Stage & Dance

born into song

Jessie Rose Pennington, who stars in Paragon Music Theatre's production of The Music Man, may be a new face to many Lexington theatergoers.

But considering her lineage, it's no surprise she's center stage.

Start with dad: J.P. Pennington, co-founder of Exile, the Lexington-based band that brought you I Want to Kiss You All Over and other hits.

Then there's her paternal grandmother, original Coon Creek Girl Lily May Ledford.

”One of my maternal great-grandmothers was an opera singer and played piano for silent movies,“ Pennington says over coffee at the Richmond Road Starbucks, where she's stopped in on her way to classes at Georgetown College.

She is a theater major at Georgetown, having logged countless hours on the stage of the Ruth Pierce Wilson Lab Theatre in shows from Grease to She Loves Me to a Georgetown-created piece called Merry Freakin' Christmas.

Pennington has been stepping into the local theater spotlight more as she closes out her junior year at Georgetown. The 22-year-old triple threat was recently seen as the lead in Georgetown's first feature-length film, Surviving Guthrie, which debuted to a standing-room-only crowd at the Kentucky Theatre earlier this month. And this coming weekend, she'll be playing the lead role of Marian the librarian in Paragon Music Theatre's The Music Man. She'll be joined onstage by her brother, James Pennington, who is part of the show's barbershop quartet.

It's a role she's already played once, at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. And she'll be performing under the direction of SCAPA theater teacher Alberta Labrillazo, who's making her first directing turn outside the school in quite some time.

”I was so excited when I found out she was directing,“ says Pennington, who performed in several productions directed by Labrillazo, including The Wiz and Brigadoon, in which she played Fiona.

By then, Pennington had already been singing for years.

”At an early age, she was singing along with songs on the road,“ Pennington's dad, J.P. Pennington, says. ”And she could carry a tune better than most kids her age.“

One of those songs was Exile's She's a Miracle, which J.P. says is ironic because the song was actually about Jessie. It was important to his wife, Suzie, that their daughter know the band's music.

Soon, Jessie was singing at Dixie Elementary School, where her dad was struck by how ”she never showed any nervousness on stage. My parents would have to pry me out of my room to get me on stage, and I still get really nervous. She has a healthy dose of nerves, but not too much.“

Pennington found her niche at age 14, in a SCAPA production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which she played one of the brides, Sarah.

”I loved the singing, dancing and acting,“ she says. ”It was perfect.“

After SCAPA, Pennington started her college career at Georgetown.

The first time she read for theater professor Ed Smith, he recalls thinking, ”OK, someone has a lot of experience. She clearly had done a lot of roles.“

Smith wasn't the only one who noticed. Pennington received a scholarship to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. She said she learned a lot from ”some amazing teachers.“ But the living conditions were rough in a deteriorating dorm that eventually caught fire.

”It was very traumatic,“ she recalls. ”I was asleep one night, and someone started banging on my door saying there was a fire. I thought they were joking, but then I opened the door and there was all this smoke in the hall, and I had to go down four flights of stairs to get out.“

Items such as computers had overloaded the dorm's antiquated wiring, she says, but there were no smoke alarms.

Shortly after that, she saw what she took to be a sign.

”I was at 42nd Street and Broadway with my mom,“ Pennington recalls. ”And right across the street, a huge tour bus with "Georgetown College Tigers' written on the side drove by. I said, "I want to go home.'“

She had already arranged to come back to Georgetown after getting an associate's degree at the Academy, so she just moved up her return.

In addition to being in a lot of musicals, she's had other opportunities, such as the movie. Shooting Surviving Guthrie highlighted Pennington's work ethic, Smith says.

”We had nights we were out shooting until 5 a.m., but she never complained and never lost focus,“ he says.

A strong work ethic will serve her well, Smith and Pennington's dad say, as she moves on into a career.

Pennington's career ambitions took a recent turn, after an engagement singing a few country songs in Winchester.

”I loved it,“ Pennington says, her face lighting up much more than one would expect at 8:30 a.m. ”It was so much fun, and it suits my voice.“

So, with a dad who knows a few things about recording and navigating the music business, Pennington says she's going to give country music a shot.

J.P. Pennington says his daughter has no illusions about what she's getting into.

”For a lot of years, I really struggled with the business and rejection from all of the best names,“ he says. ”It's tough to see your child go through that, and she probably will.“

But with that knowledge, he says he would tell her if he didn't think she could make it.

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