to put on the brakes and focus instead on her craft.
After she graduated from Gleneagle secondary in 2014, Gillis stayed close to home and enrolled in the three-year musical theatre program at Capilano University.
She took it easy, avoiding open calls from regional theatre companies and beyond but, this spring, Gillis was gently coaxed back into the limelight by Cap U faculty member Shelley Stewart Hunt, who encouraged her to try for Theatre Under the Stars, the summer production at the historic Malkin Bowl.
Gillis didn’t expect much at the audition, saying, “I was just going in for the experience” but she wowed the director and, soon, was reading for the starring role of Maria in West Side Story.
A few weeks later, Gillis learned by email she had secured the gig and, by May 3 — just as she was winding down her semester at Cap U — Gillis was in rehearsal, ready to make her debut on the Stanley Park stage in Vancouver.
“It’s been so fun to perform again,” the 20-year-old told The Tri-City News last week. “It’s just been a dream to play this part and dive into the depth of her.
“Maria may look naive and innocent but, deep down, she’s a fighter and has passion and I can really resonate with that.”
Still, while most eyes will be on Gillis this summer, audience-goers will also catch other Tri-City talent on stage for West Side Story: Coquitlam’s Kristen Bortignon plays Clarice from the Jets gang while Port Moody resident Sabrina Miniaci is Rosalia from the Sharks and Shannon Hanbury is Minnie of the Jets.
Hanbury, who will celebrate her 22nd birthday on opening night of West Side Story, is a veteran to Malkin Bowl. Not only does her family have deep roots in the theatre (her great great grandfather was W.H. Malkin, for which the Malkin Bowl is named) but West Side Story is her seventh TUTS show.
Her eighth is also this summer, as she is cast as the understudy for Belle in TUTS’ Beauty and the Beast — running on alternating nights.
An Archbishop Carney grad who in 2014 earned her BFA in musical theatre from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles, Hanbury said she has no qualms about working hard (besides the understudy role, she is also in the adult ensemble and dance captain in Beauty and the Beast).
“Everybody keeps asking me if I’m crazy,” she laughed, “but this is validation that I’m in the right field because I love it. It’s every actor’s dream to perform every night and, for me, TUTS is my second family.”
Meanwhile, Nicholas Bradbury plays Lefou, Gaston’s bumbling sidekick. A graduate of the Traditional Learning Academy in Coquitlam, Bradbury last played in Beauty and the Beast when he was 11 with Xtreme Theatre in Maple Ridge (then, he portrayed Maurice).
Now, a classmate of Gillis’ at Cap U as well as a former student Lindbjerg Academy of Performing Arts, the 21-year-old is returning to the TUTS stage after playing the bully Noah Claypole in Oliver! last summer.
“Lefou has been on my bucket list for a long time,” he said. “I like the comedy and slapstick stuff. It’s always something that has appealed to me. It’s going to be a great show.”
• Theatre Under the Stars runs July 6 to Aug. 20 at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Visit tuts.ca for tickets or call 1-877-840-0457.