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October 30, 2013

Local actress in ‘Mamma Mia!’ finds love for — and on — the stage

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

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Actress — and Grosse Pointe Woods native — Jennifer Wingerter (formerly Weingarten) and her husband, actor Vince Wingerter, are both members of the ensemble in the new touring production of the hit musical “Mamma Mia!,” which will be staged at the Fisher Theatre Nov. 5-10.

DETROIT — Jennifer Wingerter is getting a chance to see the country with her new husband, fellow actor Vince Wingerter, but the couple — who tied the knot Sept. 28 in Rochester — isn’t on an extended vacation; they’re in a national touring production of the musical “Mamma Mia!”

“‘Mamma Mia!’ is our honeymoon,” said Jennifer Wingerter by phone from Baton Rouge, one of the stops for the show before it lands at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre for a run Nov. 5-10.

But given that the sweetly romantic “Mamma Mia!” — based on the music of ABBA — tells the story of a young woman about to get married, Jennifer Wingerter said it’s the ideal show for her and her husband to be performing in now. As members of the ensemble and understudies for some of main characters, the couple is enjoying a rare luxury for theater actors — being together despite being on the road.

“There’s a wedding at the end of the show,” she said. “It’s so much fun. And we’re just so lucky to spend these first nine months (as a married couple) together.”

Better known locally by her maiden name, Weingarten, Wingerter grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods, where she attended Ferry Elementary, Parcells Middle School and Grosse Pointe North High School. The 29-year-old graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied at the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory.

But Wingerter’s professional career goes back at least two decades. Her mother, Janet Weingarten, said her oldest child was about 9 when she was selected to perform with Kenny Rogers during a holiday show at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

“She didn’t even know who Kenny Rogers was,” Weingarten said with a laugh. “She thought it was Mr. Rogers from (the PBS show ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’).”

Even at age 3, Weingarten said her daughter was a natural performer.

“She would love when the whole family would get together,” the proud mom said. “She would put on a show for everybody.”

While Wingerter’s two younger brothers preferred to stay active in sports, their big sister was honing her skills on the stage. Before she turned 3, she started studying dance at the Turning Pointe School for the Performing Arts in St. Clair Shores and was later selected for summer programs at Interlochen Arts Camp and Stagedoor Manor Arts Camp.

“I was singing and dancing before I was walking and talking,” Wingerter recalled.

Her beloved kindergarten teacher, the recently retired LeeAnn Peterson, of Grosse Pointe Woods, said Wingerter had “such a special quality” that the teacher encouraged Wingerter’s parents to enroll her in a theater program, which led to the young actress’ start with Grosse Pointe Children’s Theatre.

“She just sparkled,” Peterson said of Wingerter. Even then, the teacher recognized her “beautiful singing voice” and gift for drama, as well as her bubbly personality.

“She had so much talent,” Peterson recalled. “I’m thrilled she was able to follow through on her dream.” But Wingerter didn’t let it go to her head. Peterson said the actress has always been “vivacious and kind” — a “special, special girl.”

Having traveled the globe to see their daughter perform — including sailing aboard the cruise ships where Wingerter first met and performed opposite her husband — Wingerter’s parents are happy to finally be able to catch one of her shows close to home. Although Wingerter has performed in some previous tours that came to the state, this is her first big touring production that’s hitting Detroit.

“We’re so happy she’s coming to Michigan, because we don’t have to go anywhere,” Weingarten said. “It’s exciting. Everyone (we know) is getting tickets.” That includes vendors from the wedding and current theater students at Grosse Pointe North High School, she said.

The Weingartens have long been season subscribers to the Fisher Theatre and the Broadway in Detroit series, and Wingerter’s mother said she and her daughter first saw “Mamma Mia!” in Detroit roughly a decade ago.

“She always said she wanted to be in it,” Weingarten said.

The actress said this tour started in September. Producers let Wingerter and her husband take off the usually hectic “tech week” — the final week of rehearsals before a show opens — to get married, for which the couple was grateful, having been planning the big day for the last couple of years.

Although they’ve been working nonstop ever since, Wingerter said she and her fellow castmates — hubby included — are having “such a blast.”

“Everyone is giving 110 percent,” she said. “And the audience gives (the energy) right back. We have people dancing in their seats. It’s light, it’s fun. There’s touching moments. … (The show) finds a lot of heart, and it’s grounded in real humor and real (emotion).”

Wingerter — who made her musical debut in the ensemble of “Oliver” at age 5 with Grosse Pointe Children’s Theatre — has since landed major roles in productions of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Hairspray,” “42nd Street” and “Oklahoma!” among many others. She’s also appeared in a Nike commercial and on an episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” Her greatest love is for musicals — something she shares with her husband, with whom she’s performed in many other productions since they met working on a cruise ship about five years ago.

“I love being able to tell a story through music,” Wingerter said. “I love the way emotion gets carried through music. It’s a wonderful way to express yourself.”

She said her medical professional parents — her mother is a nurse and her father is a doctor — were always supportive of her. Her mom said seeing her daughter “grow in her talent” has been “a real thrill.”

“She found her passion early in life — singing, dancing and acting,” Weingarten said. “It’s what made her happy.”

And that, she said, makes Wingerter’s family happy, too.

The Fisher Theatre is located inside the Fisher Building at 3011 W. Grand Boulevard in Detroit’s New Center area. Tickets to “Mamma Mia!” are $30-$76, which includes parking. For tickets or more information, visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.broadwayindetroit.com, or call (800) 982-2787.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.