Music, Arts & Culture » Arts

Life is a cabaret

A former local breezes in from New York City to share her life story in a one-woman show



Jacque Carnahan seems the definition of uninhibited. The woman who began her performing career at the age of 5 recalls spotting the Academy of Dance in downtown SLO with her mother, running up the stairs, and spending two minutes observing the dancers before jumping in and joining them. Carnahan also doesn’t think twice about serenading this writer over speakerphone with musical numbers from her original show From Main Street to 42nd Street, which sees its West Coast debut this month at Unity Church in San Luis Obispo. And even from the other side of the country, her voice resounded with both childlike optimism and the confidence of an individual who has successfully sought her own life path.

From Main Street—which tells the story of her life through singing, acting, and a bit of tap-dancing—opens with Carnahan’s simple silhouette and clear voice, which steadily grows stronger as she belts, “When you believe/What’s in your heart you’ll know/No one can change/the path that you must go.” It’s admittedly all very “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a piece Carnahan even incorporates into a closing medley. This isn’t a performance for cynics, after all, but for aspiring young creatives.

The show, Carnahan explained, is tailor-made for “students who want to pursue careers in the performing arts. The show was meant to be something that inspires them and empowers them to go after their dreams no matter what stands in their way—and no matter what those dreams are.”

Carnahan spent her childhood in Cambria and San Luis Obispo, performing under the auspices of the Academy of Dance, Kelrik Productions, and the Melodrama. At age 12, after being accepted to Idyllwild Arts Academy, a private boarding high school for the arts, Carnahan raised funding to attend the school through a unique campaign.

“I wrote letters to people in the community, and people actually sent me money. A lot of money!” Carnahan said. “Looking back as an adult, I’m totally humbled by the generosity of people to give money to me as a kid.”

As a way to give back, Carnahan started a scholarship fund for graduating seniors and a group called Believe NYC, which presents performances like From Main Street, as well as customized educational workshops for performing arts students.

Hired to put together a cabaret to perform at a private event, Carnahan struggled with the theme of the songs to perform. She brought the material she’d been working with to her music director, the Broadway composer Barbara Anselmi.

“She took one look at all of the songs, and she was like, ‘I don’t know why you’re singing this,’” Carnahan recalled. “She said to me, ‘How did this all start? Let’s start at the beginning. Why are you doing this?’ So we started writing down stories, basically. She said, ‘Jacque, we have got to tell this story. You’ve got great stories. People will want to hear the story.’ Once the stories started flowing, it was like we worked in tandem perfectly. She did a lot of the music arranging, we picked the songs together, she arranged everything so it flows, and we just wrote and wrote and wrote.”

Carnahan’s arrival in New York City, just a few short months after 9/11, is chronicled in her show, as are her initial auditions there. The singer and actress, who attended Boston Conservatory, landed a role in a traveling production of Cinderella a few weeks after graduating and moving to New York. Parts in The Boyfriend and The Baker’s Wife, alongside Tony Award winner Alice Ripley, would follow.

Of course, it must feel strange to adapt one’s life story for the stage. Carnahan admits that the script and her own memory sometimes conflict.

“Barbara and I were rehearsing this certain audition sequence, and basically the words that are said are essentially what happened, verbatim,” Carnahan said, “but the way that we act it out is a way that I wouldn’t necessarily react in real life, because it’s theatrically better.”

Perhaps Carnahan will even start to remember her life as a piano accompanied, tap-danced, beautifully arranged cabaret.

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