Jessica Ernest worked for a couple decades to get from Gorham to Broadway, starting in elementary school musicals and community productions, later performing on cruise ships and as a Las Vegas showgirl.

It took her parents, David and Jennifer Ernest, about six hours to make the same trip. When they heard their daughter would go on stage as Roxie Hart, in the long-running Broadway musical “Chicago,” they headed south as quickly as possible. As the understudy for the Hart role, Ernest had gotten about two days’ notice that she would perform the star role.

“We shot right down when we heard she was going on,” said David Ernest, a retired Bath Iron Works engineer. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s exciting. You want to go to everybody sitting next to you and say, ‘That’s my daughter.’ ”

Ernest, 33, has been in the cast of “Chicago” since 2017. She regularly appears as a member of the ensemble and a prison inmate named Go To Hell Kitty. She does eight shows a week, most weeks. But she’s also played Roxie Hart, the scene-stealing killer played by Rene Zellweger in the movie, some 30 times.

Jessica Ernest on stage in “Chicago.” She can be seen holding a notebook just to the left of Charlotte d’Amboise, playing Roxie Hart and seated on the knee of James Monroe Iglehart (Billy Flynn).  Photo by Jeremy Daniel

When she went on as Roxie that first time, in 2017, she had never rehearsed the role with other cast members, only with the stage manager and with her roommates.

“Talk about fear. I had done the lines with the stage manager, but the lights and costumes really change things. It comes down to trusting yourself and knowing you’re the only option the show has,” said Ernest, who lives in New Jersey and commutes to Manhattan. “I sort of blacked out, and I really can’t remember much. Nothing major went wrong. It felt great to take that next major step in my career.”


Sometimes Ernest gets advanced notice as to when she’ll play Roxie, like when someone has a scheduled day off. Other times she gets very little notice, like when someone is sick or injured.

One would think that having to remember your own lines and dance moves every night, while being ready to play the star role at a moment’s notice, would be overwhelming. But Ernest says being the understudy for Roxie Hart has become easier over time. She doesn’t really rehearse the part much anymore but says watching others do the role so often helps.

“One of the joys of understudying is you hear the lines every single day, so you know the rhythm of the show. You hear one line and you know what comes next,” said Ernest.

Jessica Ernest of Gorham began performing musical theater in school and in local community theater. She’s been on Broadway since 2017. Photo courtesy of Jessica Ernest


When Ernest was a toddler, the family hung a heavy curtain at the entrance of the stairway to keep the downstairs warmer in winter. She liked to throw the curtain back and make a grand entrance, like a Broadway star coming out for an encore.

She remembers getting a flyer for ballet lessons when she was in grammar school and “something about the color pink or the ribbons on the dance shoes” spoke to her. She watched old black-and-white musicals from a young age, especially the series starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She has fond memories of watching the Disney sing-along movies, featuring lyrics to the film’s songs shown on screen, so audiences at home could sing too.


In elementary school in Gorham, she sang and began performing in school productions. She played Snow White as a demanding diva in a show called “Mother Goose, Inc.”  She sang a show-stopping number called “I Want it All,” which impressed her music teacher, Janelle Doak.

When Doak herself was preparing to audition for a local production of “Annie,” at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland, she suggested that Ernest try out too. Ernest, who was about 10, played one of the kids in the orphanage with Annie. She performed in more productions at community theaters in the area, including at Portland Players in South Portland, as well as in musicals at Gorham High School.

“When she was young, she was not as aware of her talent as other people were. She was very sweet and humble,” said Doak, who had Ernest as a student at the Narragansett  and Village elementary schools in Gorham.

Jessica Ernest, left, with her teacher, Janelle Doak, when both performed in “Annie” at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland. Photo courtesy of David and and Jennifer Ernest.

But Ernest didn’t get to Broadway on talent alone. Her father remembers her being very driven at a young age, and “not afraid to try and fail at something she loves.” Doak said that, as a performer, Ernest was “very brave” to take jobs on cruise ships and in Las Vegas, to gain experience.

In high school, Ernest took voice lessons, dance classes, sang in a choir and performed in musicals and plays. Ernest says she’s thankful that she got to be part of the music and theater scenes in Gorham. A surprising number of other professional performers came out of Gorham schools around the same time as Ernest, including Leigh-Ann Esty and Sara Esty, dancers who were in the recent movie remake of “West Side Story,” and Andrew Wojtal, was in a Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Ernest decided to pursue a performance career after high school, attending and graduating from college at Point Park University Conservatory of Performing Arts, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


“I couldn’t think of anything I loved as much,” Ernest said about her choice to go to college for musical theater. “I knew the chance of success was small, there aren’t a ton of jobs. But I had faith in myself and thought I was a hard worker. I figured I could always do something else if it didn’t work out.”


After graduating from college in 2011, Ernest found work pretty quickly. She traveled to Texas to work in regional theater productions there. She worked as a singer on Celebrity Cruise Lines for about nine months, performing a wide variety of pop, rock and Broadway songs. She worked on ships in the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean, and got to visit the ruined city of Pompeii in Italy.

She later got a job as a singing showgirl at Bally’s Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. One of her favorite numbers in Las Vegas was based on a Ginger Rogers’ performance, where Ernest got to wear the kind of fabulous outfit Rogers wore while waltzing with Astaire.

Jessica Ernest as Ulla in a touring production of “The Producers.” Photo courtesy of Jessica Ernest

She found work in several regional productions of musicals, including “Young Frankenstein,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Funny Face,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Chicago.”  She played the Swedish secretary, Ulla, in a national tour of “The Producers,” which came to the Collins Center in Orono. It was a rare chance for family and friends to see her perform.

While doing tours and based in New York, she joined the theater actor’s union. At one point, she heard there was an open chorus call for “Chicago” for union performers. It was a periodic casting call that all Broadway shows have, but the management of “Chicago” let it be known they weren’t looking for anyone. So Ernest went, feeling no pressure.


A couple weeks later, she got a call from her agent saying her performance at the chorus call had landed her an audition with “Chicago,” on a day she was scheduled to be home in Maine. A friend, from Biddeford, convinced her to change her plans. She took an overnight bus back to New York City from Maine and went to the audition. She’s been on Broadway ever since.

“Chicago” is not just any musical. It’s the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. It debuted in 1975 and ran until 1977. But a revival opened in 1996 and is still going. The show has won six Tony awards and spawned an Oscar-winning film, in 2002, starring Zellweger as Hart, Catherine Zeta-Jones as fellow killer/inmate Velma Kelly and Richard Gere as silver-tongued lawyer Billy Flynn.

Jessica Ernest, holding a fan over her head just to the right of James Monroe Iglehart as Billy Flynn, in a scene from “Chicago” on Broadway. She’s in the ensemble and also the understudy to the star role of Roxie Hart. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The musical is known for the stylish dancing, choreographed by Bob Fosse, and for memorable songs by Fred Ebb and John Kander, who also wrote the score for “Cabaret.” It’s based on a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, set in Chicago during The Jazz Age and inspired by actual criminals she covered. It’s a satire on the modern idea of a celebrity criminal.

The plot focuses on Hart, who shoots her lover and then tries to pin it on her husband and use the publicity to make herself famous. When she’s not playing Hart as a fill-in, Ernest is in the ensemble dressed in a Bob Fosse-inspired black dance outfit. She is the first cast member to speak at the start of each performance, greeting the audience. She also has the role of one of Hart’s fellow prison inmates, Go To Hell Kitty, who steals the spotlight from Hart and others when she is arrested for killing her husband and three women.

The role of Roxie Hart, which Ernest understudies, has been played by a wide range of stars and celebrities, including Gwen Verdon, Liza Minnelli, Melanie Griffith, Michelle Williams, Paige Davis, Ruthie Henshall and Brooke Shields.

Ernest has no end date for her time in “Chicago.” A couple years ago, she moved to South Orange, New Jersey, with her boyfriend, which has allowed her an “escape” from the city and allowed her to find of a work/life balance. Being in “Chicago” has helped her realize how much she enjoys acting, besides singing and dancing, and how that might play into her future.

“Your body hurts more and more as you do this and get older, but I realize I can still sing and act for the rest of my life,” said Ernest.

Jessica Ernest, right, with parents David and Jennifer Ernest, on Broadway. Photo courtesy of Jessica Ernest

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