JOLIET – In April of his senior year at Joliet Central High School, Jonas Shumpert, now 28, arrived home from a spring break choir trip to Disneyland in California, flipped through his mail and noticed he’d been accepted into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York.
In that moment, Shumpert, who danced for the first time at his school’s musical “Guys and Dolls,” knew he would not attend Illinois State University in Normal that fall to study chemistry education.
Now a professional dancer who lives in Manhattan, Shumpert – who grew up admiring Michael Jackson and Sammy Davis Jr. – is set to appear Monday in the ensemble of “Memphis” at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet.
Shumpert credits “Guys and Dolls” – as well as the classes he subsequently took at the Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago – with changing his life’s direction.
“I just fell in love with it [dance] and practiced and worked very hard,” Shumpert said. “There was no going back.”
Shumpert also periodically returns to Joliet to visit family, friends and mentor students at Revolution Dance Studio in Plainfield, where he teaches musical theater workshops and arranges choreography for certain dance routines.
The opportunity happened by chance when Shumpert met the mother of Shelley Christensen, the studio’s creative director and owner, while working as a dancer for a cruise line. Tracy Rohlfs, business manager and owner at Revolution Dance Studio, called Shumpert a “great role model” for the other dancers.
“He is wonderful,” Rohlfs said. “He’s got a very infectious and uplifting personality and can make the least-skilled dancer feel like the most fantastic dancer.”
A variety of dancing experiences followed Shumpert’s graduation from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York.
His first performance job was at Walt Disney World’s “Festival of the Lion King.
Afterward, Shumpert worked as a dancer for Royal Caribbean and Holland American Cruise lines. He also worked for Busch Gardens in New York, leaning 10 male parts for three different shows – a total of 30 parts – so various dancers could take breaks from performances.
From 2009 to 2010, Shumpert toured Europe and Asia for eight months as part of “Fame – The Musical.” Upon returning to New York, Shumpert caught a performance of the four-time Tony award winning musical “Memphis” at the Shubert Theatre and thought, “I want to appear in this musical.”
The actual audition, Shumpert said, was an intense six-hour-a-day process over six days, well worth it for Shumpert to accomplish “my Broadway dream,” which comes with eight performances a week.
Shumpert calls the storyline – about a white 1950s DJ falling in love with a black blues and jazz singer and how they share that music – “thrilling and exhilarating,” an example of how “youth can change the way we do things.”
“Not all things have a happy ending,” Shumpert added about the musical, “but it does come to a conclusion in some way.”
The musical, according to the website of the Rialto Square Theatre, is based on real events. Some scenes in this “thrilling tale of fame and forbidden love” take place in Memphis, Tenn., underground dance clubs of the 1950s and include “explosive dancing,” “irresistible songs” “roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll” and “soaring emotion.”
“It’s a good story,” Shumpert said.
What about Shumpert’s plans to study chemistry education? That aspiration is gone for good, he said. Having observed friends in their late 30s who are still dancing on Broadway, Shumpert feels he can dance professionally until that time before he switches directions.
Furthermore, Shumpert already knows his next career move: return to Disney (“It’s a fantastic company,” Shumpert said) as a casting director. Besides, Shumpert feels, making his dreams come true is the best way to encourage the youth at Revolution Dance to do likewise.
“I want kids in Joliet that I was just a normal kid with a dream from here, too,” Shumpert said, “and that I ended up going to New York and making my wildest dreams come true.”
If you go
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Rialto Square Theatre, 102 N. Chicago St., Joliet
Tickets: Tickets AA, A $50; B $40, C $45
Buy tickets at the Rialto box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, online at www.rialtosquare.com, Ticketmaster.com, or charge at 800-982-2787 or 815-726-6600.