There are jewels in crowns, there are jewels in the sea and then there is Jewel Jerstad — the gem of Prince Rupert’s performance.
Her name and smiley face are known throughout the region from her days singing and playing as a musician in various bands such as the Mermaid Cafe, as a dance teacher, choreographer, interior designer and actor in numerous theatre productions. Her most recent endeavour is as the lead of mom Donna, in Prince Rupert’s first community musical in five years, Mamma Mia!. It has been a bittersweet subjugation after a recent personal tragedy involving the loss of her performance counterpart and best friend.
Born and raised in the North Coast city, as an 11-year-old little Jewel cut her teeth on the wooden stage, bitten by the dancing bug. As a student at All That Jazz, she became a dance disciple of Theresa Mackereth and started teaching at 16 years old to be able to pay for her own classes. She put one foot in front of the other to overcome the tight times and became certified under the Canadian Dance Teachers Association. After more than ten years of pirouettes and pliés, she had to hang up her dancing shoes due to medical issues.
“I had severe problems with arthritis in my back, so I had to quit teaching dance. If you are going to walk when you’re 40, you have to quit teaching dance.”
She describes giving up dance as like having one of her arms cut off.
“Giving up dance was really hard. I could not even go to watch competitions or recitals. It really just hurt my heart,” she said, noting that she gets chronic migraines and has issues with balance. She jokes with serious undertones about her trepidation of falling into the orchestra pit during the upcoming musical performance.
Jewel is no stranger to adversity and while she had to give up dancing for a living, she still dances through life. The gem of theatre will see 50 years of glimmer and glitz in a month just after she steps into centre stage in Mamma Mia! from April 20 to 23 at the Lester Centre, which she describes as her second home and the cast as her family.
Her grown-up segue into theatre came with the invitation to be the choreographer in one of the Lester Centre’s first community musicals, Leader of the Pack circa 1999-2000. However, she remembers the opening of the Lester Center in the 80s when she was in high school and performing in Annie.
“I remember us kids going in there for rehearsals so late that we’d bring our sleeping bags so we could have a little nap and do our homework on the floor. It’s like a second home to me. I’m just as comfortable there as I am [in my own living room].
Since then, she has been in more than ten productions and community musicals which are produced every two years due to the time, effort, participation and funding required.
Raised on ABBA, it being her mom’s favourite group, the records of the glittery, bell-bottomed and platformed-heeled band were played as frequently as she inhaled the North Coast air. The music ran through her veins.
“I had a love of ABBA. It was ingrained in my brain,” she said.
“I’ve wanted to do Mamma Mia! for 20 years. This is my dream show,” she emphasized,
Jewel explained the theatre has been trying to get the rights for the musical “foreeeeever”.
Generally, some of the conditions for obtaining the rights to any musical can be challenging for smaller locations. There are production issues to overcome such as advertising restrictions, funding for the rights, casting and even the choreography and set design needs to be followed precisely. There is a lot of work behind the scenes long before the curtain rises that the audience never sees.
Jewel said she was over the moon and excited when she heard last summer that Mamma Mia! would finally be coming to her home stage. She added it was also a dream show for her fellow Mermaid and sidekick, Patty Forman, who was equally looking forward to participating in the production together as they had done in every musical previously.
Jerstad was asked to be the costume designer after just completing the same role in a movie filmed in Prince Rupert and had worked in fashion retail for years. Her love and dedication to detail is evident. She has added intimate and personal touches to the stage, such as using the crinoline from her own wedding dress as part of the flower bouquet in the wedding scene. The Afgan blanket on the bed in another scene was crocheted for her when she was born. No detail in the show has been overlooked, even the stamp on the invitation letters Sophie mails is the authentic Greek postal code.
The musical production has provided her with experiences she would never have got to experience herself. The gem of the theatre said she “literally lives the show,” and it has become part of her.
When asked to be costume designer, she told Mamma Mia! director Alison O’Toole that she wanted to audition for an onstage role, such as Rosie or Tanya, the two friends of Donna from back in the day. She never imagined that she would be offered the role of Donna because she thought her vocal range as an alto singer was her pocket.
“Learning to use a whole different range of my voice has been a big challenge, but super cool.”
She laughed and said her exact words when she was offered the major role may not be suitable for print.
“Chris [Armstrong] the producer, called me and offered me the role. I said, ‘STFU … are you serious?’. He said he was. So I guess they had faith in me.”
“But then my life fell apart.”
While Mamma Mia! is a silly, outrageous and happy musical, it can not be talked about with out mentioning Patty Forman, who the production has been dedicated to and is in memory of. Just a week after the cast list was released in November 2022, with Patty named as a cast member in the production, she was a victim in a very public murder-suicide in Prince Rupert’s downtown.
“She was my person,” Jewel said, explaining that Patty was a pillar in the Prince Rupert theatre community. For years the duo worked on productions together and even had their own special spots in the dressing room. They first connected as adults when Patty stepped into Leader of the Pack with just two weeks to prepare after an actor had to leave the production. The two had been singing together ever since.
“[Patty] had such an amazing soprano vocal range, she could hit notes you couldn’t image. We called it the Pattisphere, when she hit the notes higher than the theatre rafters.”
For Mamma Mia! Patty’s dressing room mirror has been decorated and remains a production remembrance of her. Her absence is felt, Jewel said, but so is her presence.
Most of the cast in the production wear an item in their costumes that was Patty’s, so she will be on stage with them during the performances, Jewel said.
The cast has been an “amazing support” to her, she said with her voice choking and tears in her eyes. The cast has become her family and is such an inclusive group of people accepting diversity.
“I’ve said it before. The cast is what has supported me the most … I’ve had the most amazing support from them and if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.”
“We had planned on doing this show for so long … She got robbed. At first, I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to do it. But when I start a project, I have to finish it. I didn’t want to let her down by not stepping up and taking the role.”
Jewel describes her part as the biggest and hardest role of her life, which she has taken on with the highest expectations. She describes it as having found a new sense of self.
“I have always been in a band but I’ve never been the front person, alone. I did all the speaking and stuff, but I was never the lead singer … I have had to step out and have that confidence to be the leader to sing the songs. And so that has, for me, been a lot of self-realization.”
Jewel encourages the public to support the show, the cast and crew’s efforts. She said even if people are not a fan of ABBA, they will be fans of the show after seeing it. It’s a fun, silly show different show about family dynamics and relationships - mom, daughters, friends and lovers, she said.
“You can’t help but get up, dance and enjoy it. People need this right now. Our community needs this. They need to be happy and have something good.”
K-J Millar | Editor and Multimedia Journalist
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