If a stiff, ferocious wind blew into Walnut Creek, the multiple hats dancer/actor/director/choreographer/spouse/mother/sister/daughter Jennifer Denison Perry wears wouldn't even budge.
Perry carries her roles with aplomb. It could be the result of years at the barre -- the kind ballet dancers hold onto, pulling their bodies into exquisite form -- at The Ballet School founded by her late grandmother, Lareen Fender. Or, it's the invisible grounding her amalgamated family provides.
It's not just that her director father (Scott Denison, general manager of the Lesher Center for the Arts), actress mother (Kerri Shawn), two theatrical sisters (Kelly and Amanda) and actor/educator husband (Vince Perry) are embedded in the local arts whirl. With the Denison Perrys, there's a hefty dose of Norman Rockwellian values anchoring them when they're not dancing up a storm.
Jennifer Perry is directing and choreographing Contra Costa Musical Theatre's new production, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." She talked about that, and other theater-related matters in an interview two weeks before "Dreamcoat's" Oct. 12 opening. The interview is happening at what she might call "home" -- an airy ballet studio overlooking Main Street.
"I'm here seven days a week," she says.
But Perry isn't complaining; she's aglow, as if experiencing her first pirouette at the Met or tap-stepping across a Broadway stage.
"I learned by the time I was 13 that I was in love with dance, but it was beyond just classical ballet," she said. "I fell into musical theater and I loved Bob Fosse's style. My grandmother took me to New York, L.A., everywhere, to show me theater."
Perry laughs when she reads reviews of dancers in current productions.
"Ballet changes a musical theater dancer. It's not a new form that makes articulation happen; it's their technique showing."
As much as she values ballet's rigor and its resulting purity of form and movement, Perry considers herself a storyteller.
"I don't listen to eight counts of music; I think of what steps will help me create a story in a phrase of music," she says.
Her directing heroes are unsurprising: Susan Stroman, for her versatility; Robert Barry Fleming, for diving in and making the impossible appear onstage; and Fender, whose death in August 2011 rocked her otherwise stable world.
"In her last months of life, she couldn't be who she was," Perry says. "Helping her to let go -- you learn about yourself. You have to be selfless and not hold on. And when my grandfather took his last breath, the whole family was surrounding him. I had never seen somebody move beyond. It sounds weird, but it was beautiful."
If there's pain in her life that she is not able to replace with peaceful resolution, it's unfounded attacks on her family.
"It's spider talk from people who don't have facts. That Enquirer-type of story is awful. It's so painful. I say, go to the source."
Gossip, suggesting she has had it easy because of her family connections, brings an instant reaction from the Shellie and Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award-winner.
"I had to work 10 times harder to prove that I can stand on my own," she says, dropping her crossed leg to the floor and leaning forward. "I cry when people treat me as if I got to where I am because of my family. Then I jump back in and work harder the next day."
Danny Boyle, CCMT's general manager, admires her "double value" as a director and choreographer and says, "She comes to any project with a clear vision of what she wants -- and she gets it."
The six-week rehearsal schedule for "Dreamcoat" is fierce -- three days to learn all the music, 2 1/2 weeks to block and choreograph and two weeks to clean and dissect during run-throughs of the show.
"They have a nine-minute megamix at the end that's exhilarating," she says, sounding half-demon, half-cheerleader. "They were scared at first, and I looked to make sure they were still breathing, but they've built up their stamina."
Despite opportunities to work outside the East Bay, Perry is content to play in her own backyard, saying, "I have friends who grew up, moved away, and now, they're trying desperately to come back."
Her advice for young people hoping for a life in theater is ... diversify.
"Become knowledgeable in every facet of theater. You can't just be an actor; you have to be the crew, sew buttons in the costume shop, prime the set with paint. You can't expect to just be center stage," she advises.
When the curtain goes up on each production, Perry's hats come dangerously close to becoming unsettled and flying aloft in the breeze.
"Everyone else is happy and I'm flat. At that point, it's done," she admits.
It's precisely then that the voice of her grandmother, echoed in the themes of the 'Joseph' story, provides ballast. Persevere. Search for the light. If you can dream it, become it. Life's battles are won, not by the strongest or fastest, but by the one who thinks he or she can win.
It's Rockwellian sentiment and cliché to some ears. But to Perry, it's her purpose.
WHEN: Oct. 12-Nov. 10
WHERE: Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek