SAN DIEGO — The kids at Catholic grammar school used to tease Jamie Gangi and call her the "bionic vocal chord." Indeed, her voice was different, and she was embarrassed for her classmates to hear her.
That was when she was a pre-teen and singing in the children's chorus at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. All that her friends could picture was a kid in a flowing gown, wearing a Germanic horned helmet and screeching Nordic complaints.
Now, with a string of performing credits to her name, the 19-year-old college student is well along her way to a career in show business.
Gangi will make her national television debut on Thursday as a guest star on the ABC police series "Lady Blue" in a segment titled "Romero and Juliet." A sophomore at United States International University, Gangi apparently has more talents than her strong lyric soprano.
She shot the TV takeoff on "West Side Story" in her hometown of Chicago last summer. Although the series star, Jamie Rose, balked at the guest being called "young Jamie"--"What am I, some old woman?"--Gangi relished her first prime time television work. She even began to accept working with a camera only a few inches from her face.
Being picked for principal roles is nothing new to Gangi, whose large voice belies her diminutive size. At age 14 she had a close encounter with Broadway director Harold Prince. By then she had earned her professional actor's union card in a performance of "The Sound of Music" at Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre in Chicago. Her producer and director at the Marriott felt that Prince would love her for a part in a new show he was auditioning. They pulled strings and ended up sneaking her into the Chicago auditions because the casting director was a friend.
As Gangi recalled the audition, "After I sang for Hal Prince he came to the stage and said, 'Jamie, I would like to fly you to New York to audition for the lead in this Broadway show.' I instantly started crying. I couldn't believe it." Prince wanted her to try out for the role of Mary in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along."
At the New York audition, Prince could not convince the backers that Gangi was old enough to handle the role. But the legendary producer-director told her as she left, "I will work with you some day. I really want to work with you."
Gangi had little time for sorrow. She had to be back in Chicago the next day for a matinee. True to his word, two months later Prince was again on the phone. This time when she sang he did cast her--as Peron's mistress in "Evita." She spent a year and a half touring with the national company. Gangi was then all of 15 and the youngest actress to play the mistress.
She has always been ahead of her class. She began voice lessons at age 10. At 13 she began dance. She did some basic acting training at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, but most of her dramatic training didn't start until last year when she came to USIU--on a partial scholarship. The university sought her out as the pop vocalist awardee for the 1983-84 Arts Recognition and Talent Search.
"Most people doubt themselves. They walk into an audition and become their worst enemies," said Roy Mote, Gangi's voice teacher. "Jamie walks into an audition situation and it's like she's already there. She is extremely self-confident. You know you'll be secure in casting her because she's secure in her own talent. Her own instincts are very, very strong."
He describes her as the perfect ingenue, but recalls that she surprised herself with those instincts in creating a a brash character role last season in "Annie Get Your Gun."
Her parents supported Gangi throughout her childhood. With the Lyric Opera's children's chorus she appeared in the likes of "Boris Godunov," "Paradise Lost," "The Little Sweep," "La Boheme," and "Rigoletto," playing small roles in most. In "Rigoletto" she was Luciano Pavarotti's page and took curtain calls with the famed tenor.
In high school she played eight shows a week at the Lincolnshire Theatre. She excelled in musical theater playing in "Oliver," "The King and I," "The Sound of Music" and "Gypsy."
Becoming a professional actress early in life mostly has been a good thing, although it prevented Gangi from getting a part in Steppenwolf's non-Equity young actors ensemble. Unlike most young actors, she has had regular work. With her professional routine and lessons, she has developed discipline. "Here we have academics, dancing, acting and voice lessons during the day and rehearsals at night," she said. "Throughout high school I was going to school all day and doing a show all night. I was used to the grind."
She takes some criticism from classmates for her work in television commercials. She has done local and regional commercials, a national Lady Footlocker ad and a voice over for Pepsi International. "You do the ads to supplement your income. When I'm older I know I'm going to need that," she said.