By Len Lear
Millions of little girls probably dream or being Cinderella one day and marrying a prince. Jessica Hershberg Fontana, 30, who grew up in Mt. Airy and graduated from Germantown Friends School, has done exactly that. In real life.
In 2014 Jessica, who has a face on which emotion can play like a wave on the beach, performed the lead role in the musical “Cinderella,” by the legendary Rodgers & Hammerstein, 230 times at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan and for one week that November at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
And to complete the real-life dream, Jessica, whose singing voice is “ear-licious,” married her prince, Santino Fontana, on Sept. 5, 2015, at a Catskill Mountains venue while wearing a hand-embroidered gown, sprinkled with petals that William Ivey Long, a famed theatrical costumer, wanted Jessica to have.
And it just so happens that Santino, 35, is a Tony nominee and Audience Choice Award winner who has appeared in numerous Broadway shows. And believe it or not, he played the prince in the same Broadway revival of “Cinderella,” but he left the cast in early 2014, just before Jessica took over the title role. (Santino also provided the voice for Prince Hans, the villain in Disney’s 2013 blockbuster film, “Frozen.”)
“The wedding was one of the most special, beautiful days of my life,” Jessica told us last week, “but I don’t feel like Cinderella with Santino. I feel like myself, which is even better.”
Jessica showed major performance chops at a very young age. She began studying ballet at age 5 at the Wissahickon Dance Academy (WDA) in Germantown, where director Nancy Malmed was “hugely supportive” of Hershberg and kept her on her toes. Jessica continued studying ballet for 12 years throughout high school, graduating from GFS.
Hershberg attended the Miquon School prior to GFS. According to Malmed, Jessica was “a beautiful ballet dancer, and she was always cast in lead roles at WDA, but she soon discovered that she was even better at singing than dancing. She landed lead roles in GFS musicals as well as solo parts in choir concerts, managing to balance her two passions.”
The Mt. Airy native had her first professional acting job at the age of 12 when she was cast as Fern in the Arden Theater’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.” Hershberg took her first voice lesson at age 17 with teacher Randi Marrazzo, an opera singer and fellow Mt. Airy resident.
At 18, Jessica enrolled in the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. She moved to New York City right after graduation and has lived there ever since and worked steadily. It helps that her work embodies an old saying that “you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.”
“I feel really grateful that I’ve gotten to play some amazing roles in some of the best musicals ever written,” Jessica told us. “Rosabella in ‘Most Happy Fella,’ Lizzie in ‘110 in the Shade,’ for example. I just played Marion Paroo in ‘The Music Man’ this weekend at a concert in the Poconos, and those songs are absolutely gorgeous.”
Jessica also starred in a new show at the Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., called “Soon,” written by Nick Blaemire. She played Lady Larken in “Once Upon a Mattress” Off-Broadway. She starred in a new musical that continues to get more productions called “Idaho!” at the Smith Center in Las Vegas, and she was in a revival of the rarely performed “Milk And Honey” by Jerry Herman at The York Theatre in New York City.
Who is Jessica’s favorite among all the performers she has worked with? “Working with my idol Victoria Clark in ‘Cinderella’ was incredibly meaningful to me onstage and off. I fell in love with her when I saw her in (one of my favorite shows ever) ‘The Light In the Piazza,’ and to have her play my fairy godmother was a true dream come true. She’s since become a very good friend and even sang at my wedding. I feel so honored to have her in my life!”
Does Jessica have TV and/or movie aspirations? “Sure. I’ve done one small part in a movie, and I tested for a network pilot, so I’ve gotten a little more experience in that world. It’d be nice if it happened, but theater is still my first love.”
What is Jessica’s ultimate goal in the entertainment business? “I suppose my ultimate goal is to feel fulfilled creatively and have a good work/life balance. I’ve started a satirical podcast with a friend called ‘Support For This Podcast.’ We recently were mentioned in New York Magazine, so it’s been fun to have my own creative projects get attention. It keeps life more interesting while you wait for the next great audition to appear.”
Which person in the world would Jessica most like to meet and spend an hour with? “I wish I could drop in on moments in my own family from two or three or four or five generations ago and see what life was like for them. It’s amazing how different my life has been from even my own grandparents on my father’s side. They fled persecution in Ukraine, and here I am living a life of enormous privilege. I wonder what it was like for them and for their parents.”
Jessica and Santino are currently working on an album of jazz standards, so she has “been listening to a lot of Vic Damone, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker lately. Doesn’t get much better than that.”
Mt. Airy’s Broadway star can count on visits to New York from her parents, who still live in the house in which Jessica grew up — mom, Betsy, father Theodore, a prominent professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was a top aide to former Mayor Wilson Goode, along with Jessica’s brother, Dan.
“They’re the captains of my fan club,” she said in an earlier interview with the Local. “They’ve always been very supportive.”
What is Jessica’s biggest pet peeve? “Really rich TV/film actors starring in national commercials. They have enough money already!”