It’s a Thursday night performance of The Cher Show on Broadway, and dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald is upside down in a split, her legs whipping through the air like helicopter blades.
“I call it pliable partnering,” says Fitzgerald, who is spun around in her whirlybird sequence by another member of the ensemble. “You just have to be like putty.”
In fact, Fitzgerald and her fellow Cher Show dancers are all putty in the hands of their choreographer, Christopher Gattelli, a Broadway veteran and resident of Hope Township, in Warren County.
Over the past decade, Gattelli has been the man behind the moves for shows like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, South Pacific and The King and I. Career highs include his exhilarating, Tony-winning sequences for Newsies and his 2018, Tony-nominated work on SpongeBob SquarePants and My Fair Lady. He’s collaborated with Julie Andrews—twice—and most recently choreographed scenes in the comedy film Isn’t It Romantic starring Pitch Perfect actress Rebel Wilson.
Gattelli is something of a choreographic chameleon, able to adapt to his theatrical surroundings and different media.
“I wouldn’t say that I have a style per se, like a Fosse,” says Gattelli, 46. “I try to find projects that are varied and that give me challenges.”
The Cher Show is no small challenge. The jukebox musical—which opened in December at Manhattan’s Neil Simon Theatre and is expected to run through October 13—spans the six-decade career of the glamorous music, television and film star. Theatergoers marvel at the jaw-dropping Bob Mackie costumes, clap along to Cher’s hits sung by three different actresses, and sway to Gattelli’s dance interpretations.
“Dance-wise, I get to go from the ’60s all the way up to her current tours and hip-hop and funk,” says Gattelli. There’s even a tango in the second act, set to Dark Lady, a chart-topping single from 1974 about a fortune teller, adultery and murder. In the musical, the piece represents Cher’s breakaway from the men in her life—Sonny Bono and Gregg Allman.
For Dark Lady, seven male dancers join Fitzgerald onstage. Gattelli’s choreography punctuates the traditional tango footwork with lifts and flips. At one point, the male dancers take hold of Fitzgerald’s extremities and heave her through the air, landing her on one of their shoulders.
“The crowd usually responds really well to it,” says Gattelli about the tango, “but it was the last [number] I figured out.” Gattelli kept asking himself, What’s the metaphor? Who does the Dark Lady represent? The dances that are challenging to develop are usually his favorites. “They have that little extra care,” says Gattelli, “so it ends up being that much more rewarding.”
Before becoming a go-to movement maker for Broadway, Gattelli was a dancer himself. Turning back time, we find Gattelli growing up in Bristol, Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware River from Burlington City. Gattelli started learning dance basics like tap and ballet when he was about eight. As a young teen, he won the TV talent competition Star Search. At 15, he began intensive training at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater school in New York.
On a whim, Gattelli auditioned for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. “They weren’t supposed to hire anyone under 5-foot-10 and I’m about 5-foot-7,” he says. He got the job anyway. “The director and choreographer liked what I did and gave me a couple small features in the show.”
Gattelli danced professionally for several years, performing in the Guys and Dolls tour, Fosse on Broadway and Cats on tour and Broadway. During the latter show he met his future husband, Montville native Stephen Bienskie. Gattelli played Mistoffelees and Pouncival; Bienskie was Rum Tum Tugger. They married in December 2013, two months after New Jersey legalized same-sex marriage. Since 2010, they’ve lived in rural Hope. “It’s the antithesis of New York, basically. There’s one crossing in town with a light,” says Gattelli. He loves to keep busy, but appreciates the relief home offers. “When I’m driving home, there’s a certain point where I start seeing the trees and the mountains, and my shoulders just drop.”
Gattelli began to uncover his true passion when he was asked to put a number together with the Cats cast for a benefit. “I was loving the creation part more than the performance part,” he says.
In 2001, he moved behind the scenes as resident choreographer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show. “She [did] giveaways, and it was like, dun, dunda, dah, and six dancers would come out and she would do a number with them,” says Gattelli. He also worked on a couple of opening numbers for the show on location in Walt Disney World.
Gattelli’s theatrical debut as a choreographer was the off-Broadway show Bat Boy. A string of choreography and musical-staging gigs followed on Broadway: High Fidelity (2006), The Ritz (2007, revival), Sunday in the Park With George (2008, revival), South Pacific (2008, revival), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010), Godspell (2011, revival) and his favorite production, the musical Newsies in 2011.
Newsies, adapted from the 1992 Disney film, tells the story of Jack Kelly and his ragtag group of New York City newsboys who go on strike. Disney Theatrical Productions chose Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn for the premiere—and Gattelli as the choreographer.
Paper Mill producing artistic director Mark S. Hoebee was already familiar with Gattelli’s work. “His choreography is incredibly athletic and challenging,” says Hoebee. In Newsies, this athleticism is seen in “King of New York,” a number that had the performers tap dancing on tables and cartwheeling on chairs.
Gattelli saw a former version of himself in the Newsies cast. “We all were kind of cut from the same cloth,” he says. “When you’re growing up as a male dancer, you’re usually one of the only men in class. So to work hard and get recognized and…to make it on Broadway…and then to also get as far as Newsies got, they had to be even that much more on top of their game.”
Hoebee attests to Gattelli’s special connection with his performers.
“Chris has beautifully held onto a piece of his experience [as a dancer],” says Hoebee, “which is understanding what it means to ask so much of your body eight times a week.”
Most of the Paper Mill cast went to Broadway, where Newsies ran for more than 1,000 performances. Gattelli won the Tony Award for Best Choreography in 2012.
Gattelli hasn’t won a Tony since—he was nominated in 2015 for The King and I—but says working with Julie Andrews was its own reward.
In 2012, Gattelli and Andrews teamed to bring a children’s book to the stage at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Andrews wrote The Great American Mousical with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton.
To honor the 60th anniversary of My Fair Lady, Andrews, the original Eliza Doolittle, directed a revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic at the Sydney Opera House in 2016. Andrews called on Gattelli to recreate Hanya Holm’s choreography. The only issue? “A lot of the dancing wasn’t notated or captured on film, so I had to take what I had seen and build outwards from there,” says Gattelli.
Watching Andrews relive something she did 60 years earlier was incredible for Gattelli. “It was like muscle memory coming back to her,” he says.
More recently, Gattelli worked on Bartlett Sher’s 2018 Broadway revival of My Fair Lady. When working on a revival, Gattelli says, “it’s [about] trying to honor what has been done.” At the same time, “it’s a really interesting task to create this new version and make it feel fresh and vital now.” Choreographing “Get Me to the Church on Time” for the revival was a particular challenge. Gattelli had recreated that number a year earlier for the Sydney Opera House production. The stages, casts and scripts were different. “I had to do two versions of the same number and try to stop the show with each,” says Gattelli.
What show will Gattelli lend his talents to next? “There’s one coming up that I’m particularly excited about with Disney,” he says, but remains mum on the details.
Gattelli doesn’t necessarily have a dream project. “A lot of the shows that I love, I love because the work—like Michael Bennett’s work in A Chorus Line or Dreamgirls—is genius, and I wouldn’t want to have to do another version of those. My favorites are things that I’m just a big admirer of. It’s usually the new works like a SpongeBob or a Cher, where I would never know they’re coming down the pike,” he says. “I’m just hoping for more of that. More fun challenges and me continuing to learn, because that’s to me the most fun part.”