Each day, after working 9 to 5, Rachelle Abbey has to turn around and then work “9 to 5.”
Sure, it sounds like some exhausting and perverse “Groundhog Day” feedback loop, but it’s really nothing like that. It’s more like the glamorous double life of a secret superhero.
Every morning, the Morgan Hill native reports for work in Santa Clara as a researcher in the biotech field—and yes, her actual work hours are 9am to 5pm. Then, she sheds the white lab coat of her largely solitary day job and goes to rehearsals for her lead role in Foothill Musical Theatre’s upcoming production of 9 to 5: The Musical—we hear you singing the Dolly Parton title song already—opening March 1 at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills.
Abbey, 28, is lucky in that she gets to scratch two itches—her studious, introverted side during the day and her flamboyant side as a performer during other times.
“Sometimes it feels like I am leading a double life,” she said, during a break from her work testing tissue cultures at a company called Nanosyn. “I mean, I’m outgoing at work. I’m always the same person. But when I tell people at work that I perform, they’ll say, ‘No way! Really?’ Then, at the theater, it’s the same thing. I tell people I’m a research scientist, and they’re always like, ‘Whoa! No way.’”
With apologies to Robert Frost, sometimes you come to a fork in the road and you take both paths. Abbey tried that, as a college student back at UC Irvine when she attempted to fashion a double major in biology and drama. “But they wouldn’t let me do that.”
So, she chose science.
“I couldn’t see myself going to school for performing and not also having math and science somewhere along the way,” she said. “I’ve always loved school and learning. I couldn’t see myself not getting a well-rounded education.”
That set the stage for the life she now leads a decade later: Biology as a career path and theater as a consuming side life.
It’s a prudent life choice, but not necessarily an obvious one, particularly if you knew young Rachelle as a kid growing up in Morgan Hill. Back then, you might have thought that she was full-speed-ahead for a life as a performer.
Her mother, Kathy Abbey, still tells the story of her singing the Rolling Stones’ great anthem of adolescent discontent “Satisfaction” in the cereal aisle of the local Safeway—as a 5-year-old.
“I started singing in the car with my mom, and she started thinking, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good.’ I would do it all the time.”
As a girl, Rachelle quickly absorbed the classic-rock musical diet of her parents’ generation—Stones, Beatles, Eagles, Styx. Only later, as a teen, did she take on formal voice lessons from a certified opera coach.
All the while, the entire Abbey family was being lured into the theater. Kathy had been a performer and dancer years before, but once Rachelle expressed an interest in theater, Mom and Dad (Mitch Abbey) both got involved in local theater productions, making costumes or building sets. Rachelle’s younger sister Alex also got involved, and is still a dancer as an adult.
“I think it really re-ignited my mother’s passion for theater, and she ended up going back to work.”
Today, Kathy Abbey is the middle school and high school drama teacher at Oakwood School in Morgan Hill. A cousin, Jyovonne Montosa, also teaches the performing arts at Oakwood.
Rachelle remembers her first show as Jack & the Beanstalk—she played Jill, Jack’s sister. She did a few shows as a kid in Morgan Hill. Otherwise, she performed with Children’s Musical Theater in San Jose from ages 12 to 17.
In college, she pretty much gave up theater while focusing on getting her degree in biology. But she did sing choir and also picked up swing dancing. Since graduation, however, she has put together a long list of on-stage credits throughout the South Bay, with roles in Hairspray, Dames at Sea, Cabaret, Catch Me If You Can, Peter Pan and many others.
In Foothill’s “9 to 5,” Abbey—who now lives in Sunnyvale—tackles one of the musical’s three female leads, Judy Bernly—that’s the Jane Fonda role in the popular 1980 movie version. Of the trio of women working at the generic business called Consolidated Companies, Judy is the naif, a lifelong housewife who is pushed into the workforce when her husband runs off with his secretary. Judy acts as a kind of inverse of the old parable about the month of March—she comes in like a lamb, and out like a lion. Opening the play meek and uncertain, she ends up with one of the play’s signature songs when her husband comes crawling back after having been rejected by his mistress. The song? “Get Out and Stay Out.”
Abbey said that playing Judy was so exhilarating every night because of her journey from insecure newbie to strong and confident woman. “I have so many strong and independent women in my family, so I had a lot of role models to pull from.”
The Live Oak High School grad (class of ’07) characterizes her singing abilities as “soprano with a belt,” borne of a classic-rock upbringing mixed with serious operatic training. There is little opportunity to exercise those skills at Nanosyn while testing drugs on cancer cells lines—other than perhaps a celebratory line from “We Are the Champions” after a successful experiment. But at night, when the lab materials are stored away, it’s showtime.
“I do think my job and my passion for theater allow me to express different parts of myself. At work, I get to be more reserved and work independently most of the time. And for theater, I get to work with other amazing people and let my personality shine.”
Foothill Music Theatre presents ‘9 to 5: The Musical’ with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm, through March 18
Lohman Theatre at Foothill College. Tickets are $12 to $32. Box office: 650.949.7360 or online at foothill.edu.