This Saturday, the Saxer Family, Conejo Valley’s own theater royalty, will reunite for their second revue of songs from musical theater. The first program took place six years ago and was a rousing success. At that time, Shelley and Gary Saxer’s youngest daughter Jonalyn was attending Syracuse University as a theater major. Today, she is a veteran of four Broadway musicals, appearing in swing and ensemble roles in Bullets Over Broadway, Honeymoon in Vegas, Cats, and Holiday Inn. Jonalyn begins rehearsals for her fifth Broadway show, Mean Girls, in February.
In addition to Jonalyn, an Oak Park High graduate, three other daughters will perform: Jennifer (from Shelley’s previous marriage), Robyn, and Randi, plus Randi’s husband Tanner Redman, Jennifer’s husband Erik Sorensen, and the Sorensens’ two children Kari and Raedyn. Longtime friend Zach Spencer serves as piano accompanist. All are frequently seen on stages in Ventura County, with Randi and Tanner most recently performing in Conejo Players’ production of Chess.
“The Saxer Family Reunion Concert: The Encore,” which was put together by Jonalyn, includes songs from their favorite Broadway musicals, including Oklahoma!, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Guys and Dolls, and more. Jonalyn is scheduled to perform “Anywhere But Here” from Honeymoon in Vegas and “I Don’t Want to Be Here” from Ordinary Days in addition to joining her sisters in “Sisters” from White Christmas and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company, a song they sang at their 2012 concert.
Each Christmas, the Saxer clan gathers around the piano at Shelley and Gary’s comfortable home in Westlake Village for an impromptu evening of Christmas carols and show tunes for friends and family. With Jonalyn on the West Coast during her hiatus, the Saxers decided to reprise their 2012 family revue, which will be staged this Saturday, January 13 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. We got together to attend a rehearsal and share stories recently and talked to Shelley and Jennifer about how this uber-talented performing unit got started.
VCOS: So how did all of this start?
SHELLEY: I loved playing piano and I loved singing and when Jennifer was little, I started having her sing things with me and I’d play piano. And she was so amazing that this is what got me into it. I had sung at Newbury Park High school but I was in a special group that did some recording of things like West Side Story. I thought it would be good for Jennifer to go to some talent shows and she did really well; she was only five or six years old when she started. Then I saw an audition notice for Gypsy and saw that they needed a little girl to play Baby June. So I thought it would be a good experience for her, but I never expected her to get the part. But she did. As we went through that show, I thought to myself, “I can do this too.” So we started doing shows together. Whenever there was a show with kids in it, the two of us would audition together. By that time I was a single parent and we did Gypsy a second time in Thousand Oaks at Cal Lutheran University. Charlie Davis was the director and his wife Marilyn played Mama Rose and their daughter Mary Pat played Gypsy. So when Jennifer was cast as Baby June again, I thought, well, if I’m going to do this, what’s the best part for me? So I auditioned for one of the strippers and got to play Miss Electra. Gary actually came to see that production and the day after it closed, Conejo Players was holding auditions for The Music Man. Jennifer wanted to audition for Amaryllis, but I didn’t know if I could do another show so quickly. I was working full-time but I said OK. So I told Jennifer that we would both audition, but if she didn’t get the part she wanted, we weren’t going to do ensemble. Normally, I believe that you audition for a show and you take anything that they offer you. That’s always been the way we worked up to that point. But she got the part. And that’s how I met Gary. Jennifer got into the show and so I had to do it too because I told her I would.
JENNIFER: And I introduced him to my mom as “my friend Gary.” After that the joke was that he wasn’t my friend anymore until I was 18. (laughs)
VCOS: Have any of you worked professionally in the theater before Jonalyn?
SHELLEY: Other than getting paid by Moorpark Melodrama, Jonalyn’s the first to do it as a career.
VCOS: Jonalyn, did anyone else try to or are you the first who was driven enough to go for it?
JONALYN: No, I always wanted to do theater as a career. Robyn went to New York once and stayed there for about six months but she didn’t like it there. People ask me if I enjoy living in New York and I tell them you have to. You can’t not enjoy living there and working in theater.
JENNIFER: I don’t think I would have liked living in New York either.
VCOS: When you were growing up, did you want to be an actress?
JONALYN: Yes, always. My mom tried to convince me to be a scientist for a hot second.
JENNIFER: That’s because you’re really smart.
JONALYN: Or a pharmacist.
ZACH: You’ll always have a job if you’re a pharmacist.
SHELLEY: Math and science were easy for her.
JONALYN: Yeah, but I always knew I wanted to do this.
SHELLEY: Jennifer wanted to do it but I said you’re never going to make a living at it. You can’t major in music. Major in business.
JONALYN: By the time I got to school, musical theater programs were the thing.
JENNIFER: When I was in college at UCR, they did not have a musical theater major. I still did theater, though. I played the lead in The Fantasticks.
SHELLEY: In her freshman year, she wasn’t in the music department and she still got the lead. That really irritated a few people.
JENNIFER: But they never did any musicals after that, so I wasn’t interested in doing anything else. They only did serious plays. I guess that would have been all right, but I liked doing musicals.
SHELLEY: While she was at Riverside, she drove to Cabrillo, when they were in Oxnard before coming to Thousand Oaks, and she played Sandy in Grease.
JENNIFER: I did that to show up my boyfriend. My ex-boyfriend, I should say, who broke up with me. He was doing shows there too. We helped him with his auditions, but I ended getting into the show and he didn’t get into it at all,.
SHELLEY: (laughs) It still brings a smile to her face.
JENNIFER: It does!
VCOS: Jennifer, do you have any regrets about not pursuing theater as a profession?
JENNIFER: No. I love living vicariously through Jonalyn. I love it. I brag about her, but it’s really not bragging, I’m just really proud of her. I’ve had parents of kids who I’ve taught who go to New York and are able to meet up with her. She’s so accommodating to people who want to come see the shows she’s in, even if she doesn’t know them personally. She’s so sweet to everybody, it’s made it really special. It’s pretty incredible, actually. She was doing Cats and as she was finishing, across the street at the Neil Simon Theater they were getting the marquee ready for Mean Girls and she went over there and started dancing for them too.
VCOS: Do you ever consider that the Saxer Family is the Conejo Valley’s version of the Barrymores?
SHELLEY: It’s just something that we all enjoy doing. Our closest friends are people like Zach, people we met through the theater. That’s really our community.
VCOS: Have you ever thought of populating a show just with members of your family?
SHELLEY: We’d never be able to get our act together (laughs).
VCOS: Erik, how was it joining a family of performers?
ERIK: The first time I came out to one of their Christmas parties, Jen and I had just started seeing each other, so it was almost like it was our first date. So we got there and everyone was singing around the piano and it was very, very intimidating to me. I had been performing before that, throughout high school and so forth, but when I came here and heard them all, it was really intimidating.
VCOS: Can you get into this family without being a performer?
JENNIFER: If you do, they’ll turn you into one.
ERIK: Yeah, whether you like it or not!
“The Saxer Family Reunion Concert: The Encore” plays for one performance only at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks, Saturday, January 13 at 1 pm. For tickets, visit hillcrestarts.com.
Mean Girls opens for previews in March. At press time, it is scheduled to open at the August Wilson Theater in New York on April 8.