The good vibes radiating from Ashley Dawn Mortensen seem unnaturally bright. But the young, up-and-coming actress has such a grounded presence and open-eyed understanding of her business that you can't help but accept it all as real. Mortensen, 24, grew up in Rescue, attended St. Francis High School and performed with River City Theatre Company. Now she has returned home living her dream.
Mortensen performs in the ensemble of the national touring production "Wicked," the enormously successful musical now at the Community Center Theater. Besides her work in the ensemble, Mortensen also has understudy responsibility for the green-skinned lead, Elphaba.
Mortensen has been with the tour since January. It's her first major professional job, and twice so far she's been tapped to wear the star witch's black hat and gown.
"When my stage manager told me I was going to go on, I started to cry, I was so overwhelmed," Mortensen said in an interview last week.
"It didn't really hit me the way I thought it would, though. I wasn't really nervous before the performance, I was more nervous the second time," she said.
It didn't show to those in the theater who were so wowed that Denver Post film and theater critic Lisa Kennedy posted a letter on her local theater blog. The message was from a "Wicked" fan in the audience who was initially disappointed to learn that star Mamie Parrish wouldn't be performing. In his letter he wrote, "Ashley Dawn Mortensen opened the show with the style and poise of a seasoned veteran. By the time she finished 'Defying Gravity,' I was convinced that the entire audience had witnessed the birth of a great new star."
That type of praise isn't particularly surprising to those who know Mortensen or saw her with River City Theatre Company from the time she was 9 until she left for New York University at 18. She performed twice a year, every year, with the children's musical theater workshop.
John Iniguez, co-founder and executive director of RCTC, easily recalls Mortensen.
"The thing I remember most about her is her love of theater and being on stage performing. She always had an incredible enthusiasm which always stood out," Iniguez said.
He also was impressed with her youthful professionalism.
"She always came to rehearsal prepared. She knew the songs, she knew the dance steps. She was the first person off book with all her lines memorized," Iniguez said.
The early work paid off when she was finally hired for "Wicked" in January after a two-year series of auditions. She joined the company in Los Angeles and began the dizzying process of learning the show while it was already up and running on the road.
"When you learn the show it's just you and the dance captain and the stage manager in an empty stage. There's no one else," Mortensen said.
"They have numbers on the floor and you learn the show by the numbers. It's like an equation. I had never learned a show that way before but it makes it very easy to understand where and how you mess up, if you do."
After learning the ensemble track that Mortensen performs each show, she was asked to learn the Elphaba material as well. The company can't have too many actresses ready to cover the lead if need be.
"Elphaba is a role that's very demanding both vocally and emotionally from an acting aspect," Mortensen said. "It requires a lot of vocal strength."
Mortensen's role as an understudy is different from that of a standby who's not in the show but is always there just in case something happens.
"The standby isn't in the show in the ensemble so it's much easier to put them in the show if needed," Mortensen said.
"It's just really important to have that kind of coverage. All those girls are so talented, you're not missing anything if one of them goes on," she added.
While "Wicked" has been in Sacramento, Mortensen has been living with her parents in Rescue with her new little dog, Dolce. Recently married in October to Davin De Santis, a stage manager now working on the Broadway production of "Don't Dress for Dinner," Mortensen is adjusting to the realities of theater life.
Last week she spoke at a class of the renowned local director and choreographer Ron Cisneros.
"It's just so humbling to have someone who was one of my mentors and taught me so much ask me something like that."
She naturally offers positive reinforcement to the young students who remind her of where she was not so long ago.
"Being in theater is hard with all the rejection you get. It can be a real attack on your self-esteem, but that's not what it's all about," Mortensen said.
"You have the ability to touch that one person in the farthest corner in the darkest part of theater and make them feel something. It's a metaphor but it's also a physical reality. We have the opportunity to do that."