In The Midst Of A Thriving Acting Career She Found Her True Power As A Director

By Jeryl Brunner

When Jessica Stone was 20 years-old and performing in the national tour of Bye Bye Birdie with Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking, she will never forget how she felt when she learned that their director, Gene Saks, decided to change the costumes for the “Telephone Hour” number. “We were in our first city of the tour and I completely disagreed,” says Stone. “I thought it was a terrible mistake.”

So she cornered Saks in the hallway telling him exactly what she thought. “He looked at me and said, ‘you should probably direct,’” says Stone. “And by the way, he never changed the costumes. And he was right not to change them.”

For years after that Stone’s career continued to thrive on and off Broadway and on TV, playing everyone from Frenchie in Grease to Rosemary in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “I feel happy and proud of the career that I had as an actor. But it started to feel like not enough. Like I had more to say,” she says.

In a moment when she was in-between jobs and tired of waiting for the next one her husband, actor Christopher Fitzgerald, suggested that she ask one of her director friends if she could observe or assist. “Just to feel like I had a place to go while waiting for the next job to start,” says Stone.

In the best master classes ever she assisted directing titans Nicholas Martin, Joe Mantello, David Warren and Christopher Ashley. “I was a terrible assistant. But they were kind enough to let me look at their process,” she says. In 2010, when Martin wanted Stone to perform in a production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum in Williamstown, Stone felt less than enthused. “I thought, I don’t even know who I would be,” she says. “Am I the shrewish wife or the dumb hottie?”

What she did recommend is that Martin create an all-male cast. “That’s the way it would have been for Plautus’ plays and would strip the issue of sexism,” says Stone. “So it would just be boys playing in a playground.” Martin not only liked the concept he replied, “okay, you do it.”

“Nicholas gave me this opportunity to direct on the main stage at Williamstown,” she says. And not only did Stone have a blast in the process, the show was well-received, she got a directing agent and more and more directing gigs followed. “I don’t miss acting at all,” says Stone who had one more performing job, playing Erma in Anything Goes on Broadway after her Williamstown triumph.

In 2017, when Stone was directing David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Ripcord at Boston’s Huntington Theater she reached out to Lindsay-Abaire to talk about the play and get some insight. They had an instant connection.

“15 minutes in we started gossiping, laughing and talking about everything under the sun,” says Stone. In passing, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright mentioned that he and his frequent collaborator, composer Jeanine Tesori, were adapting his play Kimberly Akimbo into a musical. “I gasped,” says Stone. “I thought, that’s such a good idea. I love that play.”

Kimberly Akimbo, the musical, centers on Kimberly (Victoria Clark), a plucky and wise teenage girl, who has a very rare disease that forces her to age about five times more rapidly than her peers. Despite that she’s about to turn 16, she appears decades older than her years.

And then there’s her family. Kimberly’s mother, (Alli Mauzey), is a narcissist and hypochondriac. Her father, (Steven Boyer), is an alcoholic. And her felon Aunt Debra, (Bonnie Milligan), is always down for a scam.

Yet despite their dysfunction and crazy choices, these multifaceted adults truly love and care for Kimberly. “There’s tremendous love. That is the heartbeat at the center of our show,” says Stone. “But this family is flawed. They don’t have the tools or skills to love well. But they do love Kimberly.”

Even with the complex subject matter, this gem of a show is hilarious and utterly original with a book and lyrics written by Lindsay-Abaire, a lush and eclectic score by Tesori and choreography by Danny Mefford. Kimberly Akimbo manages to walk the tightrope between unbridled joy and sadness.

The musical, which also stars Justin Cooley, Olivia Elease Hardy, Fernell Hogan, Michael Iskander and Nina White, first opened at the Atlantic Theater and was an instant hit winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, the Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards for best musical. And this past November Kimberly Akimbo opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre.

Despite the fact that Kimberly’s time on earth is truncated, the show is profoundly upbeat and hopeful, life-affirming and exhilarating. “The sensibility of what David, Jeanine and I share is that there is great pain in comedy, and great comedy in tragedy,” says Stone who is now directing the world premiere musical, Water for Elephants in Atlanta. And that makes Kimberly’s journey particularly moving and multilayered, especially when it comes to connecting with her classmate Seth (Justin Cooley). Another priceless character, Seth is a tuba-carrying, Elvish-speaking anagram wiz who opens Kimberly’s world even more.

“There’s something so beautiful and liberating around making choices that embrace the hours that you have left,” says Stone. “That you fill those remaining hours with hope, opportunity, possibility and joy.”