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Political heritage, performing heart

It's not easy for U.S. presidents' kin to escape the spotlight.

Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan's namesake son became a ballet dancer and liberal activist. Jimmy Carter's brother inspired the infamous Billy Beer. And George H.W. Bush's son, as general manager of the Texas Rangers, traded away future All-Star slugger Sammy Sosa for two batboys and a catcher's mitt.

And then there's actor Jennie Eisenhower, whose career path quite pleasantly remains unrelated to politics or, for that matter, beer. She is the granddaughter of Richard Nixon (thanks to her mother, Julie) and the great-granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower (thanks to her father, David).

Eisenhower, 26, has yet to rack up the repertoire of President Reagan ("the Gipper" in Knute Rockne All American), or even Ron Jr. ("brothel owner" on General Hospital).

However, she's a promising talent who plays the lead in LiveArts Peninsula Foundation's new musical Crossing the Bay, opening tonight in St. Petersburg for a three-week run.

Writer-director Bill Leavengood has taken the main characters and general plot of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and adapted them for this tale of the struggle to bring a railroad to St. Petersburg in the late 19th century. Eisenhower plays Lizzie Tippetts, based on Pride's main character, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Bennet.

"It's a big, demanding role that has to be played by a pretty young actress," Leavengood said. "We brought Jennie in, and she looked perfect for the role; she read for us and she adapted perfectly (to direction). Considering her age, she has quite a lot of experience. And she's just about the nicest person, the nicest actress, I've ever worked with."

Leavengood, composer and lyricist Lee Ahlin and LiveArts executive director Harry Chittenden auditioned Eisenhower for the role after hearing praise for her in New York City acting circles. Said Chittenden: "She has a great voice; she doesn't just stand there and sing, she becomes the song."

Eisenhower, a Northwestern University graduate, grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and has appeared in more than 30 theatrical productions. She also had a small role in the Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile, which became even smaller in the final cut, thus her official credit in the film, "Girl at the Station."

The stage has provided far meatier roles. Eisenhower recently won a Barrymore ("the Philadelphia equivalent of the Tony Award, so it's not named after Drew," she says) as best supporting actress for The Wild Party.

Crossing the Bay marks Eisenhower's first visit to the Tampa Bay area. True to its name, the show moves to downtown Tampa's Falk Theatre on Jan 26.

No matter where Eisenhower goes, she expects occasional inquiries about her presidential ancestry: "I'm kind of used to the questions about it, (being from) this strange political potpourri."

But she doesn't consider her heritage an important aspect of her career.

"I don't think that my name is much of a selling point," she said. "And I'm sure there are some people who see me get a part and think, "Maybe she got it because of her name.' So really it's sort of an added challenge."

And no one would suggest dropping the names Nixon and Eisenhower as a key stratagem to career advancement in the arts.

"Yeah, the theater scene is pretty liberal, and the presidents I'm related to were pretty conservative," she said, laughing. "I've met people who (learned my heritage) and were like: "Ugh. Nixon? Ugh.'

"But I would hope it wouldn't matter to most people. I actually thought for a while about changing (my name), but it's part of my life story. I'm proud of it."