At five o’clock two nights a week, Melissa Marschner, an attorney, exchanges her lawyer “hat” for an entirely different hat, or rather, crown. Marschner is playing the role of the queen in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” opening at Kelsey Theater Friday, March 23, and running through Sunday, April 1. The show, produced by Playful Theater Productions, originated as a 1957 television production and features classic songs including “In My Own Little Corner,” “Ten Minutes Ago,” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”
He r theatrical moonlighting began in 2003 when Marschner auditioned and got the part of Lola in “Damn Yankees” at Kelsey — at the encouragement of a friend, Pam Pisani, who Marschner had met taking jazz at Princeton Ballet and who had choreographed shows for Kelsey Theater for many years. Since then Marschner has typically done one show a year, “as much as will fit in my life at this point,” Marschner says.
Performance is in her blood. Her father, who retired as vice president in data security for Citigroup, has been singing since he was in the high school glee club and now sings with his daughter in her church choir. He also did theater in high school and college. Marschner’s mother, who stayed at home for many years and then went to work for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, “is a fantastic social dancer” who never had formal dance training. “That’s probably why she sent me to dancing school as a kid,” says Marschner. “She was always interested in dance.”
Marschner started ballet at four and added tap, jazz, and pointe early on. She also took piano lessons. Then at Bishop George Ahr High School in Edison, a midsized Catholic school, she got involved in drama, getting leads in the musicals as well as roles in other plays. “That first experience — because it was a good experience in terms of both its quality and the people who were involved in it — piqued my interest,” she says.
At Rutgers College, where Marschner got even more involved in theater, she was always clear where the boundary fell between avocation and vocation. “I never intended to major in it,” she says, “but I always wanted it in my life.”
So, while she remained “strictly focused on academics” and majored in English, she performed in college shows (where she met her husband), choreographed musicals, did community theater with Edison’s Plays in the Park during the summer and performed with the same group at the State Theater during the winter. Also during college, she did industrial work, a performance genre in which major corporations hire choral and musical entertainment for large meetings. Usually she was part of the warm-up act for headliners like Ray Charles. “It was pep rally-ish,” she recalls, “singing about the company.”
After college, she briefly considered pursuing a doctorate and the academic life — and also considered taking a couple years off and auditioning in the city. But she quickly realized the gypsy life of an actor — always traveling and working nights — would have precluded staying in touch with family and friends.
Several factors pushed her towards law school. “I had good grades in college and felt I had good potential future,” she says, “and I decided my personality was much more stable than I had thought, and I realized I would prefer a more regular lifestyle.” While at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, where she graduated in 1999, she says, “I had to put theater on hold but I missed it.”
Her legal career began with a year as clerk for a federal judge in Newark at the same time as she was planning her wedding. She then moved to a large law firm, Reed Smith, where she was a litigator primarily in financial services and some complex commercial litigation.
Two years ago Marschner left Reed Smith to become a staff attorney with the Administrative Office of the New Jersey state courts. “The reason I switched,” she explains, “is so I could have a little more of a life outside of the office, not just theater — but family, friends, and other interests.” It was a little easier to fit in additional activities after leaving a large firm, but she quickly notes that, being law, it is still “more than a typical 9 to 5 job,” with some late nights and lots of work and responsibility.
Half of her current work comprises labor and employment litigation and the other half general corporate advice. The administrative office where she works “is the business arm of the court,” she says, which has 9,000-plus employees; it includes the personnel, fiscal, systems, and security functions of any large organization.
This production of “Cinderella,” Marschner says, is true to the fairy tale although a little more fleshed out. After all, the part she plays, the prince’s mother, doesn’t even appear in the fairytale. Most of the cast members are young, with high school students playing Cinderella and the prince and lots of kids in the chorus.
Because Marschner has performed several roles that require a significant amount of dance, she is particularly excited that in “Cinderella” her role is almost entirely acting and singing. “This was a compliment to me,” she says. “It validated my acting abilities.”
What advice does she have to others with “day jobs” who feel the theater itch — some other cultural craving? “Whatever is important to you, whether doing theater or crafts, make sure you fit it in,” says Marschner. After five years of not doing theater, she says, “I realized I was miserable and a part of me was missing.”
Working on a show like “Cinderella” is nearly perfect for professionals who carry full-time jobs. The rehearsals for “Cinderella” have been light. It is a fairly short play, says Marschner, adding that the director, choreographer, music director, and stage managers are very organized. “They don’t waste your time,” says Marschner. “You’re in and out. It’s a lean, streamlined rehearsal schedule,” typically two nights a week and one weekend afternoon. As the performance gets closer the schedule expands from two to three days a week and two weekend afternoons. “The production staff with this show is sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of younger kids in the show who have homework and school activities as well as the poor parents waiting for them,” she says.
And what does her husband think of her busy schedule? First of all, she explains, he has a hefty work schedule himself and is working part time on a master’s degree in business administration. “We try to make it so that we are both doing our respective things at the same time,” says Marschner. But her husband “understands people who have the theater bug — that feeling that you really want to do shows.”
Cinderella, Friday, March 23, through Sunday, April 1, Kelsey Theater, Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Presented by Playful Theater Productions. An opening night reception to meet the cast and crew follows the March 23 performance. $16. 609-570-3333.