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  • Karen Ziemba is known on Broadway for her versatility in tripping the light fantastic. A sort of quintuple threat, she's adept at singing - what pipes! - acting, slapstick comedy, drama and dance. Then, there's that infectious smile. Ziemba's been doing "the show biz thing - live theater, musical theater, dancing, singing," as she puts it, a long time. So never gonna dance are the least likely words you expect to be associated with her.

    And yet here she is co-starring in Never Gonna Dance.

    The musical is based on the 1936 Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time, with music by Jerome Kern [Show Boat, Very Good Eddie], which, in pre-production was titled Never Gonna Dance. It was re-titled to take advantage of the swing craze sweeping the nation. The film was the fifth teaming of A&R, in what many consider their best starrer.

    The principle writer was playwright/producer Howard Lindsay. Set against a New York backdrop, it tells the story of Lucky [Noah Racey, late of Thoroughly Modern Millie, where he was assistant choreographer; Follies], a vaudeville hoofer with a lucky quarter who, to prove he's worthy of his fiancÈe, makes a bet with her anti-show business dad that he'll earn $25,000 in 30 days by any means - except dancing. He keeps repeating the mantra, Never gonna dance, Never gonna dance. But, no sooner than he arrives, the rhythms of New York - "the beat of the subway, the clink of the sidewalks" -- permeate him and Ö well, you know.

    In a series of convoluted happenings, he meets dance instructor Penny [Nancy Lemenager, late of Kiss Me, Kate]. Love's in the air and strikes Mabel, the Swing Time Studio pianist -- played by Ziemba - a wiseacre "who," as she points out, "has been around the block a few times." An off-kelter romance develops between her and a "slightly older" Wall Street broker decked by the Depression [a part invented for the show and hilariously played by classical actor Peter Gerety (also, Fu**ing)].

    For Lucky and Penny, the Astaire-Rogers prototypes in the lavish musical, their dancing runs the gamut from ballroom to tap to jazz. It's the replications of those A&R floating-on-air routines that soar. "Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager are amazing," notes Ziemba. "They can do anything!"

    Though maintaining the famed Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields songs: "A Fine Romance," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Pick Yourself Up" and "Never Gonna Dance,"*, NGD interpolates music by the composer and lyricists such as Hammerstein and Harbach ["Who"; Sunny], Mercer ["Dearly Beloved" and "I'm Old-Fashioned"; the film You Were Never Lovelier] and Hammerstein, Fields and McHugh ["I Won't Dance"; the film Roberta]. Also interpolated is the classic Kern/Fields "I Got Love," from a long-forgotten 1936 movie, I Dream Too Much, which had an interesting starring duo: Lily Pons and Henry Fonda!

    As much as director Michael Greif, best known for Rent, seemed an odd choice to direct an old-fashioned musical comedy with cornball wisecracks and elegant choreography, you might say that Jeffrey Hatcher, who adapted the book, was, too -- given his work [Three Viewings, Scotland Road, Sockdology]. Even with some changes in plot device and names, he pretty well follows the film plot.

    And talk about the unexpected, in NGD Ziemba doesn't get to do the knock-about dancing she did non-stop for about a half hour in Contact. In fact, she's in only three numbers.

    "The story doesn't evolve around Mabel," explains Ziemba. "She's sort of Penny's older ësister.' She gives her advice about love and life. She's responsible for bringing Lucky and Penny together. Mabel's the type who's always ready with a comeback, and makes the joke before other have the chance

    She drew on the film Mabel, Helen Broderick [mother of actor Broderick Crawford] for inspiration. Broderick starred with Astaire in the stage production of The Band Wagon and had a lucrative film career from 1924-1946 playing "dames" [Top Hat, Rage of Paris, Naughty But Nice, No, No, Nanette]. "Other role models, she says, were Rosalind Russell and Eve Arden, two actresses who were quick with the quips and snappy dialogue who were among the women Ziemba admired growing up, sitting through countless hours of movies.

    And, boy, can this gal foxtrot - and shimmy. Ziemba really gets to break out in "Shimmy with Me," a show-stopper where she teaches a dance class how to shake their booties - or chasses - to the black-influenced "jive" rhythms of the ë20s dance, which Mae West later took from the minstrel shows into the mainstream.

    "It was a time when jazz-age people were much more open with their movements and getting a little looser," explains Ziemba. "The shimmy was able to be enjoyed and executed to the fullest when women started taking off their corsets and girdles. I really get to be a red-hot mama! It's a blast, and we have a good time." The number is from the revue The Cabaret Girl. Today, it's hard to imagine that Kern and P.G. Wodehouse, who created the Jeeves books, could get a little down and dirty, but, says Ziemba, "it came from a time when Kern and composers like Irving Berlin were writing rags."

    [Speaking of loose, NGD has a sensational scene-stealer: rubbery Peter Bartlett, who plays dance studio owner Pangborn. This may be Hatcher's inside joke, but cinema buffs will immediately get the homage to Franklin Pangborn -- imagine a flamboyant Jack Benny - or just Benny's onstage persona]. He specialized in "camp" roles from 1926-1957 in over 200 films. Most memorable: Hollywood Halfbacks, Rough House Rhythm, Flying Down to Rio, Strictly Dynamite, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Never Give A Sucked An Even Break, George Washington Slept Here.]

    There are a couple of spectacular dance moments in NGD: the Act One finale, "The Way You Look Tonight," is set atop an unfinished skyscraper [a stand-in for Rockefeller Center] and Racey, Lemenager and later Ziemba and Gerety, knock about in the clouds on "steel beams"; and then there's the incredible cast quick-change for the memorable black and white, top hat and tails finale.

    Ziemba says that NGD's dancing, choreographed by Tony-nominated choreographer Jerry Mitchell, "will really leave audiences breathless. It's thrilling, the kind of ballroom and tap I did in 42nd Street and Crazy for You. Steel Pier[which as about marathon dancing and for which Ziemba was nominated for a Tony] and Contact [for which she took home Best Actress Tony and Drama Desk Awards] had classically-based ballroom partner dances. Coming from a ballet background, I learned partnering very early. The secret is to make that contact seem easy, smooth and ultra romantic."

    Costuming helps, she adds, "and William Ivey Long [Tony and Drama Desk-winning costume designer] doesn't disappoint. Another great thing about the show is having Harold Wheeler's orchestrations. They're really swing. It's quite stunning what he's done. These classic melodies have a new vitality. The music makes it such a pleasure to come to work. I love standing in the wings and listening to our overture! It's exciting and gets me in the mood. That's the feeling audiences are going to walk away with. This show is timeless and incomparable and infectious!"

    Ziemba worked with Jerry Mitchell before -- in the 80s in the workshop of Goin' Hollywood, by Jonathan Scheffer [EOS Orchestra] and David Zippel, which never got to Broadway. "Hopefully, that will happen someday. It's a great show. Jerry and I were in the ensemble. All the gals wanted to dance with Jerry because he was this tall, good-looking hunk who could lift anything and who could dance as smooth as silk."

    [Trivia: Small world. Mitchell grew up near Lake Michigan "just down the road" from Ziemba. "He's from Pawpaw and I'm from St. Joseph. But we never met until New York."]

    The NGD choreography is the type we've never seen from Mitchell. "He hasn't had the opportunity to execute this type of dance," says Ziemba, "because of the types of shows he's choreographed, Hairspray, The Full Monty [not to mention Broadway Bares, and there is a little taste of bump and grind in NGD], which didn't call for this type of male/female partnering. His choreography is just brilliant in how it propels the story forward."

    Growing up watching countless movie musicals, Ziemba knew that NGD would be the type of show that would be dear to her heart. "There were a lot of musical influences in my family," relates Ziemba. "My grandmother was Winifred Heidt, who sang with City Opera in the 50s. Mom wanted to be a dancer, but got married and raised a family."

    Fascinated with dance, "I started taking lesson when I was six." And she was soon putting on shows. "I had no sisters," she laughs, "so I pulled my three brothers into my little scenarios. They played all the characters, including the women. I made them don tights, masks and wigs. And play instruments. They loved me!" hers, one younger. e girl and really fascinated with dance."

    By junior high, she was performing with a ballet company. In her sophomore year, she won her first musical lead, none other than Maria in West Side Story. "It was a wonderful and learning experience," she states. "When you're singing a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, not to mention speaking Arthur Laurents' words, you discover that there're many ways to express yourself. I was bitten by the bug, but wanted to do more than just dance. I wanted the whole shebang."

    Not long after college, she headed to New York, where she made her Broadway debut in A Chorus Line in 1982. Ziemba says she'd have a difficult time naming her favorite role, "but it would be hard to top my first Broadway experience and being part of a show about surviving as a dancer in theater. To start with one of the best was incredible. Every performance, I couldn't wait to get out there."

    She went on to play Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street ["the best part was working with Jerry Orbach, from whom I learned so much about comic timing and consistency onstage eight times a week"], Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Chicago, a revival of I Do! I Do! [Drama Desk nomination] and to great acclaim in New York City Opera's 110 in the Shade and The Most Happy Fella.

    She made her first impact in the Off Broadway Kander and Ebb revue And The World Goes ëRound [Drama Desk Award]. More recently, she's been more dramatic, doing Lucy in Three Penny Opera and Shakespeare.

    Ziemba's dance roles have kept her in tip-top shape. "Eight shows a week makes you feel you don't have to go overboard at the gym," she says. "So, when I'm working, I cut back a little. Contact was a major perspiration happening and mentally draining, but at the end of the week I want to feel I've earned my exhaustion. That's where the satisfaction comes in. Playing that role was duly joyous and sad. Joyous, for what I did onstage; sad, because my character got to run the gamut of emotions. She had a very deep well. And then receiving the Tony! That was the icing on the cake."

    Perhaps one reason Kiemba is popular with her peers is that she's not afraid to open herself to be there for the other actors. "If you expect to be listened to, you have to listen when the others are speaking. Listening is the key. It's not so much about what you're doing when someone else has lines, but about your commitment to hearing what they're saying through your stillness and groundedness."

    Says director Greif: "Karen has rapport with audiences because she has rapport with those onstage. She's brought a wealth of experience to the show and is always ready to experiment."

    NGD is Peter Gerety's first Broadway musical. He further complements Ziemba: "Karen's been been performing on Broadway for two decades. She's a great teacher. I've been on a fast learning curve because of her, and I'm very grateful. She's taught me that if we don't realize we're having fun, the audience won't."

    It's all because of the familial bond that develops in a show, "especially," claims Ziemba, "a show with partner dancing. When you're in the arms of a man, you trust he's not going to drop you and that he's going to make you look and feel wonderful. It about more than physical contact. It's about knowing that person and not being just out for yourself. It's about being there for somebody else, too.

    "When you're onstage in an ensemble situation," she continues, "you're depending on everyone doing their part to help each other. They're not there to sabotage you, so why not do unto others? What two characters give to each other is what propels the writing and story. If you're not getting across what each person feels about the other - not what you think, but what the playwright is saying - then you're not doing your job. I can tell you that through the years with that prospective, I've always come out looking better for it."

    For more on Ziemba, visit : www.KarenZiemba.com

    * "Bojangles of Harlem," a tribute to the great African-American tap dancer, was cut. In the film, it was a blackface minstrel production number, which would be deemed politically incorrect today. In it's place is a spectacular number, "She Didn't Say Yes, She Didn't Say No" [Kern, Harbach] danced by veteran Broadway "hoofers" Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin [who recently exited Chicago as Velma] as rival Harlem dancers.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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