La dolce DiVita

As Janine DiVita took her place at the microphone in a sleeveless black sequined jumpsuit last November, the dream she dreamed while growing up in Kansas continued to unfold. 

What followed was an evening of personal anecdotes and show tunes before a riveted audience that toe-tapped along as she belted the Broadway covers she feels shaped her journey to the stage. 

This was DiVita’s one-woman show, “LIT: a #modernbroad,” which she performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below, the midtown supper club and cabaret venue located in the basement of Studio 54. “It’s an homage to all my experiences as an actress,” she said about the show she helped produce. 

The impetus for DiVita’s solo gig was to revisit the music that has molded her thus far and to take account of her varied career as a whole.  There’s the part of her work that happens under the hot lights of professional theater — from her Broadway debut as Rizzo in the revival of “Grease” to her turn as Elizabeth in the first national tour of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (for which Brooks said, “when (DiVita) sings …. she tears the house down”). 

DiVita’s also played Mary Barrie in “Finding Neverland”; Miss Isabel Yearsley in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”; Reno in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and, most recently, Anne in “IF/THEN.”

Starting Nov. 29, DiVita will play Claire, the lead role in “Shadows,” a new show opening at the Connelly Theater in the East Village. “It’s this really eerie show,” she said. The dance musical, directed by two-time Tony nominee Joey McKneely, is about an affair that happens in a haunted pied-à-terre  and involves interpretive dance set to a mix of tunes similar to Icelandic rock band, Sigur Rós.“The music is really great,” she said. “Dancers (will be) interpreting what the spirits are feeling.”

And then there’s her other job — or, rather, jobs.

While on national tour with “IF/THEN,” DiVita co-wrote a screenplay with longtime friend, Eric Holmes (producer and writer for CBS’s “The Good Fight”). “I was feeling so creative during that show,” she said of “IF/THEN.” “Super creatively fulfilled and very inspired to write.” 

Her downtime around performances became productive. She penned “To Have and To Hold,” a romantic comedy about a stalled and broke songwriter, Isabel, who takes a gig planning her estranged sister’s wedding. Hilarity ensues. DiVita will be playing the secondary lead, Isabel’s older sister, Alison.

“I spent seven months writing it,” she said about the female-driven screenplay that will be produced by Dolphin Entertainment and Myriad Films. They’re currently in the process of getting a director and plan to begin shooting in 2019.

DiVita has appeared in a supporting role opposite Dustin Hoffman in the feature film “Hear My Song “and on television in both CBS’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes series, “Elementary,” and FX’s spy drama, “The Americans.” Of late, she’s been sworn to secrecy about her upcoming role in HBO’s second season of “The Deuce.”

“I have a really cool role,” she said about the popular drama series starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal that depicts Manhattan when porn and prostitution were rampant during the 1970s and ’80s. “And no, I’m not playing a hooker!”

DiVita’s varied interests keep her busy. “Obviously, my schedule requires a lot of juggling,” she said. “It’s a lot of accepting things and praying it will work out.” Somehow, she says, it always does. But that doesn’t mean she can rest on her laurels. Success in acting doesn’t assure the next gig. “I audition all the time,” she said. “I go out once or twice a week. It used to be more. I’m a little pickier.”

The constant auditioning is a career hazard that doesn’t bother her, though. “I get excited,” she said. “It’s more of an opportunity to perform.” Her default point of view comes from advice she received from a friend. “If the character’s meant to flow through you, it will flow through you.”

DiVita is also the co-founder of Empowered Voices, an educational organization that uses theater to try to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the armed forces.

After meeting her mentor, fellow co-founder and prevention specialist Stephanie Brooks, at a stage door while performing in Seattle, DiVita decided to broaden her acting career to enrich lives in another way. “I was fascinated by what (Brooks) did for the military,” she said. 

Brooks in turn was looking for new ways to provide the military with the required training that went beyond PowerPoint presentations.

“People are fascinated by actors,” DiVita said. “The whole point of acting is to step into other people’s shoes. (It’s) really powerful. It helps
people understand other people.” After that meeting at the stage door, “I ended up being invited to (Brooks’) military base (Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state).”

“I am hired by divisions of the Department of Defense to write, direct and produce the Sexual Assault Prevention trainings at U.S. military bases and to consult with military civilian workers on leadership, communication skills and empathy training (through) implementing theatrical exercises and practices.”

DiVita works with volunteer soldier-actors to create an interactive forum. She wrote and produced the curriculum they’ve already implemented on more than half a dozen military bases. 

Encouraged by the success of Empowered Voices, DiVita and Brooks are now looking to expand their training services to universities and corporations.

With that prospect on the horizon, pending roles to study for, auditions to prep — and all that jazz — DiVita still isn’t done. When we finished our interview, she was headed out the door to attend a reading of a Broadway-bound show she may be co-producing. 

“It never gets old,” she said. “It never gets boring. There’s always something new to learn, so you’re always growing.”

For more, visit janinedivita.com.

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