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Gretchen Rumbaugh lands title role in The Drowsy Chaperone

by: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER - Broadway Rose Theatre Company's new production 'The Drowsy Chaperone' opens Friday, Aug. 3. at the Deb Fennell Auditorium at Tigard High School, 9000 S.W. Durham Road.Few actresses are repeatedly offered title roles in stage shows, but Gretchen Rumbaugh is in that exclusive club.

She is starring as the title character in Broadway Rose Theatre Company's upcoming production of 'The Drowsy Chaperone,' and during her long career she has portrayed such real-life women as Mae West, Patsy Cline, Leona Helmsley and Ann Landers on stage.

Rounding out her leading lady roles, Rumbaugh also has played Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George,” Shirley Valentine, and Lucy Brown in “Threepenny Opera.”

“This is my first Broadway Rose show,” said Rumbaugh, an Equity actor. “I’ve been in Portland for five years now, trying to find my place in the community, and when I got cast in this role, every single person I spoke to raved — absolutely raved — about Broadway Rose.”

Rumbaugh was pretty much destined to end up in the theater as the fourth of five kids whose parents met in a music class. Her dad played the jazz piano, and her mom was a singer. “There was always music in the house, and my dad played the piano every single day,” Rumbaugh said of her early years spent in Cleveland. Her dad’s day job was as a director in the fledgling field of television (he later directed the “Mike Douglas Show”).

Rumbaugh’s interest in performing started with performances in friends’ basements and graduated to a real stage in high school in the Los Angeles area, where the family had settled.

After high school, Rumbaugh was in the first auditioned class at the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif. She then trained for two years at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where she earned the equivalent of a master’s of fine art degree.

“I trained in the classics but have had a career in musical theater,” Rumbaugh said.

From California, she moved to Seattle in 1982, and her career started in earnest.

“For years, I played characters older than myself, and now I play characters younger than myself,” she said.

Rumbaugh next spent five years in Ashland, with three alternating years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival regional repertory theater. She also became a charter member of the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, which was the first non-Shakespeare theater established in Ashland.

“I was in Ashland in my late 20s and early 30s for three wonderful seasons of the Shakespeare Festival,” Rumbaugh said. “It was a very formative time in my life. But the gypsy in me led me to move on.”

Rumbaugh moved to Chicago and dabbled in commercial theater, although her background was in nonprofit theaters.

“(Commercial theater) is a horse of a different color,” Rumbaugh said. “Everything is the bottom line. But I got offered my Equity card during that time. Then a funny thing happened to me. I ended up doing regional theater — that was my dream.”

Rumbaugh jokes that she became “homeless.” Theaters must provide housing to those who live more than 75 miles away, and she put most of her possessions in storage and “me and my cat moved from place to place as I got different jobs.”

She added, “I never worked in Chicago again.”

Rumbaugh eventually moved back to Seattle, and love led her to leave the theater for 12 years, living with her husband in rural Washington “and putting my career on the back burner.”

She added, “I went from doing three Equity shows a year to six shows in 12 years. Then five years ago, I was going through a divorce and knew I needed to be an urban person again.

“I wanted to live in a city but not Seattle. I had friends in Portland and Salem, and had come through here so I decided to move. I’m very happy with my choice.”

She noted, “Each theater has its own community center. I was highly trained when I came here, but my ‘chops’ were rusty. My goal when I arrived here was to get my chops back and make friends. I have no office skills, so I started a small antiques business, and I auditioned but didn’t do too well.”

Then Rumbaugh discovered Tony Starlight’s Supperclub in Northeast Portland, “and I made a big splash there.”

She started appearing once a month with a piano player she teamed up with but was still searching for the right connection when she met musical director Darcy White two years ago, and they instantly clicked.

“I had a bucket load of talent, but no opportunity, so I created an opportunity for myself,” said Rumbaugh, who formed the professional singer showcase “Cabaret Chanteuse” that performs on the second Thursday of each month at Tony Starlight’s.

“Darcy is very much integrated into the local community, and the doors she has opened for me and our show is amazing,” Rumbaugh said. “It has just blossomed in the last 1 1/2 years. I was looking for a place in the community, and now my reputation precedes me.”

Rumbaugh notes wryly, “There are more women than men in the theater, but there are more male roles.”

As for her Broadway Rose gig, Rumbaugh went through the open audition try-outs earlier this year and was called back for singing and dancing auditions, with the later one occurring on her birthday.

Now she is knee-deep in rehearsals, enjoying the stage experience again after concentrating on her cabaret act more recently.

“I can tap emotionally into how people feel,” Rumbaugh said. “Performing combines anthropology, sociology and psychology, and we create a community on a nightly basis in our cabaret act. There is no ‘fourth wall’ in cabaret. I’ve been doing cabaret for a long time now, and it’s a real love fest, but I’m happy to be back on the ‘boards.’”

As for where Rumbaugh might find herself in the future, she said, “I’m excited about being here in one place for a while, but I’ve still got gypsy in me. However, I’m content for the foreseeable future to stay here.

“I’m thrilled to be in this community and thrilled to be in this theater.”

For those who want to catch Rumbaugh at Tony Starlight’s, she won’t be back there until November because after she finishes her Broadway Rose run, she is thrilled to be moving to Portland Center Stage to play Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”

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