Graduating from Montclair State University in 2018 with both experience and sheer, natural talent, Jacqueline Neeley has been cast in the ensemble of the San Jose Stage Company’s upcoming production of “Chicago” less than two years after graduating with a bachelor’s in fine arts in musical theater.
Neeley grew up on the opposite coast of the United States in Danville, California, so venturing out to the east coast to attend college was a brand new experience for her. She found herself surprised by the quick pace and change of climate of the east coast during her time at Montclair State.
“I felt like everything was far more fast-paced and magnetic [at Montclair State],” Neeley said. “It was a nice change of pace from the slower, kind of lackadaisical California lifestyle. Growing up in California is beautiful, but it was important to me to have that experience away from where I grew up. To see another part of the world and get out of my comfort zone.”
But she wouldn’t let the sudden change of pace get to her. Neeley used this and her coursework as motivation to improve herself and her craft.
“My major was rigorous,” Neeley said. “So I felt motivated to be on top of my work and motivated to accomplish everything.”
Neeley soon found herself in a solid musical theater program, learning from professors who have worked in Broadway. The lessons and advice she got from all the acting coaches and former casting directors helped form her into the actress and performer she is today. Neeley has nothing but positive things to say about the education she received at Montclair State.
“I’m really grateful to have had a well-rounded musical theater education,” Neeley said. “I was really impressed by the calibre of professors that they brought to campus. Being from the West Coast, I had never worked with anybody so closely directed to Broadway and casting directors in New York. That was just really exciting for me.”
Neeley was inspired by her parents to pursue a career in musical theater. They themselves did not have careers in the industry, but both were fans and appreciators of the arts. They would regularly see performances of all sorts in the San Francisco area, and this would eventually rub off on Neeley.
“I bit the bug, as they say, and they were very supportive of me pursuing it professionally,” Neeley said. “If it wasn’t for them and all the camps and extracurricular activities they put me in as a kid, I probably would not have been as exposed to it. On the West Coast, the arts are not as acceptable as I would say they are on the East Coast. I was grateful that they had an interest themselves.”
In addition to her classes and courses, Neeley has fond memories of performing in productions at Montclair State. One such production she remembers fondly is the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in the fall of her junior year.
“The show is a comedy and there’s a lot of audience involvement,” Neeley said. “This show was selling so well so quickly that they added extra performances, and they added an 11 o’clock performance. We were having a ball still dancing on stage at 12:30 [a.m.] and that was a really spectacular experience. The energy of the theater was magnetic.”
She further pointed out the diversity in performing centers and stages on Montclair State’s campus. With locations ranging from the L. Howard Fox Theater and Memorial Auditorium to the Alexander Kasser Theater, there are plenty of places and productions for actors and performers of all backgrounds and interests. A performing arts student will never feel out of place at Montclair State.
Neeley is excited for her upcoming production of “Chicago,” which is set to be different from other productions of the esteemed musical. She says audiences can expect an aggressive, immersive rendition of the musical. The small, intimate venue will bring the audience closer to the action than ever before.
“Our production specifically is just really magnetic,” Neeley said. “The theater space is an intimate space, so we are in your face. The audience should be prepared to be part of the production.”
Neeley is most excited to see how all the components of the production come together once opening night comes around.
“I’m most looking forward to when we see the big picture and we see how everybody’s hard work is just going to let this production jump to life,” Neeley said.
Neeley also spoke about how she is excited to perform on the athletic set, which she describes as a series of steps leading up to different platforms and ladders.
“It’s pretty physically demanding,” she said. “It’s almost like an adult jungle gym, although we’re in heels. So it’s definitely pretty aggressive, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
In addition to her hard work in her career in musical theater, Neeley still manages to find the time to pursue her other passions and interests. Neeley is an avid reader. In fact, her New Year’s resolution for last year was to read a new book every month, a trend she is looking to continue into this year. She named “Educated” as the best book she read in 2019, a memoir written by Tara Westover.
“[Westover’s] story is just so inspiring, that somebody with no resources was able to get out of her environment with no one advocating for her and go on to achieve such extreme success within her field,” Neeley said. “The story is fascinating and you can’t give yourself any excuses after you read it.”
Neeley has trouble pinpointing one specific musical to call her favorite of all time, especially when considering different aspects such as score, characters and choreography. But if she had to pick one, it would be Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”
“The revival on Broadway was in 2015 and it holds a special place in my heart because it was my first year at Montclair State,” she said. “It was my first time being away from home for that long of a time. I went and saw it by myself and I’d already loved the music, so the experience was magical and it holds a special place in my heart.”
If you happen to be in the San Jose area in California anywhere between Feb. 5 and Mar. 15, be sure to go see Neeley in the San Jose Stage Company’s production of “Chicago.”
For those of you who unfortunately won’t be anywhere near the West Coast, you will just have to wait until she lands a leading role in a Broadway musical to see her closer to home. At the rate she’s going, it’s only a matter of time until she does.