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Lunch at The Four Seasons: Isabel Rose

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-06

Isabel Rose has reinvented the J.A.P.

That is to say, she sees herself not as the stereotyped "Jewish-American Princess" but as a "Jewish-American Powerhouse."

"If you're raised with all the money in the world, and surrounded by success - how do you come to define your own success?" the star and writer of "J.A.P. Chronicles, The Musical," said yesterday. "I'm dedicating my life to finding the answer. My path was from a 'Jewish-American Princess' to 'Jewish-American Powerhouse.' I'm one happy chick."

Ms. Rose paused to peck at her Dover sole.

"'Powerhouse' is a strong person who isn't afraid to take things on," she said, presently. "I hope to inspire people to become their most authentic and best selves."

Her one-person 90-minute musical, in which Ms. Rose plays six roles, opens in previews at the Perry Street Theater April 17; its formal opening is May 3. Already, "J.A.P. Chronicles" has created quite a buzz, not the least on account of the fact that Ms. Rose has achieved prominence as a performer on New York's club circuit, including hot spots such as Joe's Pub - and also because the musical is based on her successful first novel of the same title.

She is so vivacious at the lunch table, so replete with constantly changing facial expressions and body movements, so prone to occasionally burst into song and poetry that nearby diners keep stealing glances. It turns out that quite a few of them are personal acquaintances or family friends: one of three daughters of Elihu and Susan Rose, Isabel hails from a wealthy family that has long been active in the upper echelons of the real-estate industry.

As the lunch ended, the reporter told her that she would be a tough profile to write.

Her response came a bit later by e-mail:

"Why am I tough? Oh dear. That doesn't sound good at all. I should think I'd be very easy. Headline is: 'Nice Jewish Girl Has Career.' Body: Born - where else? The Upper East Side! Shabbat dinners. Singing. Childhood of culture and travel, and excellent education. Yale. Bennington. Acting. Teaching. Movie. Novel. Show. Nonfiction essays coming out in December - including divorce piece, and a piece about how coming from affluence has affected my life with men.

"Speaking engagements - I speak a lot and I love it. 'Powerhouse' - my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Lily says that's what she plans to be when she grows up. Lunch was yummy. Was an hour late to return to rehearsal. Everyone was mad and Isabel was terribly sorry but, quite frankly, well fed and happy. Please come see her show. The End."

If Ms. Rose's response suggested a plot outline, that's because, in addition to her musical, she has written and starred in a movie, "Anything But Love."

"A screenplay is the tautest literary animal out there," Ms. Rose said. "I tell students everywhere: 'If you want to learn how to plot, then write a screenplay.'"

Ms. Rose learned the craft of writing at Bennington College, where she obtained a master's degree in fine arts. There had been little doubt in her mind since childhood that performing arts would be in her future.

"My father would screen movies in our living room - and the intermission would be me, singing songs," Ms. Rose said. "Dinners were also joyful, with my mother handing out song sheets to the family and our guests. Those were incredibly theatrical times, incredibly warm. They were magical moments - and they shaped me."

She was also shaped by exposure to classical music. Her mother is a pianist, so Brahms and Beethoven were always in the air of their luxurious Fifth Avenue aerie. Isabel and her sisters, Amy and Abby, were frequently taken to the New York Philharmonic.

Those excursions and her comfortable surroundings made Ms. Rose conscious early in life of her privileged status.

"We realized we were rich because we never baby-sat after school like many of our friends, we went to ballet class or took piano lessons or worked with our private tutors when any subject in school proved challenging," Ms. Rose said. "In the summer it was always camp time, not summer-job time."

It was her experience at an all-girl summer camp in Maine, in fact, that served as the backdrop to her first novel, and subsequently "J.A.P. Chronicles, The Musical."

"I certainly didn't want to offend anyone but the title did seem apt," Ms. Rose said. "Bear in mind, the term 'J.A.P.' is said by us Jewish gals with a wink, and really only refers to that part of oneself which is particularly product-oriented or prone to pampering. It doesn't necessarily mean you lack all core values - it simply means that you can be spoiled sometimes, and you know it."

If self-indulgence is a characteristic of some of her characters, Ms. Rose's schedule for the musical demands something entirely different.

"Preparation for the show has meant getting up at 5 a.m. to work out - sprint training, weights, breathing exercises, careful diet," Ms. Rose said.

"The show is like climbing Mount Everest," she said. "It's the biggest thing I've tried."

But even as she prepares for "J.A.P. Chronicles, The Musical," Ms. Rose is completing work on her first CD, titled "Boy Wanted." It will be released in the fall. An anthology of essays is on her schedule, as is her next novel for Doubleday examining three generations of a family. She has two screenplays that await production.

"My father once said, 'Choose one thing, and do it well,'" Ms. Rose said. "I've chosen several things. I'm always turning on different creative faucets. One day my daughter will be proud of me."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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